Vines are planted about 3 meters appart. Harvest can begin as soon as the grape has reached perfect ripeness. This is usually about the begining of October and lasts until the end of the month.
Some wine producers still harvest by hand but most have adopted machine harvesters.
The pressing of the grapes is done immediately after harvest. Nowadays, wine producers use horizontal flat presses or pneumatic presses.
The juice is left to ferment straight away.
The sugars are transformed into alcohol. The addition of sugar (chaptalisation) is not permitted. The wines are then stored with their residue
These two steps (pressing and fermentation) are closely monitored for they will have an important influence on the final quality of the spirit.
The wines that are produced after roughly 3 weeks of fermentation (from the end of October till the last days in November) have an alcohol content of around 8%vol. They are just perfect for distillation.
The Cognac region has a limestony soil and a maritime and temperate climate that is humid, hot and sunny enough to ripen the grapes. Despite all these assets, the wines that are produced would not deserve their reputation if it were not for the alchemy that takes place in the pot still and that produces the cognac.
The alcohol is produced during fermentation from the sugars that are naturally present in the fruit. It is found associated with many other components ; it has to be separated from these complex mixes, process which is achieved by distillation.
The process of separation which takes place during distillation is based on the difference in volatility between all components. The only volatile substances that make it into the spirit become the main elements of the bouquet.
The Pot still is entirely made of copper because copper has a catalysing effect and it does not affect the taste of the spirits. The bottom of the main cauldron - where the liquid to be distilled is placed - is in permanent contact with the bare flame of the furnace.
The wine is uniformily heated with its dregs over a large surface. The Alcohols and ethers evaporate. The onion shaped top canalises the vapours into the swan neck, through the "chauffe-vin" cooling them slightly before they reach the cooling tank known as "the pipe".
The vapours travel through a long coil, condense and are collected in liquid form in an oak cask.
Distillation is carried out in two steps : two heating cylcles called "chauffes". The first "chauffe" which lasts between 8 and 10 hours produces a cloudy liquide called "brouillis" with an alcohol content of 24 to 30 %vol. The "brouillis" is then redistilled. This second heating is called "la bonne chauffe" and lasts about 12 hours.
This time, only the best, that is "the heart" of the distillation, is kept. The distiller separates the "heart" from the "heads" and the "tails" through a process called "cutting". The heads and the tails are mixed with the next batch of wine or brouillis in order to be redistilled.
Thus only the heart, a clear spirit averaging between 68 and 72% vol., is kept for ageing to become Cognac.
Cognac was born of a dream...
As for every famous product, Cognac has its legend. It is said that the secret of double distillation was discovered in the 16th century by the Knight Jacques de la Croix-Maron. It is thanks to a nightmare that Cognac saw the light of day : Satan, wanting to have his soul, tried to boil it but did not succeed. It is when the devil threatened to reboil it that the knight awoke suddenly and became convinced that by distilling his wine a second time, he would allow his wine to express itself in a new brouillis.
The distilled wine must age before becoming Cognac. This ageing takes place in 270 to 450 litre oak casks.
The natural level of humidity in the cellars is one of the main influencing factors on the ageing of the spirits due to its effect on evaporation.
The charentais coopers have traditionally used wood from the Limousin and the Tronçais forests.
The Tronçais forest, in the Allier department of France, provides soft, finely grained wood which is particularly porous to alcohol. The Limousin forest produces medium grained wood, harder and even more porous.
Today, the Cooperage industries of the Cognac region, with their ancestral know-how, export all over the world
The angels’ share
In order to develop all its qualities and also to reduce its alcohol content, Cognac must mature for many years in oaks casks.
During this ageing, Cognac loses between 3 and 4 % of its volume every year. This evaporation represents 27 million bottles per year for the Cognac region ! Although it is a loss, it is a necessity for the maturing process and is poetically known as "the angels’ share".
The evolution of Cognac in casks
A Cognac’s age is determined solely by the numberof years that it has matured in wooden casks. The fundamental principle behind this fact is that in a glass bottle Cognac stops ageing.
A Cognac that has come straight from the pot still has an alcohol content of about 70%. As it ages, Cognac concentrates the aromas and the colours as it darkens to a warm shade of ambre.
During the first few years (from 0 to 5 years), the bouquet mellows and becomes less agressive. The spirit turns to a shade of yellow that darkens more and more. The odour of oakwood develops.
Next, the taste becomes more pleasant and smoother. The oakwood fragrance introduces scents of flowers and vanilla...
Beyond 10 years of age, Cognac reaches maturity and has a much darker colour. The bouquet is at its best and the famous "rancio" appears.
From beginning to end, the making of cognac (or ’elaboration’) is the subject of a complex alchemy. The quality of each and every cognac depends as much on the "assemblies"as on the care given to the vine, the grape harvest, the wine making, the distillation and the ageing in casks.
The cognac that you drink is in fact the fruit of "assemblies" of different vintages and different ages. It is these assemblies that produce the harmony in the taste.
The "assemblies" are the result of unwritten ancestral know-how. They are the secret of the "maîtres de chai" or "cellar masters", persons of exception who watch over the cognac from its exit from the still to the bottling.
It is the cellar masters who, after years of patient training by the elders, decide to decant casks or to change cellars in order to best develop the quality of the spirit. They also decide when and how to assemble the spirits. It is often said of the cellar masters that they alone represent the true value of Cognac houses.
The assembly is done in several steps that are spread throughout the entire ageing process. The cellar masters do not use any instruments of measure, they rely entirely on their judgement of taste and smell. Their senses are so accurate that they are always right.