In Vino Veritas
SECTION: IN VINO VERITAS
Chiral-Natalya Munina and Meir Chernetsky are the section columnists, editors of http://vino2rs.com/, co-owners of Vinotours Co. (Wine Tours in Israel), bloggers (tours.blogspot.co.il - the blog about wine and alcoholic beverage), authors of several business pages on Facebook.
Chiral-Natalya is a certified specialist in fashion, fashion designer, cutter. She is the owner of Bon-Bon-Land – a brand and webstore (high fashion for children), a specialist in products and brand promotion via social media and the Internet.
Meir is a programmer and hi-tech worker, former professor.
Wine and spirits is our long-standing and strong passion. Once the hobby became more than fun, and has grown into a lifestyle. We learned from winemakers and merchants in Israel, graduated the course “Technical tasting” in Ariel University (Israel), other courses at the University of Adelaide (Australia) and Dijon (France).
I associate the word Cognac with soft plush furniture, dark burgundy heavy velvet curtains, dim lighting and a nice golden brown drink in a round, yet elegant, crystal wine glass. I have long perceived Cognac to be the noblest of strong drinks. However, admittedly, in my younger days, I didn’t immediately appreciate the appeal of Cognac. Cognac once ranked below wine and whiskey in my personal list of preferences for alcoholic beverages. There is an old saying that states that everything happens at the right time; there’s a time for everything. That’s how my appreciation of Cognac evolved a few years ago. One day, friends and colleagues of mine who imported strong drinks, invited me to a wine tasting event at which they exhibited their new samples. Some of these were products of Cognac houses that were less known to the general public, but that produced beverages of the highest standards. I accepted the invitation with pleasure. However, I was very conscious of the fact that I needed to brush up on my knowledge of Cognac in advance of the event given the fact that I would be sitting side by side with aficionados who appreciated fine Cognacs and were able to distinguish them from cheap brandies.
I started my quest for knowledge by first studying the Internet, then books, and then traveling on the roads of the French province of Poitou-Charentes. Eventually, I managed to gain a certain amount of awareness of Cognac and brandy, and I thought it would be useful to share some of my findings with our readers.
Cognac, by definition, is a strong alcoholic drink that is produced from certain varieties of grapes using special technology. It is a well-known fact that the Cognac beverage was named after the town of Cognac, which is situated in the region of Poitou-Charentes, in Charente, France. Charente is a river that flows mostly from the east to the west (through the city of Cognac) before eventually emptying itself into the Atlantic Ocean to the south of the city of La Rochelle.
Naturally, the areas in which Cognac can be produced, the technology by which it’s produced, the alcohol content (not less than 40%) and the name itself is strictly defined, regulated and fixed by numerous legislative acts. Strong drinks of other countries that bear similarity to Cognac but that were not produced within the pre-defined area cannot be legally called Cognac, even if they were obtained by distillation of the grapes produced in the region of Poitou-Charentes. These drinks are, instead, called brandy.
A famous historical curiosity was associated with Nikolay Shustov, a former owner of the brandy plants in Yerevan and Odesa. After the successful presentation of the products of his plants at the World Exhibition in France in 1900, he seemed to be the only one who received the right to call his brandy Cognac.
In addition to producing Cognac, this province in Western France is well known for the cities of Rochefort, La Rochelle and the Isle of Rhé, which was depicted in Dumas’ popular novel The Three Musketeers. Even before one consciously attempts to learn about the history of this land, the strong English influence is obvious, especially in terms of the economy. This influence explains why the region directly neighboring the famous wine province of Bordeaux, where grapes are traditionally grown, started specializing not in dry wine, but in its distillates.
Since ancient times, this region was a center of salt trade, and the Dutch merchants would distribute salt from France to Northern European countries. In addition to salt, the Dutch also transported local wine from the Poitou vineyards. The large sales of this wine significantly aided the expansion of vineyards in the region. However, by the time the Hundred Years’ War finally came to an end in 1453, the English had been expelled from the mainland, and Charente lost a reasonably large wine selling market. At this point in history, the French wine making industry fell into decline.
Moreover, wine transport by sea often resulted in the acescence of the wine. For these reasons, during the medieval period, the Dutch started using distilling equipment to distil local wines. They referred to the resulting strong drink as “burned wine,” or “brandwijn,” which was later shortened into brandy. At first, after transportation, this brandy was diluted with water and sold as wine. However, by the end of 17th century, enterprises of Poitou-Charentes started stably producing an ardent spirit, the taste and physical characteristics of which could endure carriage by sea.
