History of Cognac and its production regions


History of Cognac and its production regions



The town of Cognac owes its birth, in fact, to the Roman settlements on the banks of the Charente River, in the south-west of France. The first vineyards appeared in the Charente Valley already in the last two decades of the 3rd century AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Probius. He allowed the Gauls who lived there to cultivate vineyards and engage in winemaking.


The Romans captured the city and its surroundings, turning it into one of the seventeen major centers of Roman Gaul. Then the Romans were replaced by the Vandals, followed by the Visigoths, then the Arabs. Around 850, the Vikings came from the sea and settled in the city for three hundred years. In 1152, Alienora of Aquitaine, after her divorce from King Louis VII of France, married a Norman prince, the future King of England. In 1154, Aquitaine was taken over by the English kings. The town of Cognac survived the strong British influence and the heavy battles of the Hundred Years' War. The rulers changed, the orders changed, the vineyards were cut down or restored. In the XII-XIII centuries, thanks to the efforts of Guillaume X, a large vineyard called Poitou was created around La Rochelle. Its grapes were used to produce wines that were shipped to other states. Barrels of wine were transported on wooden barges down the river and in a few days reached their destination - the seaport of Tonne-Charente. From there the wine was shipped to England, Holland or Scandinavian countries. It was transported by Dutch and Scandinavian fishermen and sailors, who bought the necessary salt on the banks of the Charente. However, this wine was too capricious, and later, in the XV century, when they tried to export it to more distant and warmer countries, it turned out that it spoils on the way. Another trouble for wine producers came from the authorities: the French government imposed heavy taxes on the export of alcoholic beverages.


Double distillation (distillation) of wine was developed at the end of the XVI century, and the distillation itself was known already in ancient times to the Arabs, who used it to obtain perfumes, incense and other cosmetics. The year 1641 was a turning point in the history of French winemaking. Local craftsmen invented the distilling apparatus (alambic). The unstable


Charente wine was distilled into alcohol. The benefits were twofold. Firstly, the obtained alcohol could easily endure long transportation. Secondly, the volume of alcohol was considerably less than the initial volume of wine: hence, the duties were reduced. Brandy alcohol became the main raw material for the production of cognac.


At first, the product of distillation in the place of its consumption (for example, in Holland) was diluted with water and sold as ordinary wine. However, the well-known passion of sailors for strong alcoholic drinks led to the fact that the distillate began to be in high demand. And in the XVII century, the French had to master the industrial scale of wine distillation, as well as seriously think about how to improve their product. Especially since at the end of the century Dutch and English traders began to export not wine, but only distillate, without any additives and less expensive. This alcoholic beverage, diluted with water, was called brandewijn ("distilled wine" in Dutch).


There is reliable evidence that already at the end of the XVII century in the city of Cognac established production of strong alcoholic beverage of the same name. Soon it turned out that it has an interesting property that significantly increases its flavor properties.


In 1701, war broke out between England and France. Blockaded by the English fleet, France stopped supplying the new drink to England - its main consumer. Many barrels, including those made of oak wood, piled up in wine warehouses. And it turned out that as a result of long aging in oak barrels sharply increase the flavor qualities of the drink. Since then, traders began to deliberately age the drink in barrels for a long time, as well as to improve the technology of blending (mixing) components. When the war ended (1713), the technology of cognac production was already well developed and the first cognac companies (Cognac Houses) began to appear.



The city of Cognac from a bird's eye view


The volume of trade was constantly growing, and gradually the drink, as well as the city itself, became world famous. This was primarily promoted by English merchants. In 1778 a treaty with England was signed in Paris, which provided for the reduction of customs duties on cognac. A sharp increase in the supply of cognac caused the need to improve the technology of its production. As a result, in 1801 the distilling apparatus was improved, the design of which has remained unchanged since then. In addition, in the process of production began to select fractions of alcohol.


After Napoleon came to power, the first crisis in cognac sales occurred. The death of King Louis XVI led to the creation of the first coalition of European countries against France, which affected the export of cognac: in one year alone, its supply fell by 60 percent. However, Napoleon (or rather, his army) made an excellent advertisement for the drink. As a result, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, almost the whole world knew about cognac. Napoleon himself gave the name to one of the common terms of aging of the drink.


In the middle of the XIX century it was decided to make cognac a recognizable drink, and instead of the traditional supply in barrels in I860 it began to be supplied in original bottles with labels. Numerous glass factories, printing houses and packaging companies appeared. At about the same time began the study of the formation of the properties of cognac and were taken the first steps to unify the requirements for its quality. The influence of soil on the quality of the drink was discovered: it was proved that the limestone-rich lands in the vicinity of the city of Cognac are the main source of its unique properties.


