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Cognac (pronounced /ˈkɒnjæk/), named after the town of Cognac in France, is the most famous variety of brandy, produced in the wine-growing region surrounding the town from which it takes its name, in the French Departements of Charente and Charente-Maritime. The town of Cognac is one of only three officially demarcated brandy regions in Europe; the others are the French Department of the Gers. Gers is divided into three parts: Haut Armagnac which produces no Armagnac, Bas Armagnac from which the best Armagnac comes and Tenerese where you can find some very good Armagnacs too. The most important centre for Armagnac is the town of Eauze (pronounced Ayose),The third is the Spanish town of Jerez.

CompositionEdit

According to French Law, in order to bear the name, Cognac must meet strenuous legal requirements, ensuring that the 300-year old production process remains unchanged. It must be made from at least 90% Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, or Colombard grapes, although Ugni Blanc, specifically Saint-Emilion grapes, are today virtually the exclusive variety used. The remainder may consist of the grape varieties Folignan, Jurançon blanc, Meslier St-François (also called Blanc Ramé), Sélect, Montils, and Sémillon, It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels, most commonly from oak shipped from all over Europe but passing through the town of Limoges and for that reason called 'limousin' oak.

Producing region and legal definitionsEdit

Map of Cognac Regions3

Map of the Cognac region

The region authorised to produce cognac is divided up into six zones, including five crus (singular cru), broadly covers the department of Charente-Maritime, a large part of the department of Charente and a few areas in Deux-Sèvres and the Dordogne. The six zones are, in order of decreasing appreciation of the cognacs coming from them: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and finally Bois Ordinaire. A blend of Grande and Petite Champagne Cognacs, with at least half coming from Grande Champagne, is known as Fine Champagne.

Note: these cognac-producing regions in southwestern France should not be confused with the northeastern region of Champagne, a wine region that produces sparkling wine by that name, although they do share a common etymology - both being deriviations of a French term for chalky soil.

ProductionEdit

Cognac pot still DSC04032

A cognac pot still

Cognac is made from eaux-de-vie (literally, "waters of life") produced by doubly distilling the white wines produced in any of the growth areas. This drink was first created to use up the grape waste of wine making and was considered a drink for the poor. The wine is a very dry, acidic, thin wine, not really suitable for drinking, but excellent for distillation. It may be made only from a strict list of grape varieties: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche & Colombard. Distillation takes place in traditionally shaped Charentais copper stills, also known as an alembic, the design and dimensions of which are also legally controlled. Two distillations must be carried out; the resulting eau-de-vie is a colourless spirit of about 70% alcohol.

Once distillation is complete, it must be aged for at least two years before it can be called 'Cognac' and sold to the public.

Once distillation is complete, it must be aged for at least two years before it can be called 'Cognac' and sold to the public.

The final product is usually diluted to 40% alcohol content (80 proof) with pure and distilled water. Major manufacturers add a small proportion of caramel to colour their cognacs (at least the less expensive qualities). it is claimed that this does not affect the flavor.

The age of the cognac is calculated as that of the youngest eau-de-vie used in the blend. The blend is usually of different ages and (in the case of the larger and more commercial producers) from different local areas. This blending, or marriage, of different eaux-de-vie is important to obtain a complexity of flavours absent from an eau-de-vie from a single distillery or vineyard. Each cognac house has a master taster (maître de chai) who is responsible for creating this delicate blend of spirits, so that the cognac produced by a company today will taste almost exactly the same as a cognac produced by that same company 50 years ago, or in 50 years' time. In respect it may be seen to be similar to a blended whisky or non-vintage Champagne, which also rely on blending to achieve a consistent brand flavour. A very small number of producers, such as Guillon Painturaud, do not blend their final product from different ages of eaux-de-vie in order to produce a 'purer' flavour, in much the same manner as a single malt whisky.

Hundreds of vineyards in the Cognac AOC region sell their own cognac. These are likewise blended from the eaux-de-vie of different years, but they are single-vineyard cognacs, varying slightly from year to year and according to the taste of the producer, hence lacking some of the predictability of the better-known commercial products. Depending on their success in marketing, small producers may sell a larger or smaller proportion of their product to individual buyers, wine dealers, bars and restaurants, the remainder being acquired by larger cognac houses for blending. The success of artisanal cognacs (and of single malt whiskies) has compelled some larger producers to market single-vineyard cognacs from vineyards that they own. A recent example of this is the cognac house Hennessy, who released Izambard, Le Peu and Camp Romain, being three of their distilleries, in 1999.