This drink was more saturated and aromatic than wine, and it was significantly cheaper to transport it. Furthermore, the technologies used to produce it gradually improved and double distillation was introduced, resulting in the production of cleaner Cognac spirits that were of a higher quality. In French, Cognac spirit is referred to as “eau de vie,” which roughly translates as “water of life.” The producers later discovered that aging the drink in oak casks essentially changed its parameters, enriching its aroma, refining its flavor and adding a pleasing gold-brown color to the drink. They also specified that the end product may, and indeed should, be drunk neat.
The legislative background for Cognacs is complex. As such, it is not possible to describe all the laws and regulations that govern various varieties of Cognac within this article. However, it is worth reviewing the legal backdrop in brief. The first legislative acts were passed at the beginning of the 20th century, and active legislation persists to this day. All work on regulation and supervision is carried out by a special governmental organization named the National Interprofessional Cognac Bureau (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac–BNIC). This organization is an Interprofessional Institute that was established within the limits of the French legal framework. It consolidates Cognac producers and professionals in related businesses such as oenologists, technologists, barrels, bottles and inventory manufacturers, merchants, negotiants, etc.
By law, there are authorized areas of Cognac production that have strictly determined boundaries. These areas are referred to as appellations. An appellation, or “appellation d’origine,” is a wine classification system that controls quality in terms of the location of production (and grape growing). Literally, it means “designation of origin.” Simply stated, it is a district that meets a pre-defined criteria in terms of geography, climate, soil and other characteristics, tradition and style of wine production. The appellation system in France also applies to Cognac and Armagnac.
Appellations of the Cognac region are as follows:
Bois ordinaires or Bois à Terroir (i.e. simply Cognac).
The appellations themselves can be enclosed. The largest, which is simply referred to as Cognac, includes all the other appellations. Beverages produced in Cognac will feature the Cognac label on the bottle collar. Otherwise, a name of the appellation may be indicated; for example, Borderies or Grande Champagne. It’s worth noting that, while two of the appellations include the word champagne, they are not to be confused with the wine region of the same name, which is located in the north-east of France. The locations of the six Cognac appellations are presented in Figure One.
Figure One: The six Cognac appellations
Note: two addition labels are considered to be acceptable: Grand Fine Champagne and Fine Petite Champagne. The first of these denotes that the Cognac was produced from the grape Grand and Petit Champagne, while the proportion of Cognac spirits from the higher appellation (Grand Champagne) is not less than half. Correspondingly, Fine Petite Champagne means that not less than 50% of spirits of the Petite Champagne appellation are included in the Cognac (the rest are from lower appellations).
The maximum permissible alcohol content of Cognac by volume obtained after distillation is 72% at 15°C. The statutory prescribed last end date of distillation is March 31 of the year that follows a harvesting year. Cognac should be aged in either Limousin holm or Tronçais pedunculate oak casks in accordance with the manufacturer’s traditions.
The following labeling of the Cognac spirits is specified according to aging in barrels:
Minimal–V.S. (Very Special), Selection, de Luxe, Trois Etoiles, not less than two years of aging
Superior not less than three years of aging
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale), V.O. (Very Old), Vieux, Reserve, not less than four years of aging,
V.V.S.O.P. (Very Very Superior Old Pale), Grande Reserve not less than five years of aging (?)
X.O. (Extra Old), Extra, Napoleon, Royal, Tres Vieux, Vieille Reserve, not less than six years of aging.
There are also two additional categories:
Millesime (“vintage wine”, with a harvesting year indicated)
Hors D’Age (“beyond age”)
The Technology Used to Produce Cognac
As mentioned previously, the process by which Cognac is produced is strictly regulated. A breach of these regulations is considered to be a violation of the law and is subject to a fine, loss of license and, in exceptional circumstances, even incarceration.
