A common misconception is that all French brandy is called cognac. In reality it comes only from one region, the
The Cognac district, one of only three officially designated brandy regions in Europe along with Armagnac (France) and Jerez (Spain), is divided into six primary vineyard districts; Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, and the Borderies. Fanning out in concentric circles from these three small areas are three larger but secondy vineyard areas. Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires.
All cognacs are produced from wines made from grapes grown and harvested within the demarcated cognac region. The St. Emilion variety, or ungi blanc as it is also known, is by a wide margin the main grape type cultivated. Cognac is always distilled twice in small copper pot stills. The colorless, high-alcohol distillate, which by law cannot exceed 72% alcohol after the second distillation, is pumped into French oak casks for aging. The legal minimum period of wood aging is two and a half years but the vast majority of cognacs age for much longer periods, with the best XOs maturing for two to three decades or more.
Virtually all cognacs are blends of many different spirits. A VSOP may be the end result of the blending of as many as 50 cognacs. The purpose of blending is to maintain a precise standard of taste and quality from batch to batch.
France's other officially demarcated brandy region, Armagnac. enjoys a smaller, but remarkably loyal audience in the US. Armagnac differs from cognac in a number of ways, the most obvious being a single distillation. It is also notable that while Armagnac production began a few hundred years before cognac, the Armagnac region is much smaller, accounting for only about one-sixth as many acres as Cognac. Armagnac also often carries a vintage date on the label, referring to the year that the brandies were distilled. All brandies used in the blend must by law, come from that single vintage. Cognac only rarely uses vintage years as an identification, preferring instead to use a lettering system.
The first key to Cognac's success is the nature of the wine: the grapes used in the best brandies must have some character and be relatively weak and acidic. The ideal balance was found in the Folle Blanche, an acidic, aromatic grape used both in Armagnac and Cognac in the 19th century. Unfortunately, it proved unsuitable for grafting on to the American rootstocks used after phylloxera had attacked the vineyards - the bunches of grapes were all too snsceptible to grey rot and too tightly packed to be reachabl.e even by modern antirot sprays. So in Cognac, and now increasingly in Armagnac, the Folle Blanche was replaced by the higher yielding, more amenable (and markedly less characterful) Ugni Blanc.
Unfortunately, only a few distillers have the means and patience to try alternative varieties, or to accept that a little Folle Blanche is better (even if more expensive) than a lot of Ugni Blanc. The balance is a delicate one: the Colombard, much favored in Cognac in the 18th century, is a little too fragrant to be an ideal base ,vine.
Any method of distilling or cooking the 'wine must be both gentle and controllable. These requirements conflict with economic reality since the ideal involves the slow, gentle distillation of small batches of wine. The wine used to make cognac is heated twice in pot-stills holding not more than 30 hectolitres of wine; once to turn the wine (which has an alcoholic strength of 8 to 9%) into a brouillis of about 30%, and then into brandy up to 72%.
Newly distilled Eau de Vie tastes raw, oily and unappetizing. The key to its fine quality is a more or less lengthy sojourn in oak casks. The choice of wood was originally accidental: oak happened to be the most easily available for making the casks required by the pioneering distillers, They were, of course, accustomed to using wood to mature and market their wines. Because Cognac, like wine, is a product of the grape, oak has proved suitable for maturing it. But there are many varieties of oak, and as "with so many aspects of cognac making. Local practices differ so widely that only a few generalizations can be offered as applying to the whole range of cognac.
Most of the qualities which make oak so suitable are physical. For whatever the chemical qualities of the wood and the reactions they induce when in prolonged contact with the spirit, it is the porosity of the cask which allows the brandy to have a steady, limited access to the air, The brandy gradually absorbs the oxygen required to oxidize and thus soften the raw spirit.
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