A History of Cognac

Although brandy is made throughout the world, Cognac is made only in a limited area of Western France. The same area used to produce Cognac was used to produce wine grapes as far back as Roman times but the actual beginnings of Cognac production have a much younger lineage.

A product of France, the true history of Cognac starts during the 1600s but by Dutch settlers, not French. In order to save room on ships, Dutch sailors began transporting distilled wine from France, which was in the form of brandy. The name brandy itself stems from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning burnt wine. This is in reference to the double distillation process used to turn wine into brandy. Water was later added to this to create brandywine. They soon discovered that by leaving brandy stored in casks it aged and became drinkable without having first to be watered down. This brandy became known as Cognac.

There are 6 areas designated for the production of Cognac. These areas are all within Charente-Maritime and Charente which stretch from France’s western coast inland down to the south-western portion of France. These 6 designated areas are Bois Ordinaires, Bons Bois, Borderies, Fins Bois, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. Each of these areas produces Cognac of varying characteristics and quality. All Cognac is produce by blending a variety of wines containing grapes from different locations and vintages but the best quality Cognacs are those made using Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne grapes.

For the production of Cognac, wine is put through a double distillation process. During the first distillation the wine is boiled to release alcoholic vapors which condense into a draft. This first draft is then distilled a second time. The initial vapors released during this second distillation are called the heads. The heads are followed by the heart which is a clear brandy. The combination of the heads and heart are then reintroduced to wine for another distillation. This final level of distillation produces a product that must be stored for aging that will become the finished Cognac.

There are strict regulations on the production of Cognac. These regulations are set by the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac. Only brandy that meets these regulations may be called Cognac.

Regardless of the area of production, Cognac gains in quality by the aging process. The longer the Cognac is allowed to age the smoother it becomes. Cognac is labeled based on its age as such: V.S. (Very Special) is aged 2 years, V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) is aged at least 5 years, Napoleon and X.O. (Extra Old) is aged at least 4 years. However it is normal for Napoleon and X.O. to be aged much longer.