The following process stages of the Cognac production are specified by law:
Process by which grapes are grown, including harvesting techniques;
process of wine production (this will be examined in detail later);
process by which the wine is distilled and the “eau de vie” Cognac spirit is obtained;
the aging of the Cognac spirit in barrels;
the production of Cognac from Cognac spirits;
presales preparation (bottling and transportation);
Ugni Blanc, which is more commonly known as Trebbiano, is the main variety of grape from which Cognac is produced. It is a slow-maturing grape that has high acidity and crop yield and demonstrates good resistance against diseases. In addition to Ugni Blanc, other varieties of grapes are also used, including Colombard and Montils. They result in more aromatic spirits that have a richer taste; however, they are also more difficult to grow. The grapes are usually harvested in October, and the juice is extracted from the grapes immediately following harvest. During juicing, horizontal pneumatic presses, which don’t break the berry stones, are traditionally used. Grape succus (must) is sent for fermentation.
Ugni Blanc grape
Fermentation, or fret, is carried out in traditional concrete reservoirs or state-of-the-art metallic tanks that are constructed from stainless steel. Yeast is added to the grape juice to induce fermentation. This consumes the sugar that is contained in the juice and separates it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The gas easily flows into the atmosphere (technology options where carbon dioxide is not released allow the production of sparkling or carbonated wines, such as Champagne). The fermentation process takes approximately three weeks, and, as a result of this, wine that has a high acidity and low alcohol content is obtained (about 9%).
The next step in the process is distillation. Distillation is conducted in a traditional Charente still, which includes an extraction boiler that is heated over an open fire (wood and coal were the traditional flame sources, but more modern operations now use gas), a bulbous boiler crown, and a swan neck duct leads to a coil that passes through the cooler. This apparatus is referred to as an Аlambic Сharantais or Charante-type distillatory vessel.
The process of distillation consists of two stages:
Stage One: The primary distillate, which is referred to as brouillis (raw spirit), is extracted. This has an alcohol content that is equal to 27–32%.
Stage Two: The raw spirit is supplied to a distillation still boiler for secondary distillation. This process is referred to as “bonne chauffe.” As a result, a base high-quality Cognac spirit that has an alcohol content of 68–72% is obtained. This is poured into oak casks for aging.
Barrels for Cognac with a volume of 270 to 450 liters, as well as barrels for wine aging, are produced by hand from the oak trees that grow in the forests of Limousin and Tronçais. 100-year-old trees are commonly chosen as the source of wood for these barrels. Tronçais oak is marked by a coarse-grained and soft tanine structure, while Limousin by medium-grained and solid and has a high tanine structure. During production, barrels are burnt from the inside in order to soften the wood structure and increase the barrel’s extractive characteristics.
Depending on manufacturer demands, there are several levels of barrel burning. After burning the internal surface, a barrel is covered with a layer of burnt sugar, glucose, which is contained inside the structure of the wood and changes in response to temperature increases. After filling, barrels with upcoming Cognac are placed in the cellar for further aging or maturation. With time, Cognac becomes darker, softer and more round, and a significant number of tinges appear in terms of flavor and taste, among which there are notes of flowers, fruits, and spices.
Barrels with spirits are placed for aging in the cellars. The porosity of the timber used to manufacture the barrels, and the ambient humidity of the cellar in which they are placed, define the process by which the Cognac ages and the spirits evaporate from the barrels. Aging consists of three main stages: extraction, hydrolysis, and oxidation. The Cognac extracts its color from the timber of the barrel and during the aging process it gradually changes in color from colorless to golden yellow. At this stage, a part of volatile components is evaporated and, apart from color, the taste and flavor of the drink also transform. Oak and vanilla notes appear. Upon completion of the hydrolysis and oxidation processes, the taste of the drink changes and becomes more round, while the oak flavor gradually gives way to flower and fruit notes with light vanilla tinges. Over years, the drink becomes increasingly smooth, while the flavor bouquet is enriched and develops notes of ripe fortified wine (so-called “rancio”).
When the cellar master decides that the drink has sufficiently matured, it is poured from the barrel into a special big glass bottle, which is known as a Dames-Jeanne. This is subsequently hermetically corked. Once inside the bottle, the Cognac can be stored for decades without its properties undergoing further change. A special section of the cellar where the Dames-Jeannes are stored is known as “paradise place.”
Natural evaporation of alcohol from the barrels is poetically referred to as “angel’s share.” In reality, this angel’s share accounts for approximately 2% of the total stock. This means that over 22 millions of bottles of Cognac literally evaporate into thin air on an annual basis.