At the beginning of the XX century the revival of the cognac industry began. At the same time, in 1909, the French government issued a special decree, giving Cognac the status of a product of controlled appellation by place of production (Appellation d'Origin Controlce). This decree and a similar document of 1939 divided the territory of the region into six zones based on the structure of the soil and differences in climatic conditions, which allowed to finally unify the requirements to the quality of the drink.


Map of the cognac regions of France


The heart of the region even today is the city of Cognac. In addition, the region is home to two other historical sites, Angoulême and La Rochelle. The fortress of La Rochelle is known to many for the novel "The Three Musketeers" by Alexandre Dumas.


The high quality of local spirits, among other factors, is due to the exceptionally favorable climate and the remarkable properties of lime soils, especially in Grande Champagne. It is here that the finest and most delicate bouquet is produced. The Petiie Champagne region adjoins this area on three sides, where cognacs of extremely high quality are also produced. These two districts have the right to put the name "Fine Champagne" on cognac bottles, provided that they contain at least half of the drink from the Grande Champagne region.


To the north is the district of Bordery, which produces fine cognacs, although somewhat inferior to those of the above-mentioned districts. Three more districts have the word bois ("forest") in their names. A significant part of their territory is covered with forests. Here they produce mostly inexpensive drinks, as well as cognac product used as a blending component.


According to French law, spirits obtained by distillation in other areas of France itself or in other countries cannot be called cognac. Therefore, there drinks like cognac are called brandy, armagnac, vignac or something else.


All stages of cognac production are strictly regulated and controlled at the level of state laws, including the process of growing grapes. For the production of cognacs the legislation allows to use the following grape varieties: Ugni Blanc, Folie Blanch and Colombard. In practice, the "monopolist" is Ugni Blanc, whose share in the total volume of grape harvest is about 98%. The vines are planted in rows at a distance of about 3 meters from each other. This allows the use of machines during harvesting, which significantly increases labor productivity and reduces the harvesting period, which (again in accordance with the law) should begin in mid-October.


The harvested grapes are immediately fed to the presses and the juice is immediately sent for fermentation. The presses used should only crush the berries slightly, but not squeeze them dry. Screw presses (continuous presses) are strictly forbidden. Fermentation takes place in containers with a capacity of 50-200 hectoliters, and it is strictly forbidden to add sugar. The use of antiseptics such as sulphur dioxide and antioxidants is less strictly controlled. Neither is wine clarification, filtration or centrifugation. Both pressing and fermentation are extremely strictly controlled, as these two steps are crucial to the quality of future spirits. 


Before distillation, the wine is stored on a yeast lees rack where fermentation begins. Its acidity is reduced, and it becomes softer and finer in flavor. Nevertheless, the wine to be distilled is very dry (less than 1 gram of sugar per liter on average), contains a lot of acid and little alcohol (no more than 8-9% by volume).


Distillation begins immediately after the harvest and declaration of the harvest, and the rules stipulate that the distillation process must be completed by March 31 of the following year after the harvest. The wines are thus aged on yeast lees for up to 5 months.


The requirements for distillation are extremely strict Firstly, it must be carried out strictly within the boundaries of a certain zone. Secondly, it can be carried out only in special apparatuses - made of copper Charantes distillation cubes (alambics). The design of the alambic allows for maximum preservation of volatile aromatic substances. Above the heating boiler is a special hood ("helmet"), vapors of distillate are discharged through a specially curved tube ("swan neck"). The incoming wine is preheated for distillation. All alambics operating in the region are registered and their operation is strictly controlled.



Distillation unit in the Remy Martin workshop


The procedure for distillation is also established. It is done in two stages. The first is a simple distillation of the wine, the purpose of which is to maximize the extraction of alcohol. The resulting product is a semi-finished product of milky color with alcohol content of 27-32% by volume. This semi-finished product is called brouillis. At the second stage, the volatile substances are fractionated and the alcohol content of the distillate increases. First of all, the master distiller cuts off the "head" (the initial yield of the distillate), which is too rich in volatile substances (it is 1-2 liters per 100 liters of brouillis). The next middle run (the alcohol content should be no less than 69% and no more than 72%) - the "heart", or "body" - is the very brandy spirit, for the sake of which the distillation is made. When the alcohol content drops to 58-60%, distillation is finished. The remainder of the bruja (the "tail") can be used to add to the bruja from the next batch. Distillation of each batch of wine takes about 24 hours. Distilling 10 liters of wine results in only 1 liter of brandy alcohol.


The next step in the creation of cognac is aging. The aging process of cognac spirits lasts at least 30 months and can last up to 50 (or more) years. Spirits are aged in oak barrels. The casks must not have any metal or other parts that can come into contact with the spirits. Even glue joints are not allowed! The wood for the barrels is usually sourced from the forests of Limousin (here it is very porous, which is very important) or Tronçais (here it is denser). The oaks should be 150-200 years old. In general, creating barrels is a complex and responsible process, and master barrel makers are valued very highly. This is due to the fact that oak wood is a difficult material to process, and the process of creating the product requires not only skill, but also patience: the finished rivet, for example, should be kept in the open air for about 5 years, and only then it can be used. (What is interesting: a master bocharer determines the readiness of rivets by taste!)


Aging spirits is one of the main secrets of making cognac. During aging, tannins and other substances from oak wood are transferred into cognac spirits. This process is regulated so that the result is a special, unique range of flavors: in the process of aging spirits from new barrels are poured into already used, even repeatedly, old barrels.


Wood is a rather porous material, which leads to evaporation of alcohol. The intensity of evaporation depends not only on the permeability of the walls of the barrel, but also on the humidity and temperature of the air in the cellars, located near the surface of the ground or somewhat recessed in it. In the lower, more humid, part of the cellar evaporation rate is higher, in the upper, dry - lower. During the evaporation of alcohol changes the content of aromatic substances. The cellar master monitors all the processes that take place during aging. It is he who determines when to pour alcohol from new barrels into old ones, when to move barrels from the lower part of the cellar to the upper and back. It is believed that one can become a cellar master only after several decades of work. He learns all his life.



Coat of arms of the town of Cognac


The aging process is strictly regulated and no less strictly controlled. Cellar warehouses where cognac spirits are aged must be separated by a street from buildings where other spirits are stored. It is not allowed not only storage, but even short-term cohabitation of brandy spirits with other spirits. Otherwise, the drink made from brandy alcohol in the sale must be called brandy. Compliance with these (and other rules and regulations) is monitored by the producers themselves, and in order to ensure that the reputation of cognac remains unshakable, they created the National Interprofessional Bureau of Cognac. Although this bureau is a private organization, it has the right to control the stocks of cognac and cognac spirits, to check the age of cognac spirits and to issue certificates certifying the age and origin of cognacs.


Approximately 0.5% of the alcohol evaporates during a year of aging. During 50 years of aging in barrels the strength of the drink decreases from 71% to 46%. In general, up to 50 thousand hectoliters of alcohol evaporate per year on the territory where cognac is produced. The evaporated alcohol is called "the share of angels", as if it goes to heaven. In fact, these vapors are fed by the fungus Tbrulla Compniacenis, which forms a gray plaque on the walls of the cellars.


The aged cognac spirit goes for blending or assemblage, i.e. for mixing, and also, if its aging is considered fully completed, - in a special storage paradise ("paradise"). To prevent further aging of the drink, it is transferred into large braided bottles (bon-bonnes), which are placed in a special place of the warehouse (cellar), in that "paradise". The spirits stored there are usually unique. Cognac Houses traditionally name their best samples of the drink with the word Paradise.


Blending is considered the pinnacle of the art of creating cognac. Each producer strives to provide its drinks with stable qualities: aroma, bouquet, taste. But cognac spirits are different from year to year. For this reason, every year any drink has to be created anew. Usually cognac consists of ten or more brandy spirits, although there are exceptions: cognacs made of brandy spirit of only one age (vintage, or millezyme), and cognacs containing up to 200 brandy spirits! The master of the cellar himself, who personally supervises the aging of cognac spirits, is in charge of cupping.


The process of cognac creation is completed by several operations, during which some more components are added to the drink (but not always): distilled water (and after adding water the mixture is again aged in barrels for at least a month: the resulting alcoholic solution with a strength of about 20 degrees is used to bring the total strength of the drink to 40-45 degrees); sugar syrup or molasses to soften the flavor (for drinks betrayed in France, the sugar content is allowed no more than 2%, in other countries - 3.5%); caramel (caramelized sugar) in an amount not exceeding 2% to give the drink a certain color; infusion of oak shavings (after aging the shavings in distilled water or alcoholic solution at a temperature close to the boiling point for several hours - this infusion is called boisage) to give the drink a darker color and "old" taste. This is the end of the cognac-making process.