The flavors of Cognac are as complex, as exquisite, and as methodically refined as the history of this drink. This is a drink that was born in the heart of one of France’s best wine-producing regions, and one that perfectly symbolizes all that is good and pure about French wine and brandy.
Cognac is a French brandy that takes its name from the Cognac region where it is produced. For brandy to earn the Cognac name it must be produced from specific grapes, it must be distilled in a specific way, and it must be aged for at least 2 years in oak barrels.
All of these standards ensure that each sip of Cognac delivers a taste of its history. And what a history it is.
A Marriage of Dutch Necessity and French Style
The Dutch were the ones to coin the word “Brandy,” and the ones to create the first brandy drink. In the 16th century, Dutch travelers would purchase essential supplies in France, including wine and wood. However, they found that the wine would spoil by the time they returned home. To reduce spoilage they distilled the wine, increasing the alcohol content, before adding a second distillation years later that created a purer and smoother taste.
Cognac is a brandy that is produced within the Cognac area, which covers two large regions in the west of France. There are six separate growth areas in this vast region, and the different Cognacs produced in each of these areas all have their own unique characteristics. Furthermore, they have different specifications dictating what is allowed to be classified as Cognac.
The Great French Wine Blight
In the 1850s the Cognac region, like all wine-producing regions in France, was hit by a blight that would later become known as the Great French Wine Blight. Caused by an aphid commonly known as Grape Phylloxera, this blight originated in North America and was probably transferred to France via the use of vine grafting.
This blight decimated vines across France, but growers failed to notice the cause. They watched as their vines grew, wilted, and died, but they struggled to see the aphid for many years. In that time, close to half of all vines in France were destroyed, devastating wine-producing regions such as Cognac and bringing this fine, aged spirit to its knees.
Far from producing high-quality brandy and Cognac, this era is best known for the near destruction of France’s vineyards. Businesses went bust, vineyards were wiped out, and many of the greatest producers of wine and brandy just gave up. In 15 years, the blight all but destroyed an industry that had taken hundreds of years to flourish.
All was not lost, however. The cause of the blight was discovered in the late 1860s and growers set about finding a solution to bring this plague to an end. Before the end of the century they discovered that by grafting aphid resistant vines, they could end the disease and allow the industry to flourish once more.
What Makes a Good Cognac?
Cognac is produced in limited quantities. This popular drink has gained a large following in Asia, and most of the bottles produced are sold when ready. Because of this, many of the Cognac regions are forced to allocate their supply, ensuring that everyone can enjoy this great spirit. These limitations mean that Cognac is often sought-after by collectors. Bottles that are no longer in production are even more sought-after, because not only was their supply limited following production, but many of them have been consumed over the years, leaving the rest to gain value as they gather dust in collectors’ cellars.
Aged Cognac is not just prized for its collectible value, however. It is also said to taste better with maturation, working wonders for the complexities of this golden spirit. The length of time that the Cognac spends in the barrel can greatly improve the flavor, adding extra notes, increasing the intensity, and generally improving the overall feel of this drink on your palate.
Some Cognacs are aged for decades prior to bottling. Depending on the grapes and barrels used, these flavors can range from notes of dark coffee, toffee, and spice, just like a good cigar, to tangy lemon peel, dried fruit, and honey, just like the sweet wine from which it is distilled.
How to drink Cognac:
Cognac shouldn’t be drunk, it should be experienced. It can be consumed straight, over ice, or even with a drop of something sweet. It all depends on preference and on the Cognac being consumed.
To decide just how to experience your Cognac, it’s always best to sample it straight first. To do this, follow these steps:
- Choose a spherical or tulip-shaped glass.
- Hold the glass in the palm of your hands, gently warming the liquid.
- Take a deep sniff, breathing in the aroma.
- Swirl the Cognac in the glass and take another sniff.
- Take a small sip and let the liquid evaporate on your palate.
- Savor, and then take another sip.
Cognac has survived political uprisings, war, and disease. It was born out of necessity, with its aging process coming through need and not through premeditated design, and with its unique distillation simply created as a way of avoiding spoilage. All of this has helped to make Cognac one of the most unique and most prized spirits in the world.
When you buy a bottle of aged Cognac, you’re buying a piece of French history. By purchasing a pre-1800 bottle, such as the 1795 Napoleon or the 1780 Remy Martin, you’re not only buying a spirit that was aged before blights and grafts changed the taste of this spirit forever, but you’re buying a bottle that was produced before Napoleon, Louis XVI, and millions of passionate French citizens changed the face of this country forever!