The Process Of Making Fine Cognac

best cognac brandyThe cognac is famed among brandies due to its unique character, smoothness and a sweetness that is similar to fresh grapes. However, not all French brandies can be called cognac. Real cognac comes from the French commune of Cognac which is found near the coast of the Atlantic and is around 100 miles north of the city of Bordeaux. To make cognac, whole grape skins are fermented into wine and then put into pot stills for double distillation. The resulting liquid is aged in new oak barrels for a year; they are then transferred to old casks for another aging period and to stop the newer oak casks from adding excess tannin to the cognac since tannins causes dry and puckery feelings in the mouth. Bottles of cognac have labels for the spirit’s quality: C for cognac, E for Especial, F for Fine, O for Old, P for Pale, S for Special, V for Very and X for Extra.

Here’s some paraphrased information about cognac from Gordon Mott’s cognac report for Wine Spectator.
The commune of cognac has a mysterious aroma. Locals from cognac call it the angel’s share that comes from the aging cognac in the barrels stored in underground cellars or arranged in the streets. Experts on cognac jokingly say that the sun is their biggest client, but whether the smell of cognac goes to the angels, the sun or the millions of cognac drinkers; the complexity, uniqueness and final value of cognac depends on the specifics of its maturation process.

Making great cognac has a lot of factors. Among the details needed for the final cognac product that are passed on to generations of cognac master blenders are cognac grape varieties, the vineyard’s location, climate, the distiller’s directions while the stills process another batch, the oak used for the casks, and the precise cognac blend. Each cognac companies have unique standards for each cognac brands that often exceed the French government’s minimum quality standards. The endless ways of combining these cognac factors complicate simple assessments of cognac brands.
Grape varieties used for making cognac include Blanche, Colombard and St.-Émilion.  Montils, Jurançon Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc Remé can be used for cognac production in proportions that is less than 10%. Traditionally, congac is made with one grape variety such as the St.-Émilion which is also known as the Ugni Blanc. Larger cognac makers don’t usually have vineyards and instead have contracts with grape growers that supply and sometimes even distil the grapes used for cognac.

The cognac base wine is first harvested, pressed and then fermented before being subjected to double distillation; the first cognac distillation gives a white spirit with around 28% alcohol while the second cognac distillation gives a 70% alcohol spirit. Double distillation makes a smoother and refined colorless brandy in this step of cognac production. After the distillation, growers will usually age the fresh cognac for around two years before transferring them to cognac firms.
Barrel aging starts after the cognac distillation process. Oaks from either the Tronçais or Limousin region are used to make the cognac casks. The distilled spirit is set in the casks for years to help the fresh cognac acquire its golden hue; complex flavors such as caramel, honey, nuts, vanilla and flowers; and smokiness from the wood.
The cognac blender then works on the barrel aged spirits. Master cognac blenders should know all about the aging brandies in the cellar and should have a mental catalogue of the brandies’ flavors and aromas. He should also know what specific profile of cognac to recreate. This cognac style may range from a definite quality level to a broader cognac house style. The master blending makes the final decisions on the new cognac product and may mix cognac from different regions and of different ages to make it.

As paraphrased from Bernard Hine of the renowned cognac Hine family, the art of the cognac blender starts from different cognac products and ends with a unique cognac that is coherent with the blender’s house brand. The cognac blender will then dilute the cognac to the legal strength of 40% alcohol once he knows the right proportions. Diluting cognac, a process that can take years, is done by carefully adding distilled water in multiple steps. The cognac blender should not “shock” the cognac by quick dilution; he wants the cognac to mingle with the water before adding more. The cognac is prepared for bottling after the dilution.

The final blend will determine the label designation of the cognac. V.S. labelled cognac is aged for at least a couple of years. VSOP labelled cognac is aged for at least four years. In X.O., all cognac in the blend must have aged for more than 10 years.

Fine Champagne label designation means that the cognac has more than 50% of its grapes from the region of Grande Champagne. If all the cognac grapes came from either the Grande or the Petite Champagne, the top two grape producing regions, then the label may carry that region’s designation.

The final test for the cognac starts when it’s poured into a glass. Connoisseurs enjoy the pleasure of pouring cognac into a glass after a sumptuous meal. The aroma of the cognac is released by warming its snifter with their hands. The strong cognac flavors and aroma refreshes the palates, a perfect end for a meal.

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