Cognac (IPA: [k*n'jæk] where * is ɒ, oʊ, ɑ:, or ɔ:), named after the town of Cognac in France, is a kind of brandy, which must be produced in the region surrounding the town. The wine to be distilled must be made from at least 90 percent Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard grapes. The rest of the wine can consist of ten selected grapes. However, most wine is made from Ugni Blanc only. It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged at least 2 1/2 years in oak barrels in order to be called "cognac".
A related drink produced in another region is Armagnac.
Producing region and legal definitions
The region of cognac, divided up into six growth areas, or crus (singular cru), covers the department of Charente-Maritime, a large part of the Charente and a few areas in and the Dordogne. The six crus are, in order of decreasing appreciation of the cognacs coming from them: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires.
A cognac made from just the first two of these crus (with at least 50 percent from Grande Champagne) is called "Fine Champagne" cognac, although no cognac has anything to do with the sparkling wine Champagne. ("Champagne" coming in both cases from old words alluding to agricultural fields.)
If a brandy is produced that fails to meet any of the strict criteria set down by the "governing body" of cognac, the BNIC – Bureau National Interprofessionel du cognac – it may not be called cognac, nor sold as such.
- It must be produced within the delimited region, from wine using certain grape varieties;
- It must be obtained through double distillation, in typical copper Charentais stills;
- It must age in oak barrels, which give it its color and part of its taste.
Many of the cognac producers in the town allow visitors to taste their product; the bigger companies have guided tours.
Process of fabrication
Cognac is made from eaux-de-vie (literally, "water of life") produced by doubly distilling the white wines produced in any of the growth areas. The wine is a very dry, acidic, thin wine, not really suitable for drinking, but excellent for distillation. It may only be made from a strict list of grape varieties. Distillation takes place in traditionally shaped Charentais copper stills, the design and dimensions of which are also controlled. Two distillations must be carried out; the resulting eau-de-vie is a colourless spirit of about 70 percent alcohol.
Cognac may not be sold to the public, or indeed called 'Cognac' until it has been aged for at least two years, counting from the end of the period of distillation (1 April following the year the grapes were harvested).
During the aging, a large percentage of the alcohol (and water) in the eaux-de-vie evaporates through the porous oak barrels. This is termed locally the "part des anges", or angels' share, a phrase also used in Scotch Whisky production. A black fungus, Baudoinia compniacensis (Richon) JA Scott & Untereiner (= Torula compniacensis Richon), thrives on the alcoholic vapours and normally grows on the walls of the aging cellars.
The final product is diluted to 40 percent alcohol content (80 proof).
The age of the cognac is shown as that of the youngest eau-de-vie used in the blend. The blend is usually of different ages and from different local areas. This blending, or marriage, of different eaux-de-vie is important to obtain a complexity of flavours absent from an eau-de-vie from a single distillery or vineyard. Each cognac house has a master taster (matre de chai) who is responsible for creating this delicate blend of spirits, so that the cognac produced by a company today will taste exactly the same as a cognac produced by that same company 50 years ago, or in 50 years' time. In this respect it may be seen to be similar to a blended whisky or non-vintage Champagne, which also rely on blending to achieve a consistent brand flavour.
- VS (Very Special) or *** (three stars), where the youngest brandy is stored at least two years in cask.
- VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), serve, where the youngest brandy is stored at least four years in cask.
- XO (Extra Old), Napoleon, Hors d'Age, where the youngest brandy is stored at least seven years in cask.
Each cognac house also produces its own premium-level cognac. These include:
- Louis XIII by Remy Martin is composed of more than 1,200 of the finest eaux-de-vie aged between 40 years and a century in very old Limousin oak barrels.
- Richard Hennessy - produced by Hennessy, 'Richard' is a blend of over 100 eaux-de-vie aged up to 200 years. It is sold in a Baccarrat crystal blackman and is named after the founder of the company.
- L'Esprit de Courvoisier - Courvoisier's leading cognac, presented in a hand-cut Lalique decanter, blended from eaux-de-vie up to 200 years old, and individually numbered.
- Moyet Antiques - Moyet's Tr¨s Vieille Fine Champagne and Tr¨s Vieille Grand Champagne cognacs blended from some barrels over 150 years old, individually numbered and signed by the cellar master.
- Gabriel & Andreu
- Remy Martin
Cognac is mainly sold by trading houses. Some of them were founded centuries ago, and still rule the market today.
- Courvoisier (Owned by Allied Domecq)
- Hennessy (owned by LVMH)
- Remy Martin
- Pierre Ferrand
- Birkedal Hartmann
Cognac in Popular Culture
Since the early 1990s, cognac has seen a significant transformation in its American consumer base, from a predominately older, affluent white demographic to a younger, urban and significantly African-American crowd. The spirit has become ingrained into hip-hop culture, celebrated in songs by artists ranging from Tupac Shakur to Busta Rhymes to Lil Jon, among many others. It is estimated that between 60 and 80 percent of the American cognac market is African American, the majority of whom have indicated in studies that the endorsement of popular musical artists is a factor in their preference for the drink. Many have credited hip-hop culture as the savior of cognac; after nearly foundering in 1998 due to economic crisis in Asia - cognac's #1 market at the time - the cognac industry has seen its annual sales climb to approximately $1 billion in America by 2003, a growth paralleled by hip-hop's rise into the mainstream of American music.
Lists of cognac literature can be found on the following pages
- cognacguide.com-Literature page very detailed list including cover pictures and short reviews (in German; translation by Yahoo)
- cognacnet.com Page by the American cognac-lover Mac A. Andrew, who died in 2001. Adopted by le-cognac.com, but not updated anymore. Regarding the content hardly surpassed by another page. Old layout, partly outdated.
- le-cognac.com Page by Am lie and Chantal Firino-Martell with links to many cognac manufacturers and very informative. Also a shop with cognac.
- cognac-world.com Page by Jean-Louis N e. Informative page with constantly updated news about everything related to cognac.
- cognacguide.com English page Page by Ralph Wagner with information and forum for buying decision, purchase sources, literature and evaluation of Cognac and everthing related. Database of cognac prices and sources. (Home page in German; translation by Yahoo)
- BNIC Page of the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, the authority guarding the manufacturing of all cognac. Here you can find a list of all cognac producers.
- http://www.cognacguide.ru Informational resource about cognac: how to drink cognac, history of cognac, how cognac is made, classification of cognacs, city Cognac.