Lookin' Good at 58

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cognac And How It All Started

A couple of weeks ago we talked about eau de vie that were distilled from fruits such as Kirsch. Now this week we will talk about eau de vie distilled from wine. The Dutch term " Brandewijn " is used to describe what is know as " burnt wine" when heat is applied to wine in a still. This term became known as brandy.

Brandies are made as mentioned earlier anywhere wine is made and the most famous of all brandies comes from Cognac in France where strict rules and attention to quality have set the standards for other brandies elsewhere in the world.

Delimited in May 1909 , the Cognac area in France lies inland from the Bay of Biscay and follows along the Charente river until it flows into the Atlantic Ocean near La Rochelle. Forming rings around the town of Cognac there are 6 zones that make up the following appellations.

The two best areas known for making the best Cognac is the Grande Champagne and the Petite Champagne.

Grande Champagne is known for making the most delicate and fragrant Cognac that can take up to 15 years maturation in casks before revealing their exceptional quality. The soil is full of chalk and limestone which is the best suited for making the best Cognac.

Petite Champagne has soil that has less chalk so it's cognac tends to age more quickly and mellow sooner. It's cognac tends to be lighter bodied as well in comparison to those in Grande Champagne.

Distillation of cognac began around the 1620s when farmers began to distill wine that was not being sold. The government of the day was imposing heavy taxes on table wines causing people to stop buying wine altogether , so the farmer in order to save space and good wine from going bad, started distilling it. This crude , coarse wine became popular with the Dutch and Scandinavian salt merchants of the time.

Realizing that taxation was levied on bulk and not on the alcohol strength , people decided to boil the wine increasing the alcohol strength and at the same time making it easy to transport. Calling it brandewijn or burnt wine a following started of people who rather preferred this spirit compared to old table wine. Rich traders began distilleries in the region such as Martell who came from Jersey to start one in 1715 and Hennessey from Ireland in 1765. By 1830 cognac was being exported worldwide both in bottle and cask.

The main grape for making cognac is Ugni Blanc with some Colombard and Folle Blanche. The Ugni Blanc makes up to 90% of the cognac distilled.

When pressed these grapes make for an unpleasant , harsh , acidic wine that is barely drinkable and has only 7 to 10 per cent alcohol by volume. But this high level of acidity is great for killing any microorganisms that would spoil the wine , and the low level of alcohol guarantees a higher volume of wine is required so that flavouring compounds through distillation will make the cognac more flavourful and enriched. It takes about 10 bottles of wine to make 1 bottle of Cognac.

Some reasons Cognac is so special is due to it's geographical location.

1. The soil best suited for cognac is chalk and limestone with some pebbles , clay , and sand.

2. The climate is heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream and Atlantic producing enough rain in the Spring and Fall to kill any diseases on the vine. The annual average temperature is only 12 C or 54 F.

3. The right grapes grow in the area to produce great cognac.

4. Vinification technique used here ensure that the grapes are left in their natural state without any racking , clarification , or maturing before distillation.

5. Distilled in a pot still , the finished product is guaranteed a high standard of quality and character just because , as opposed to a patent still , the flavouring elements and aromatic compounds are pretty much left untouched adding to the spirit.

6. When ageing , local Limousin oak is used that is special to Cognac. This oak contributes to the tannin , aroma , colour , flavour and mellowness to the spirit as well as some oxidation to further develop the bouquet.

Other notable attributes include the warehouses and cellars where cognac ages do provide the consistent temperatures needed over long periods of time and of course the master blender himself that puts it all together when bottling occurs.

Next week I will continue on how Cognac is made and some other informational tidbits.


Manuel said...

where were you when i was doing my wine exams eh!!!

happy new year steve to you and yours....

Waiter Extraordinaire said...

Manuel...Thanks for reading and Happy New Year to you and yours too!

bulletholes said...

How about a post on Green Chartreuse?
Stuff is seadly!

Waiter Extraordinaire said...

Bulletholes...that's an idea but first let me finish the cognac next week. Although Chartreuse will be a short post as the recipe is secret anyway. Only a few people at a time can know it. Been around a long time. I read somewhere when I was doing some research on it for my bartending class there is this restaurant in San Francisco that sells oodles of the stuff. Can't figure out how.