Here’s the scenario: You are at a very posh bar with clients, friends, or even a spouse. You spot a very chic individual dressed like he — or she — just stepped out of a Vanity Fair fashion shoot. Connoisseur that you are, you just can’t help but observe what this sophisticated creature is drinking.
Chances are, the drink is Cognac, the newly “rediscovered” drink trend of the moment. Once considered a rather stodgy spirit enjoyed by snooty older men, Cognac is now popular with rap stars, who increasingly set the trend for all things cool and fashionable. Need proof? Check out Hennessy’s lavishly produced commercial featuring gorgeous models frolicking aboard a yacht anchored off St. Tropez.
Rich, sophisticated, and yet affordable at about $12 a glass, you may be startled to know this fragrant, smooth-drinking spirit began its life, like all brandies, as a wine. Yet, if it is a brandy, you may wonder, why is it called Cognac? How is a brandy produced, anyway?
Cognac is a delimited region in France that has been granted permission from the Appellation Controlée to call their brandy Cognac, signifying the region’s importance as a quality producer of this product. Any region in France can produce brandy, but only brandy produced from grapes grown, distilled, and aged in Cognac can call their brandy Cognac, with its time-tested associations with quality.
What makes Cognac so exceptional is not the winemaking style as much as it is the terroir (the French word for “a sense of place”). The best areas of the Cognac Region have a white, chalky soil that gives grapes growing in this region a very unique flavor profile.
The Grapes of Cognac
Ugni Blanc (called Trebianno in Italy) is the main grape (95%) used to produce the eaux-de-vie (base wine) that will ultimately become Cognac. This grape offers high yields, has a good natural acidity, and provides floral, spicy notes - an aroma the French define as patisserie (pastry) to the finished product. Folle Blanche provides weight, a deeper fruitiness, and aromas of violet and angelica flower, but is more prone to disease.
Colombard has high acidity and is also aromatic. These grapes are grown in six specific subdivisions of Cognac called crus, with each cru representing a distinctive flavor. For example, Grande Champagne, the area around the towns of Cognac and Seconzac, yields the most delicate and fragrant brandy.
Harvest and Quick Fermentation
Once harvested by hand, these grapes are increasingly picked by machines that make their way through the widely spaced plantings, where the grapes are supported by high trellises. The grapes are quickly fermented with a gentler, traditional plate press, as any bruising of the skin would give the eaux-de-vie acidic bitterness.