Beloved by kings and queens, hip-hop legends and cocktail historians, Cognac is the world’s best-known, grape-based spirit. Luxurious and mahogany-gorgeous in the glass, it also plays well with other ingredients as a cocktail base.
However, with some exceptions, the spirit itself has long tilted toward consistency over diversity.
“If you take the ‘big four’ [Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin], they want to recreate the same consumption experience every time,” says Max von Olfers, who runs the website Cognac Expert with his sister, Sophie.
“The XO of Hennessy has to be same taste, structure and color for a long time period, and that can only be accomplished by controlling the blending and [using] additives and coloring and so on,” he says. “These products are so mainstream because consumers expect them to taste the same every time.”
But evolution is underway. Many smaller Cognac producers now farm organically, reject additives and embrace variation in vintages, be it through single-vintage bottlings or blending. Some use grapes beyond Cognac’s workhorse, Ugni Blanc, and experiment with various types of wood in aging. And, perhaps most vital, many explore new ways to commit to sustainability.
Like many European wine regions, contemporary Cognac production was shaped by the phylloxera outbreak in the late 19th century.
In its aftermath, Cognac producers placed almost all of their focus on a dependable, high-acid grape variety: Ugni Blanc. To never again experience near-total crop loss, they began a chemical romance with herbicides and pesticides to help a struggling industry fight its way back to some stability.
“Post-phylloxera, there was an urgency to get back on track, which is strange because it never got back on track,” says Guillaume Lamy, vice president of the Cognac producer Maison Ferrand.
“It’s simple math,” he says. “The vineyards in Cognac before phylloxera were around 263,000 hectares [650,000 acres]. Today, it’s 75,000 hectares [about 185,000 acres]… Between 1610 and 2020, a bunch of things happened in Cognac, and they can’t be summed up in 20 pages.”
The pages he refers to are the “Cahier des Charges,” appellation d’Origine contrôlée (AOC) laws that govern production of the spirit.
Enacted in 1936, the AOC dictates what grape varieties can be used and where they may be grown, the type of stills and barrels approved in production, the allowable additions of boise for color, sugar for flavor, and alcohol by volume (abv).
While the regulations have their purpose, some producers worry that they discourage individuality.
Ferrand’s Renegade Barrel, for example, is aged in both French oak and chestnut wood. Because chestnut is not permitted by the current laws, the spirit must be labeled an eau de vie, rather than a Cognac.
“People just see this finished product, but this all starts in the field amongst the vines,” says Franky Marshall, a bartender and certified Cognac educator. “This comes down to a lot of small farmers who provide the wines for larger producers.”
Currently, 1% of Cognac’s producers are certified organic, according to estimates from the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), the French group of winemakers and merchants that represents the Cognac industry. The organization believes many others have similar eco-conscious production methods without certification.
Most of the bigger Cognac houses have always needed more grapes than they can grow. As a result, conventionally farmed grapes often get mixed with organic offerings from smaller growers, which nullifies that work that went into the latter fruit.
“We estimate that only about 20% of organically farmed Cognac ends up in an organically labeled bottle, as many producers sell in bulk to the four big houses, who do not yet recognize the interest of the [organic] label,” says Pascal Rousteau, president of VitiBio, Cognac’s 23-year-old association of organic farmers.
All Cognac producers must contend with the changing climate that includes early frosts, hailstorms, intense summers and late-season droughts.
“As in all regions in France, Europe and the world, climate change has had an impact on the Cognac winegrowing region,” says Vincent Lang, director of the technical and sustainable development department of the BNIC. “We started taking action several years ago. We are confident about the future, but, like all wine-producing and agricultural industries, we are working hard to adapt to the many climate, economic, technological and societal changes we face.”
Some of that work includes encouraging the region’s nearly 2,400 growers and producers to re-embrace creative soil management in lieu of chemical weed killers, says Lang.
Ambitious, long-term projects have also launched, like a region-wide adaptation of High Environmental Value (HEV) certification, which focuses on issues like biodiversity, plant protection, fertilizer management and water conservation.
“Last year, for the first time, we harvested at a large scale new varieties of vines resistant to downy mildew and powdery mildew,” says Lang. “Those new varieties should be officially registered in 2022 and progressively deployed in the Cognac vineyard[s].”
Big brands like Hennessy have joined the effort, vowing to stop the use of herbicides on its own estate by 2023, and from contract growers by 2028. Cognac house Martell has banned the use of the controversial herbicide glyphosate, while Rémy Martin has encouraged hundreds of its growers to obtain HEV certification.
Meanwhile, smaller producers are making big changes.
“I think good words for it would be ‘converting back’ to agriculture as it was thousands of years ago,” says Amy Pasquet, co-manager of Jean-Luc Pasquet Cognac, of the company’s move toward organic agriculture.
Most Cognac producers were once what we would call “organic,” says Pasquet, because “chemically synthesized products didn’t appear until after the Second World War. It was all done in this old way.”
