Cognac Distillers' Secrets
French distillers share their secrets to producing one of the world's most coveted spirits.
There are so many variables in the production of Cognac, the austere French brandy, that it's impossible to pin any one nuance in this spirit down to a specific step in its production. But exploring the possibilities can be fascinating. If you want to know about the love and devotion that go into bottles labeled "Cognac," read on and discover some of the French distillers' secrets.
Cognac is a wine-based brandy that is made in the Cognac region of France, an area surrounding the Charente River that's divided into six regions, or crus. The grapes used—mainly Ugni Blanc—must be grown here, too. One of the first decisions that a Cognac producer must make is whether to use wines from one specific area, or a combination of wines from any or all of the regions. Each cru brings not only different flavor nuances into play, but also varying attributes, such as the length of time the brandy will take to mature.
Cognacs from the two premier crus, Grande and Petite Champagne, can spend decades in wood, and tend to be delicate in style and floral in nature. The smallest district in the Cognac region, Borderies, yields brandies that age relatively quickly. They are known for their aromas of violets, whereas spirits made in Fins Bois and Bons Bois age even faster, and are characterized as being grapy in nature. The sixth district, Bois Ordinaire, also produces fast-aging Cognacs, and these can be somewhat esoteric, varying greatly from one producer to the next.
Some of the smaller producers, such as Gabriel & Andreu and Pierre Ferrand, make Cognacs from single districts, and others, such as Logis de la Montagne (Cognac Michel Bonnin), Frapin and Maison Surrenne, produce Cognacs from a single vineyard or distillery. The largest producers typically procure their Cognacs from a variety of regions, for a variety of reasons.
The chart on page 60 of the printed magazine gives you an idea of the regions from which the major companies are sourcing their grapes, but this is simply an overview—in reality, mixing and matching districts is too complex for a chart to explain. Take Martell, a Cognac made with brandies from four different regions. The company stresses that it is the dominance of Cognacs from the Borderies that makes their spirit stand out. Remy-Martin is generally thought of as being a Fine Champagne Cognac, using brandies from both Grande and Petite Champagne, but their V.S. bottling comes entirely from Petite Champagne, and the Remy Louis XIII is a Grande Champagne Cognac. The subject gets very complicated.
The Hennessy company is known for blending Cognacs from four regions, but this isn't true in the case of their Private Reserve 1865 bottling—all the brandy in this bottle is made in the Grande Champagne region. And to round out the "Big Four" Cognac houses, Courvoisier mixes and matches different regions for each of their six bottlings, which makes for some very interesting sipping.
The Distilling Process
After producers choose their grapes, there are many variables in the distilling process that must be considered. The first decision is whether to strain the lees from the wine before distillation. Martell and Ansac do this, but Remy-Martin and Frapin insist that the lees be present. Hennessy distills on "fine lees," straining the heavy lees from the wine before putting it into the still.
Cognac is distilled twice in Charentaise pot stills, and these magnificent contraptions have more bells and whistles than do their counterparts in Scotland. A component of these stills is the rechauffe vin, an elegant container that holds the wine that's next in line for distillation. The vapors rising from the still pass through this vessel, heating the wine, and thus shorten the amount of time it will take to make the next batch of brandy. But not all producers use this pot still. Hennessy does, and so does Maison Surrenne, a family-owned entity specializing in vintage and single-district Cognacs. But the guys at Martell wouldn't dream of it—it might interfere with their house style.
There are many other nuances to take into consideration during the distillation process, but rather than linger at the still, let's take a look at the next major step in producing fine Cognac—the aging process.
The Aging Process
When brandy runs off the still in Cognac it is known as eau-de-vie, and not until it has spent time in oak will it be mature enough to bear the name "Cognac." But what kind of oak will be employed here? The French, naturally, prefer French oak, usually of the Limousin or Tronçaise variety.
Tronçaise barrels are favored at Martell because the resulting Cognacs bear "more elegant aromas than [those that emanate from Cognacs aged in] Limousin." But Limousin is the oak of choice at Remy-Martin because of the "rich vanilla-like flavor it imparts to Cognac." Maison Surrene also chooses Limousin barrels, but for a different reason: "[they are] soft and non-assertive [so] the Cognac's individual characteristics come through best." Cognac from the house of Frapin is also aged in Limousin oak, but here it's chosen "because it contains more tannins."
Taking the aging process one step further, let's take a look at the house of Hine Cognac, a relatively small affair that specializes in vintage bottlings from the Grande Champagne region. But they also offer "early-landed" Cognacs, yet another variable in the world of fine Cognac. The brandy in early-landed Cognacs is made in France, but it is aged in Bristol, England. England's higher humidity yields a lighter, fruitier style of brandy than their French-aged Hine counterparts—powerful, complex, somewhat woody brandies.
Many years ago, Patrick Morley Fletcher, a Hennessy family member, taught me much about the Cognac aging process, including a fascinating tidbit that highlights the devotion that goes into making fine Cognac. Here's the scoop: Most eau-de-vie destined to become Cognac is entered into new, or very young, barrels when it comes off the still. The maître de chai, or cellarmaster, then tastes the brandy as it matures, and at a certain point he might decide to transfer the spirit to an older barrel as a way of slowing down, and lengthening, the aging process. This could happen a few times if the brandy is deemed good enough to withstand many years of aging, and each time the brandy is moved it is re-entered into a barrel of a specific age.
But somewhere along the way an old barrel might develop a leak, and a couple of staves will have to be replaced in order to repair it. Here's where French know-how, and a modern calculator, come into play. Suppose a barrel is 20 years old, and there are 40 staves in the barrel. After being repaired, the barrel is made up of 38 20-year-old staves, and two brand new staves. Out with the calculator, and before you can say abracadabra, the barrel is now 19 years old. This is all taken into consideration when that barrel is chosen to further mature a Cognac.
Some Cognacs are made at one location, but the vast majority are made on independently owned farms, and each farmer/ distiller can produce brandy for a number of different houses. I was privileged to meet Michel Guilloteau, an independent farmer/ distiller, during a recent visit to the Cognac region, and despite the incredible brandies I sampled during my trip—one that was distilled in 1848, for instance—it was my time with him that proved to be the highlight of the week. His passion was palpable and he helped me ponder all the variables in distillation techniques. Try to imagine the job of the independent farmer/distiller in Cognac. One week he might be distilling for company X, so he strains the lees, doesn't use the rechauffe vin and puts the eau-de-vie into Tronçaise barrels. Next week he's making brandy for company Y, so he orders some new Limousin barrels, and leaves the wine on the lees. It's a very complicated job. Vive les distillateurs, et vive les différences.