GradesEdit

The official quality grades of cognac are, according to the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac):

  • VS Very Special, or ✯✯✯ (three stars) where the youngest brandy is stored at least two years in cask.
  • VSOP Very Special (less commonly 'Superior') Old Pale, where the youngest brandy is stored at least four years in cask, but the average wood age is much older.
  • XO Extra Old, where the youngest brandy is stored at least six, but average upwards of 20 years.

In addition can be mentioned:

  • Napoleon Although the BNIC states this grade is equal to XO in terms of minimum age, it is generally marketed in-between VSOP and XO in the product range offered by the producers.
  • Extra A minimum of 6 years of age, this grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.
  • Vieux Is another grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
  • Vieille Réserve Is like the Hors d´Age a grade beyond XO.
  • Hors d'âge The BNIC states that also this grade is equal to XO, but in practice the term is used by producers to market a high quality product beyond the official age scale. Hence the name "Hors d'age" (beyond age).

No house of cognac produces all the above mentioned grades/qualities.

LevelsEdit

The crus where the grapes were grown can also be used to define the cognac, and give a guide to some of the flavour characteristics of the cognac:

  • Grande Champagne (13766 hectares total) Grande Champagne eaux de vie are long in the mouth and powerful, dominated by floral notes. The most prestigious of the crus. "Champagne" derives from the Roman "Campania" meaning Plain, but is often explained with similarity in soil with the Champagne area at Reims. Cognacs made from a mixture of Grande and Petite Champagne eaux de vie (with at least 50% Grande Champagne) may be marketed as Fine Champagne.
  • Petite Champagne (16171 hectares total) Petite Champagne eaux de vie have similar characteristics to those from Grande Champagne but are in general shorter on the palate.
  • Borderies (4160 hectares total) The smallest cru, eaux de vie from the Borderies are the most distinctive, with nutty aromas and flavour, as well as a distinct violet or iris characteristic. Cognacs made with a high percentage of these eaux de vie, for example, "Cordon Bleu" by Martell, are dominated by these very sought-after flavours.
  • Fins Bois (34265 hectares total) Heavier and faster ageing eaux de vie suitable for establishing the base of some cognacs. Rounded and fruity, with an agreeable oiliness.
  • Bons Bois
  • Bois Ordinaires (19979 hectares together with Bons Bois). Further out from the four central growth areas are the Bons Bois and the Bois Ordinaires. With a poorer soil and very much influenced by the maritime climate, this area of 20,000 hectares produces eaux de vie that are less demonstrative and age more quickly. These lesser crus are excluded from blends by some manufacturers.

The growth areas are tightly defined; there exist pockets with soils atypical of the area producing eaux de vie that may have characteristics particular to their location. Hennessy usually uses the unofficial brandy grades for its cognac offerings, but has also produced three single distillery cognacs each with very distinctive flavours arising from the different soils and, to a lesser extent, climate. Other cognac houses, such as Moyet, exclusively use the crus to describe their different cognacs.

Cultural influencesEdit

Since the early 1990s, cognac has seen a significant transformation in its American consumer base, from a predominantly older, affluent white demographic to a younger, urban, and significantly black consumer. Cognac has become ingrained in hip-hop culture, celebrated in songs by artists ranging from Tupac Shakur to Busta Rhymes to Mac Dre and Nas.

It is estimated that African Americans now comprise 60%–80% of the American cognac market. A majority of African Americans have indicated in studies that the endorsement of popular musical artists is a key factor in their preference for cognac. Moreover, Pernod-Ricard, the parent company of Martell, has acknowledged that “the USA is the biggest market for cognac, and African-Americans are a priority target.” Many have credited hip-hop culture as the savior of cognac sales in the United States. After poor sales in 1998 due to an economic crisis in Asia — cognac’s main export market at the time — sales of cognac increased to approximately US $1 billion in America in 2003. This was a growth that coincided with hip-hop’s entry into the mainstream of American music.