Preparation of Cognac
First, cognac is always brandy, but brandy is not necessarily cognac. The word "brandy" comes from the Dutch brandywijn, meaning, burnt wine. Dutch traders took a clue from alchemists and distilled (cooked down) wine for easier transport that could be reconstituted at its final destination. The resulting product proved good enough to drink.
While brandy may be made from any kind of fruit, Cognac must be made from certain varieties of grapes. In 1908, like French wines, it gained an AOC "appellation d'origine contrôlée," which presents the following conditions:
- Cognac grapes must be of the following varieties: Folle Blanche, Colombard and Ugni Blanc (a.k.a. St. Emilion Charente or Trebbiano) - about 98% of cognac is made from this last type.
- It must be grown in the designated cognac region, which is divided into 6 crus: La Grande Champagne, la Petite Champagne, les Borderies, les Fins Bois, les Bons Bois, les Bois Ordinaires. The resulting "eaux de vie" from these different crus have different characters.
- It must be twice distilled in a pot still called an alembic.
The grape juice is extracted, fermented, then double-distilled in the alembic over an open flame. After the second distillation, or bonne chauffe, only the "middle" is retained. The head is too strong and tail lacks balance, only the heart is used to make cognac. It is aged in oak casks (new or old) for at least two years.
During maturation of the eau-de-vie the proof drops, and somewhere between 3% - 7% of the total volume of the cognac is lost due to evaporation. (That’s roughly 20 – 27 million bottles per year.) This lost portion is called the “angel’s share”. The evaporation encourages the growth of fungus on some of the buildings in the town of Cognac, as well as on the walls of the cellars where they are aged, but the locals claim it aids health and longevity.
In the last, delicate step, a master blender combines numerous eaux-de-vie of different ages and crus (growth areas) to create a harmonious blend with great depth and complexity of flavor.
The Romans are credited with planting the first grapes in the region around the town of Cognac, in France.
The age of cognac is determined by its time in the barrel. It is not considered any more aged once it's bottled - no matter how long it stays there.
By law, distillation must take place March 31st of the year following harvest in order to capture the fresh, fruity qualities of the wine.
Legend has it that cognac's double distillation originated when an 18th century brandy producer, Chevalier de La Croix-Marone (the Knight of the Brown Cross), dreamt that the devil was trying to extract his soul by boiling him. It took the devil two times to do so, hence he realized he could find the soul of the brandy by distilling it twice.
The "paradis" is the most cherished spot in the cognac cellar, where the oldest cognacs are kept in glass vessels.
Ideally cognac should be served in a narrow tulip-shaped glass. This allows the aroma to be concentrated and slowly released without being overwhelming - as with a snifter.
Cognac bottles should be stored vertically or the spirit will attack the cork. (Down Cognac, down!)
VS = Very Superior - a blend of 40 cognacs and is aged a minimum of 2-1/2 years VSOP = Very Superior Old Pale - a blend aged a minimum of 4-1/2 XO/Napoleon/Hors d'age = Extra Old - is aged a minimum of 6 years
The difference between cognac and armagnac?
Of these two French brandies, armagnac is the elder by a few hundred years.
Cognac: Region: Charente (around the town of cognac)
Distillation: multiple distillations in pot stills
Proof: must have a minimum alcohol content of 40% vol.
Aged: in white oak
Character: smooth & polished
Armagnac: Region: Gascony
Distillation: single distillation in a continuous still, resulting in a more robust flavor that is truer to its components and which must be tempered during aging
Proof: about 110
Aged: in black oak. The age listed on the bottle must refer to the age of the youngest element of the blend.
Character: fiery, earthy, aka "the velvet flame" (not to be confused with Mel Tormé, "the velvet fog")
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