Cognac Wine Notes — 25/06/2008
Cognac has long been regarded as the most important spirit of France. It is produced in the Charentes district, north of Bordeaux. The soils are mostly chalk and chalky clay, which receive regular watering from the maritime climate.
The vines are generally regarded as poor quality, which when used to produce table wines, are generally light, easy going quaffers. Crucially though, these are wines of high acidity, which is a must when making fine, grape based spirits.
The grapes are pressed and the juice fermented to create a light, neutral, high acid, off-dry wine. These are distilled in a ‘pot still’ twice. The heat and the subsequent length of time over which distillation occurs is crucial. The slower and more gentle the heating, the finer and more flavourful the eventual Cognac will be.
Once they are at the correct alcohol levels, the spirit is transferred into casks for ageing. The length of time that the Cognac stays in cask will dictate the quality level at which they can be sold. Once the spirit is bottled, all ageing ceases.
The minimum ageing periods of the quality levels are pathetically low, however the good producers exceed these by as much as 2 or 3 fold. The main levels are:
VS (Very Special): 30 months & not very special VSOP (Very Special Old Pale): 54 months.
XO (Extra Old): 72 months.
‘Napoleon’ has no fixed age. It normally refers to a good old VSOP.
The levels are different for Armagnac, and these terms are completely meaningless when applied to other French brandies.
The region is classified into sub zones, which give their names to the ACs. From the finest down:
Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies Fin Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires. (Grande and Petite Champagne are often blended together to give Fine Champagne).
If one looks at a map, these regions form concentric rings in the Charente-Maritime.
It was the Dutch who played the most important role is the early development of Cognac. It became important in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, but not in a positive way. Being subject to high customs duties and being easy to transport (since it was concentrated) it was ideal for smuggling. This was organised on a huge scale and played no small part in the near breakdown in law and order in the south at that time.
The post war period up until the 1980s were certainly very good for Cognac. However since then the traditional European markets have declined with the greater consumption of wine, worries about drink-driving and health. This did not matter at the time because the Far East market had become colossal and was booming for ‘ultra premium’ (and ultra profitable) Cognac. However since the Asian crash, conspicuous consumption there has waned, and the Far East has become much more interested in wine.
The last few years have been a difficult period for the large-scale producers of Cognac. However several smaller firms offering ‘château’ Cognacs, (such as the sublime Cognac Frapin), have come to the fore. These were previously the preserve of French Sommeliers and offered small quantities of very fine quality. This has enabled them to do well as the demand switched from mass, to connoisseur markets.
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