Necessity, as the mother of invention, certainly describes the development of cognac. In the seventeenth century, the town of Cognac in the French region of Charante was an exporter of salt and wine. The wine was particularly popular with the Dutch and English merchants who visited the region. They would often distill the wine so that the ship voyage home would not affect the quality of the spirit.
A vintner named Chevalier de la Croix-Marrons is the first person known to heat wine and then send it back through the still again, thus creating “burnt wine.” The wine was then stored in oak barrels. It would be diluted upon arrival. However, the merchants found that the distilled wine had improved with age and by its contact with the wood.
In the eighteenth century, two men whose names would become synonymous with cognac, each separately built successful distilleries that manufactured cognac. Jean Martell, a French former smuggler, arrived in Cognac and built a distillery on the Charent River. In 1765, James Hennessy, an Irishman who served in the French navy, also set up shop on the river as Hennessy Connelly and Company. The following year, Hennessy’s company received its first order from the American colonies. Soon after, cognac was also exported to the Far East.
The name “cognac” was not affixed to the distilled wine until about 1783. At about that time, the French government developed rules for labeling, classifying the cognac by it smoothness. V.S. (Very Superior) is aged at least two and one-half years. V.S.O.P.(Very Superior Old Pale), or Reserve, is aged in wood at least four years. X.O. (Extra Old, Napoleon, or Extra) is that which has been aged at least five years. These are bare minimums. Most houses age their cognacs for twice the minimum required.
At first, warehouses were built on the river primarily for ease of transport. Therefore, the cellars were damp. This proved beneficial to the cognac because the dampness reduced its strength but not its volume. A dry cellar produces a harsher brandy. Even today, distillers try to build warehouses near rivers, or they keep their cellars humidified.
Since early times, the distillation has been carried out in a large copper pot still, called an alembic, topped with a long “swan’s neck”. By French law, the stills are limited to small capacities in order to ensure a slow and precise distillation. French law also defines the distillation period. It begins in November and ceases by March 31.
One aspect of the distillation process that has changed is the method of heat. At first, wood was used, then coal. In the present day, natural gas provides the heat source.
The ideal grapes for distilling cognac are Colombard and Saint-Emilion. Blanche, Folle Juirancon, Monfis, and Sauvignon are also used. They are grown in six specific subdivisions, or crus, in the delimited region of Charante established by the French government in 1909. Each cru produces a distinctive flavor. Grande Champagne, the area around the towns of Cognac and Seconzac, yields the most delicate and fragrant brandy. Grapes in the Petite Champagne, which surrounds Grande Champagne on the southwest and east, are faster to mature and less subtle in taste. In the hills north of Grande Champagne is the Borderies. Grapes grown here produce a rounder and softer taste. Brandy made from grapes of the remaining three areas, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires, are used primarily to flavor other brandies.