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Production probably started by accident in the middle ages - British and Scandinavian traders had for long exported sea-salt from the area, and the local wines were a spin-off. One theory goes that distillation began to make the liquid more compact - the idea being to dilute the end product again on arrival at its home port. However, these wines naturally produced a spirit that needed no doctoring to make it pleasant.
In the early 1800"s oak from the nearby forests of Limoges (called Limousin) began to be used to age the spirit, and it was a match made in heaven.
It is not always understood, but when aging any liquid in wooden barrels, it is not just contact that influences the flavour, but actual essence from the wood joins the contained liquid. In the case of Cognac, over a 25 year period, a hectolitre (about 22 Imperial gallons) of spirit would gain a further 500ml of wood extract, changing the flavour and bouquet immensely.
Until 1860, all brandy from this area was exported in its original barrels, and the name Cognac was yet to appear.
Today the name is strictly controlled by law, as are the methods and areas of production.
All Cognac must be distilled twice in a pot still - not by the continuous distillation methods favoured elsewhere.
The spirit is sold bottled at various ages - plain Cognac can be aged for as little as two years (but is rarely found outside the region, and any Cognac sold in Britain must be a minimum of three years old, by law); 3 star has generally been aged for five years; VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) probably for at least two more - depending on the producer; some from top producers may be as old as twenty years!
Government controls on age only stretches for the first five years, so individual producers have different standards after this period of time.
Many firms make a Reserve, Extra, and X.O in small quantities - each to their own aging guidelines. All these Cognacs would be blends from different areas and probably different years, so producing a conformed product.
Although the area of production is divided into divisions (see above), vineyards as such play no role in marketing, and their names don"t appear on labels.
The natural spirit strength of 70% is reduced to a drinking strength of 40% by the addition of distilled water, this is often done over a period of time so the brandy doesn"t have too much of a shock.
About 80% the production goes for export - the U.S.A being the largest customer, closely followed by Britain. Cognac is, in financial terms, the largest French agricultural export. See also "British Bonded"; "Coquand"; "Cognac"