Cognac Vineyards, Cru’s, Grapes and distillation
The vineyards of the Cognac region cover 710,000 acres in the Charente and Charente Maritime départments, primarily between the middle and lower Charente basin.
The soils of this unique region are composed entirely of Upper Jurassic and Cretaceous limestone deposited by the sea during the Mesozoic Era.
Sedimentation formed these soils into bands running from the Massif Central to the Atlantic coast, and the chalky deposits in each band are so distinctive that the individual character each regional band imparts to the Cognac produced from its vineyards is easily identified by professional tasters.
Climate plays a decisive role in the distribution of “crus,” or growths, of Cognac. The region is located between the Atlantic and the Massif Central where the oceanic and continental climatic zones meet. The region also straddles the dividing line between northern~ and southern climates.
The combined effect of these four influences creates an array of micro climates, which, taken together with local soil characteristics, results in a wide spectrum of nuances in the wines and brandies of each origin. The ideal point of equilibrium between these various climatic influences happens to lie on the best micro climates.
- Grande Champagne
- Petite Champagne
- Fins Bois
- Bons Bois
- Bois Ordinaires and Bois Communions
The latter four zones are arranged more or less concentrically around a hub consisting of Grande and Petite Champagne.
A distinction between these and the remaining crus roughly corresponds to the ancient separation between the rich farmlands on the best chalky soils and the woodlands on inferior soils.
- The Grande Champagne, regarded as a distinct geographical entity since at least the 11th. century, lies at the very center of the Cognac vineyard. It is situated exactly at the point of equilibrium between the four climatic influences, and therefore enjoys the mildest, most balanced climate of the Charente on the chalkiest soil, and the brandies it yielded were recognized as the greatest and most precious produced in the entire region as early as the beginning of the 18th. century.
Grandes Champagnes, incomparable for their delicacy and rich, subtle, clean bouquet, require longer aging to reach their peak, living easily for 40 or 50 years in cask. Extending south on the left bank of the Charente River between the cities of Cognac and Jarnac, the Grande Champagne covers 88,200 acres. That this zone supports the highest concentration of vineyards is not surprising given their very high profitability. The heart of Cognac, the Grande Champagne represents 15 percent of the Cognac vineyard.
- The Petite Champagne, with soil almost identical to the Grande Champagne, has a slightly more maritime or continental climate depending on the locality. Its brandies have slightly less body and finesse than those of Grande Champagne. A blend exclusively comprised of at most 50 percent Petite Champagne with Grande Champagne brandies is entitled to the name “Fine Champagne,” the most sought after of the standard categories of Cognac on the market.
- The tiny Borderies zone produces unusual brandies, which are very sweet and fragrant but age more quickly than those from the Champagnes. They are prized for the aromatic qualities they contribute to a blend.
- The Fins Bois zone produces plump, full bodied brandies that mature rapidly and are easy to appreciate.
- The Bons Bois produces light, pleasant brandies with a touch of earthiness.
- Bois Ordinaires and Bois Communs brandies do not generally exist unblended.
Read for even more information about the regions, the earlier published article: Cognac Regions.
Even in the Cognac region, wine to be transformed into brandy must meet certain invariable criteria: it must be white, it must have fairly high acidity and it must be so thin, sharp and low in alcohol (an average eight percent by volume) as to be nearly unfit for drinking.
These qualities do not prevent the wine from possessing an aromatic potential that distillation will concentrate all the more easily because of the low alcohol content. The wine must otherwise be perfectly and naturally sound, untreated and uncapitalized. Of the authorized grape varieties, the Ugni Blanc (left on the photo), also known as the Saint-Emilion des Charentes or Trebbiano, has largely replaced the Folle Blanche and Colombard.
Cognac’s authenticity and purity are evident the moment the colorless spirit emerges from the still at 70 percent alcohol by volume. The brandy gives off a miraculously exquisite fragrance of the vine in flower.
Cognac’s perfect balance, purity and richness continue to be achieved through the irreplaceable double run method. The first distillation produces a cloudy “brouillis” of 30 percent alcohol, the second, called “la bonne chauffe,” yields a clear Cognac of 70 percent.
We recommend viewing the movie Cognac Distillation with Hennessy for your understanding of this process.