Cognac is the third largest area under vine in France and is composed of six subregions called in descending order of importance: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires.
Each subregion has different soil types. Grapes from each of these subregions will contribute different aromas, weight and ageability to a Cognac.
Cognac and its Districts
The Cognac region is the third largest vineyard area in France with 73,000 hectares, or 180,387 acres, under vine. It equals almost half the vineyard area of all of Australia. Large as it may seem, this area has been steadily shrinking over the last 35 years. In pre-phylloxera times, it was nearly four times as big, with approximately 270,000 hectares, or 667,185 acres planted, but a combination of phylloxera, the World Wars and economic depression reduced the total planted area by at least 95%. Between 1920-1970, the area slowly regained vigor, attaining approximately 110,000 hectares, or about 250,000 acres, by 1970.
Cognac is composed of six subregions called in descending order of importance: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. Each subregion has different soil types. Grapes from each of these subregions will contribute different aromas, weight and ageability to a Cognac.
Grande Champagne, 11,000 hectares or 27,182 acres, is the region located just south of the Charente River, and is considered the finest of the subregions.
The word “Champagne” has nothing to do with the illustrious sparkling wine region, but instead refers to the amount of chalk in the soil. Chalk concentration is the primary factor in determining the quality of each subregion. The higher the level of chalk, the better the wine is for distilling into Cognac because it provides a consistent water delivery system for the roots of the vines and is rich in calcium carbonate. Also, chalk at the surface of the soil absorbs the heat of the sun during the day and radiates the warmth back to the vines at night.
A vineyard’s proximity to the ocean also an important factor in determining the quality of a Cognac because regions that are very close benefit from the cooling effects of the water. The exposure of the hillside vineyards is also important. Grande Champagne is the most hilly region wine Champagne with most vineyards having a southern exposure that helps the grapes reach maturity.
All of these factors help produce full-bodied eaux-de-vie that are aromatic and good for long aging. These eaux-de-vie come into maturity at approximately 15 years of age and some can age for an astonishing 150 years.
A cognac is not necessarily good just because it is from Grande Champagne, but all of the greatest cognacs utilize fruit from this region.
Most of Petite Champagne also sits south of the Charente River and and surrounds Grande Champagne. With a total area of 17,000 hectares, or 42,000 acres, the soil in Petite Champagne is chalky, too, but the layer of chalk is less compact than that in Grande Champagne. This region produces eaux-de-vie that have less ageability, but are more elegant and fruity than those from Grande Champagne. These tend to reach maturity at seven to eight years of age, but this depends on many factors, including the specific vineyard site, the type of aging used, and the characteristics of the vintage.
Borderies is a small area of 4,500 hectares, or 11,000 acres north of the Charente and just west of Grande Champagne. Here, the soils often have a high concentration of flint and exposures are mixed. This region produces Cognacs that are extremely aromatic and perfumed, with a round, light character and floral notes. These Cognacs tend to reach maturity before the others.
Fins Bois is a large area, 33,000 hectares, or 81,500 acres, that completely surrounds Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Borderies. Here, the soils are clay over hard limestone and the topography is much more flat and less exposed to the south. The Cognacs from Fins Bois are generally light, floral, fruity, and crisp, and do not require the same amount of aging as those noted above. Because of this, they are often used in the youngest blends.
Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires
Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires are outlying regions that are generally considered unsuited for the production of fine Cognac because the soil is a mixture of sand and clay and the sites are too close to the ocean. Approximately 12,000 hectares, or 30,000 acres, are planted in these areas.
Clickable Map of the Cognac Region: