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Why Cognac should be the next addition to your drinks cabinet

Why cognac should be the next addition to your drinks cabinet

by Great British Chefs 16 September 2019

This very special spirit is rooted in French tradition and far more versatile than you might think. If you like the complexity of wine and the warming, comforting qualities of whisky, get to know more about cognac – the drink that combines the best of both.

It’s French, it’s fancy, features in a surprising amount of music videos and is full of flavour – but beyond that a lot of us don’t really know what makes cognac such a revered and respected spirit. At its most basic it is essentially distilled wine that’s then left to age and mature in barrels, but of course there is much more to the story. Such a traditional and historic product comes with its own tales, time-honoured methods and expert growers, distillers and coopers (barrel-makers), all of which come together to create a bottle of something very special indeed.

If you’re a whisky drinker, then you’ll know how significant the skill of the distiller is when producing the spirit. Similarly, if you’re into your wines then you know how important the role of terroir is when growing grapevines. Cognac requires both – as it’s made from grapes, the quality of the fruit is paramount, and because it’s distilled and aged, the distilling process has to be absolutely top-notch to do the grapes justice. The result is a spirit that’s smoother than whisky, richer than wine and more complex than both.

Whether you’ve never experienced cognac before and want to know more about it before buying a bottle, or you know you like the taste but want to know what makes it different (and more expensive) than bog-standard brandy, this guide will give you everything you need to know about one of France’s most famous drinks.

Where cognac comes from

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The region of Cognac is divided into six sub-regions, with the very best grapes coming from the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne areas (the two darkest regions below the river in the image above)
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It's the chalk in the soil that makes the Grande and Petite regions of Cognac such a great place for growing grapes best-suited for longer ageing

Cognac, unsurprisingly, comes from the Cognac region of France, a beautiful part of the country just above Bordeaux. Life leads a slow, relaxed pace here, with vineyard-covered hills rolling into the distance and locals enjoying the simpler way of life. While brandy can come from anywhere in the world, for it to be called cognac it must be made in this specific region, using local grapes. But not all cognacs are equal; within the region of Cognac there are six sub-regions, each with their own slightly different soils and climates that have an impact on the final flavour of the spirit. The sub-regions regarded as the ‘heart’ of Cognac are known as Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne (confusingly nothing to do with the eastern region of France where actual Champagne comes from). This is where you’ll find the finest examples of eaux-de-vie produced (known as Cognac Fine Champagne).

So what makes this part of France so good for growing grapes destined to become cognac? It all comes down to the soil. Heavy with chalk, the landscape of the Petite and Grande regions of Cognac is ideally suited for growing vines, as the stones are porous and allow for good drainage. This, combined with the local cool climate, means the white grapes are more acidic than sweet, which makes them ideal for distilling.

How cognac is made

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The white grapes must be grown in the Cognac region if they are to be used to make cognac
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The grape harvest takes place every October after a year of careful growing, overseen by the region's expert and skilled vineyard workers

Cognac was first made in the sixteenth century, when Dutch traders visiting the region of Cognac were buying up the local wine to take home. The long journey meant the wine would spoil before they reached Holland, so they set about distilling it in the same way they created jenever (the precursor to gin). The local vineyard owners realised the potential in this and started to distil their wines themselves. Soon enough, cognac became recognised across Europe as an incredibly complex and special spirit, and the region became famous for its brandy.

Since then, cognac production has become strictly regulated, gaining AOC protection in 1938 to ensure the drink always lives up to its name. While the quality of the grapes is paramount – after all, if you don’t have good ingredients then no matter what you do the end product will be lacking – the techniques and methods that go into making cognac are just as important. Once the grapes are harvested (usually at the beginning of October), they’re pressed and the juice is fermented to create an acidic, low-alcohol white wine. This is how all brandies begin life before beginning the distillation process (as opposed to something like whisky, which is distilled from a low-alcohol beer made from malted barley).

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Distilling wine into cognac requires a lot of skill, intuition and talent – it’s not just a case of pouring the wine into a machine and watching the distillate come out at the other end. Because each grape harvest will result in a slightly different wine, the master distiller needs to adjust their processes accordingly to work the Alembic Charentais (the specific kind of pot still used to make Cognac). Once distilled twice over, the wine becomes eau-de-vie; a clear, punchy spirit which, while not particularly enjoyable to drink, transforms into something else entirely once aged.

Cognac must be aged in three different Limousin oak barrels for at least two years before it can be sold under the cognac name. During this time the eau-de-vie goes from clear to golden brown and slowly evaporates, decreasing in both volume and alcohol. Once the cellar master is happy with the flavour and length of ageing, the spirits are transferred into glass or metal containers where they will continue to mellow and develop in flavour.

Cognac houses always take several different aged eaux-de-vie and blend them together to create a perfect balance of flavour, ensuring consistency from year to year (another skill that takes years to master). It’s then bottled and ready to drink.

The different categories of cognac

Pick up a bottle of cognac and you’ll no doubt notice several different letters after the name – these refer to the age of the liquid within. Blended cognacs often contain different ages of eau-de-vie; the youngest is what dictates which category it goes into. So while a cognac may be categorised as being four years old, it may also contain eaux-de-vie which are much older. The four official grades of cognac are:

  • V.S. (Very Special) – the youngest cognac in the blend has been aged for at least two years in Limousin oak barrels.

  • V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) – the youngest cognac in the blend has been aged for at least four years in Limousin oak barrels.

  • XO (Extra Old) – the youngest cognac in the blend has been aged for at least ten years in Limousin oak barrels. Before 2018, the minimum age for a cognac XO was six years.

  • Vintage and Limited Edition – these titles are given to very special cognacs, often made with very old eaux-de-vie and unique in some notable way. Cognacs listed as vintage or limited edition are often very valuable and sought-after, which is reflected in the price.

Rémy Martin: the best of the best

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There are around 350 different cognac producers today, each producing spirits of varying quality and flavour. If you’re after the best, however, there is only one cognac house that exclusively uses eaux-de-vie from the Grande and Petite Champagne areas of the region. Rémy Martin has nearly 300 years of experience to fall back on and remains family-owned to this day. Rather than focusing on V.S. cognacs – the two-year-old bottles which make up the lion’s share of most cognac producers’ income – its youngest bottle is a V.S.O.P., as the eaux-de-vie the house sources from the Grande and Petite Champagne regions require a longer ageing time to reveal their potential.

Everything Rémy Martin does is about quality. From distilling its wines on the lees (the small flavourful particles created during fermentation) rather than filtering and distilling under close supervision in small batches, to using the very best barrels to age its carefully selected eaux-de-vie in, Rémy Martin focuses purely on Cognac Fine Champagne to create world-class spirits which offer the best examples of cognac’s incredible flavour.

Cognac isn’t the cheapest spirit out there – especially when you skip the V.S. and go straight to V.S.O.P. – but in terms of value and quality, you’re getting so much more for your money when you opt for one of Rémy Martin’s cognacs. You’re not just getting a bottle of something nice to drink; you’re buying something that has been years in the making with centuries of tradition behind it. For an extra couple of quid, you’re getting a true taste of French craftsmanship that’s been 300 years in the making. Rémy Martin is to cognac what cognac is to regular brandy, so if you want to really understand why this spirit is so highly regarded, ask for a small glass at a bar or pick up a bottle at home – we guarantee you won’t regret it.

Rémy Martin cognac is available to buy from Waitrose and Amazon.

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