Her husband’s father, Jean-Luc, began to convert the label’s 34 acres of Ugni Blanc vines in Grand Champagne to organic in 1993. The area has been used for Cognac grape-growing since the early 18th century.
In the latter part of the 20th century, France became the second-highest consumer of agricultural pesticides to stabilize yields and production.
To counteract the resulting pollution and create more distinctive agricultural products, certain grower-producers have changed their methods. These include Pasquet, Dudognon, Decroix Cognac Vivant, G&A Domaine De Marais, Mery Melrose, Guy Pinard & Fils, and Brard Blanchard. Négociant producers that have adopted such practices include Park, Grosperrin, Peyrat, Leopols Gourmel and Prunier.
In 2006, fourth-generation Cognac producer Francoise Mery, of Mery Melrose, converted his family vineyards to organic and began to ferment grapes via natural yeast.
“In the beginning, we didn’t know if there’d be interest in organic spirits,” says Mery. “Now, more and more organic shops have a spirits section. It’s logical. If people are concerned about organic vegetables and food and wine, they will buy organic spirits as well.”
His efforts weren’t immediately met with local acceptance.
“The neighbors don’t look at you very nicely because, you know, you’re different,” he says. “But it’s funny because people who live in rural areas, they should be concerned with organic [farming] because they live beside [the land].”
“If we grow and expand, we won’t be able to do the same quality. We are losing our soul then.” —Pierre Buraud, co-owner, Dudognon Cognac
Dudognon, which produces 18,000 bottles of organic Cognac per year, has long been committed to environmental sustainability. Distillers use firepower instead of gas for their stills, and they carefully source the wood for their barrels.
“Every year, we go to see a wood cutter and he cuts the oak for us,” says Pierre Buraud, who co-owns Dudognon with his parents, Claudine and Gerald. “We age and cure the wood three to five years and then we bring it to our barrel maker, so we are sure of the origin and quality of wood, and its maturity.”
These practices eliminate the need for additives like sugar and caramel, says Buraud.
“We know we will and can age young eau de vie and not add any color or additive,” he says. “We choose this way of working. We could expand and buy more wine or sell more Cognac, but we don’t want to. If we grow and expand, we won’t be able to do the same quality. We are losing our soul then.”
Benedict Hardy, the fifth-generation distiller at Hardy Cognac, has a similar outlook. In 2015, she added an organic Cognac to her family’s line.
“It’s very drastic. It’s a crusade!” says Hardy.
“If you make that decision, you can’t put the organic sticker on a bottle for about 10 years,” says Hardy, who notes that you can’t use herbicides or pesticides during that period. “Everything is different. The barrels are different. The pumps and hoses have to be cleaned up completely. When we bottle, we have inspectors. It’s not as easy as it seems.”
Organic Cognac sales represent just 3% of the label’s profits, but, for Hardy, it’s an important precedent.
“We see a little growth every year,” she says. “Not spectacular, but we’re opening new markets slowly, but surely. For the French, food is very important to us. We need to lead by what we produce. If we don’t overproduce, we won’t need as much pesticide and herbicide.
“More is not always good,” she says. “Sometimes, less is better.”
The Future of Cognac
Smaller operations experiment in other ways, too.
“As far as grape diversity goes, I do believe that organic growers who bottle their production are likely to plant old varietals like the Folle Blanche, Colombard or Montils, as many members have these types of vines,” says Rousteau.
Pasquet released its first 100% Folle Blanche in 2020. Buraud also makes a 100% Folle Blanche and grows grapes like Montils as well as Ugni Blanc.
“Around the ’30s, people started to quit Folle Blanche because it’s tricky and difficult to grow,” says Buraud. “For many years, the Folle Blanche almost disappeared. One day, my grandfather was making the eau de vie of his grandfather and remembering and thinking that something was different. Something was missing. And he realized, the Folle Blanche was missing.
“That’s why we decide to grow it back. We first replanted it in 1999. In 2009, it was the first year we were able to sell it.”
The desire to connect Cognac’s history with its future led Sophie and Max von Olfers, the siblings behind the Cognac Expert website, to create their own label, Sophie & Max Seleccion. They source and curate bottles from small, family-owned producers and sell them on their website.
They’re interested in telling the stories behind each bottle, Max says. “What’s the story behind it? Whose family made it? When was it created? Was the sun present that year? What happened during this vintage? Is it blended?”
The family has farmed the area for generations. Max plans to plant his own vines next year. In the meantime, he’s committed to diversifying both the market and perceptions of Cognac.
“Is a Cognac with additives directly bad? No,” he says. “But on other hand, I’ve had Cognacs that are quite young with caramel and sugar. They are dark, but sweet on the tongue and burn on the end.
“It doesn’t make sense. The nature of vintage is every year it will taste very different. It’s about identity.”