All About Cognac
A spirit distilled from wine in the Charente region in the west of France, acknowledged to be the world’s supreme brandy. Brandywine or ‘brantwijn’ – literally ‘burnt wine’ – is supposed to have been first made around Cognac and Jarnac in the 17th century, when there was a glut of wine and the current wars made trade with the Low Countries difficult. The distillate, disposed of the excess wine, was easier to transport (in smaller quantities than wine), and proved very popular.
The Cognac region today is divided into areas, strictly controlled by law. They are, in ascending order of quality: Bois Communs, Bois Ordinaires, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, Borderies, Petite Champagne, Grande Champagne. The names refer to the type of countryside from which the brandies come. The word ‘Champagne’ is nothing to do with the sparkling wine, although the soil of these regions is actually similar to that of Champagne, meaning ‘level open countryside’.
Cognac is made by a double distillation and then matured in wood – ideally, casks of oak. It only matures in wood – and not indefinitely. After a certain point, depending on the Cognac, it will begin to decline; from the moment it is bottled, its age is arrested. The skills of the blender in each Cognac establishment enables different brandies to marry so as to preserve the quality of the different styles of Cognac particular to each house: from the everyday type to the fine liqueur Cognacs. Cognac may be sold under the name of the region from which the components of the blend come, but any labelled ‘Fine Champagne’ must contain not less than 50% of Grande Champagne. In the finer Cognacs there will be a high proportion of old brandies, but French law does not now permit any Cognac to bear a vintage label, even if it is made only from the brandies of a single year. This means that there is no such thing as ‘vintage Cognac’ in France, unless in the personal reserves of a member of a Cognac establishment.
Before the U.K. joined the EEC, British merchants could ship a vintage Cognac and mature it in the U.K. The important thing about this was that Cognac matured in the wet bonds of Britain was quite different from an identical Cognac kept and matured in France because of the difference in the atmosphere. The French Cognac tended to be more advanced, a little sharper and more assertive; the British version, slower to mature, was very delicate and possibly more subtle. This kind of Cognac, often referred to as ‘old London landed’ or ‘old landed’, is a great rarity and a precious – and expensive – commodity. Nowadays anyone who does ship a spirit of this kind cannot put a specific vintage date on it, even if he does know its age. But the essential thing to remember is that the spirit will not mature any more when it is bottled, so that, if it is only a young brandy then, it will not get any better or smoother. The kind of specialist wine merchant in whose cellars old landed Cognac with a vintage date may still be found, will usually label it with the date of bottling, so that the buyer can see its true age. Any picturesque dressing-up of a bottle to imply age is pointless chi-chi.
Each of the Cognac houses has its own system of grading its brandies and there is no legislation establishing or controlling the use of descriptions such as V.S.O.P. (supposed to stand for ‘very special old pale1), or the number of stars on the label. The ‘everyday’ brandies are intended for drinking with water or soda or as ingredients in mixed drinks. The luxury Cognacs are for drinking alone, usually at the end of a good meal. But the use of huge glasses, warmed over a flame, is incorrect for any brandy, whether Cognac or otherwise. Similarly, the popular belief that a Cognac is ‘better’ if it is either dark or pale – according to the fashion of the moment – is erroneous. It is true that brandy can lighten in colour as it ages, but it takes colour from its cask and may also be coloured by the addition of caramel to satisfy the customers who prefer a particular tone of Cognac. The only thing that should guide someone choosing Cognac is the style preferred as the result of experience – each house has its own individuality – and the occasion when the brandy is to be drunk.