To get the required alcohol by volume, the spirits are diluted with distilled or demineralized water in a process known as reduction. Some masters add 1–2% water into barrels during permanent tasting while others do it before the assemblage.
Interestingly, alcohol vapors act as a nutritional medium for microscopic fungi called torula compniacensis. This fungus covers the walls of the Cognac cellar, adding a distinctive black color to it. It also frequently appears on the exterior walls of the distillery and acts as a primary marker of buildings that house Cognac cellars.
In big commercial houses, cellar masters purchase Cognac spirits from the wine-makers just after the end of distillation. They maintain strict watch and control over the process of aging by regularly tasting drinks and displacing them into another barrel or cellar in order to obtain the necessary parameters. In little houses, a cellar master works with his own spirits, or rather with the materials produced by himself/herself or his/her predecessors – father and grandfather. Making the end product with the word Cognac, completes the process of aging. In order to obtain the organoleptic drink parameters that are required for the cellar master, he/she commonly mixes several Cognacs (taking them from the Dames-Jeannes stored in the “paradise place”). Herewith, Cognacs of different age and region of grape origin are often used. This process is called assemblage.
Cognac assemblage is the responsibility of the cellar master. Assemblage rules are very strict and are mainly set to avoid counterfeit protection. The only exception to this rule is that of Millesime Cognac. Millesime Cognac emerges when a cellar master decides, after distillation, that the product has such outstanding characteristics that he/she can make outstanding Cognac from it, while assemblage may only spoil it. Such Cognac is labeled Millesime and its year of harvest is indicated on its collar (Millesime or Vintage). It is considerably more expensive than other forms of Cognac because, if Cognac spirit is declared to be a Millesime Cognac, then the whole process of its production is permanently and strictly controlled by representatives from the National Institute (at a cost borne by the manufacturer), and the barrels are sealed with special red wafers. If the master needs to check something in the barrel, he has to call the representatives of the Institute, who unseal the wafers and, upon completion of the work, seal the barrel once again.
The process of Cognac production is finished by bottling, during which the drink is poured into bottles or glass or crystal decanters.
It’s worth adding a few words about the process by which Cognac should be drunk. There are two methods of consumption associated with this drink. One of them claims that Cognac should be drunk from the snifter, a sphere-shaped glass with a big bowl (250 ml) and a short leg, and that it should be warmed in the hands before consumption. However, the alternative view is that Cognac is a digestive (a drink that should be consumed at the end of a meal, after dessert) and that it should be drunk from a tulip glass with a bud-shaped bowl that has a long, thin stem, in a volume of about 140 ml. This long stem of the glass allows the drinker to swill the contents around the edge of the glass, encouraging in to actively “breathe” and saturating it with oxygen. According to proponents of the latter method of drinking Cognac, it should be neither cooled nor warmed, but simply consumed at the room temperature at which it is served.
A tulip-type glass with a tall leg
Some people even claim that the best chaser for Cognac is a lemon slice. Utter gibberish! First of all, one shouldn’t generally eat after a digestive. Second, it is not advisable to combine the delicate tastes of Cognac with a dominating level of acidity and taste like lemon, which ultimately destroys all tastes and aftertastes. The French traditionally speak about three Cs: chocolate, coffee, and cigar.
Cognac is a drink for meditation, and it should be nipped up, as you savor the rich complicated bouquet, beautiful trick of light in the glass and elegant mouth-filling taste. It will go perfectly with a cigar, a thimbleful of coffee or a bitter chocolate cube. Unfortunately, traditionally 97% of consumed Cognacs are young (V.S. and V.S.O.P.), and much of them are used as cocktail ingredients. While this is acceptable, in our humble opinion, it does not showcase the best the drink has to offer. As the saying goes, less is more. It is much better to buy a high-quality Cognac less often than it is to have a low-quality drink in abundance. What’s more, this delicious tipple needs to be drunk in very small quantities so that you can truly relish the intricate characteristics of the complex flavors.
Did you know that it takes almost ten liters of wine to produce one liter of Cognac?
The production of Cognac represents a labor of love for the future. Our contemporaries produce Cognac that will be sold by their children and grandchildren.
One last thing. The price of Cognac depends on its age (the duration of the aging process), the vessel in which it is served—bottle, carafe, crystal carafe, etc.—and the marketing expenses.