Cognac is a word that has become synonymous with sophistication, traditional high living and expense. What exactly is it and why is it named Cognac? Cognac is actually a place in the West of France. The drink that bears its name is a variety of brandy. For a brandy to be a true Cognac it must be produced from the grapes grown in the Cognac region of France. There are six areas in which the grapes are grown in the Cognac area and these are called “Crus” or “Terroir”. The Cognac region covers the part of France named “Charente-Maritime” which is a part of the Charente, as well as parts of the Dordogne. This region of France is now famously linked with Cognac and the vineyards that produce the grapes used in Cognac cover no less than 790 million square metres. What is fascinating is that the soil in each of the six areas or “Terroirs” (which means earth, or soil) are all different. This influences the quality and taste of the grapes grown in each of these regions. This is of course immensely important because it is the grapes grown in these areas that make the wine from which Cognac is produced.
What is known as Cognac is the product of distilled white wine. The grapes from those all-important six areas of the Cognac region are used to make the wine used. This wine is then distilled in copper stills to make what is called eau-de-vie (literally “water of life”). The process of distillation and production includes keeping the wine in oak barrels for at least two years. Several different types of eau-de-vie may then be combined to produce a unique flavour. Because all of the wines produced in the six Cognac areas are different we can see that what you taste will vary from maker to maker depending upon which area the distilled wines used have come from. It isn’t just any old grapes that can be used from these six regions. The grapes used must produce specific wines. Cognac can only be made from wine that is produced using at least 90% grapes called Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard . The other 10% is made up of grapes named Sémillon, Sélect, Montils, Folignan, Meslier St-Francois, Jurançon blanc or Folignan.
For the beginner the whole world of Cognac may seem a little intimidating. It has a fine reputation and what we have read already tells us that it’s not just any old brandy. So how do you go about starting? Before you invest in a bottle of Cognac you should of course try some first if you’ve never tried it before. The best way to do this is in a quality bar or restaurant. Ask about the cognac and where it is from. Then sample it. If you like the taste, then explore what is around. There are such things as “Tasting Sets” that contain small bottles from some of the six areas in the Cognac region. What is encouraging is that Cognac is available across a spectrum of prices in both 70cl and 35cl bottles. To find a favourite it may be worth you trying several smaller bottles such as Martell VS Cognac or Remy Martin VSOP Cognac.
In the not so distant past you would have been criticised heavily (if not worse!) for drinking Cognac in any way other than neat and in the appropriate glass. Tastes have moved on and now Cognac is enjoyed neat and undiluted, or with ice, or with other ingredients. One of the most famous combinations is Cognac and Champagne to make a Champagne Cocktail. This king of cocktails also needs sugar, bitters and a slice of orange. There are other cocktails that use Cognac such as a Brandy Alexander. This uses Cognac, Dark Cacao Liqueur, Cream and Nutmeg. Cognac is also drunk with soda water, lemonade or with simple plain water. The most important thing to remember when you try Cognac is that it is a versatile drink. So long as you enjoy it, go for it!