WHAT IS COGNAC?
Two times distilled grapes, using a copper pot still in the Cognac region in South West of France. It is in the Charentes that the noble life of a brandy is raised from vineyard to paradise.
Some purists may contest the origin of distillation in Europe as they are many distillation methods and this can get a little complicated. In most cases, people accept that the origin of the cognac distillation method originated from Dutch (i.e., Holland). The invention of distillation came much earlier and can be traced back centuries ago to the Arabs, hence the origin of words such as “alcohol” or “alembic” to Arabic language.
A cognac belongs to a broader family of distilled spirits known as brandy. So, what is a brandy?
The term brandy comes from the Dutch “brandewijn” meaning “burnt wine”.
Cognac is a type of brandy. People often believe that a cognac is designating a better quality brandy, and that the term just specify the grading of a brandy. In reality, the term “cognac” is highly regulated and is exclusively representing a production method and a geographic origin.
The next confusion is that a cognac is designating a brandy made in France. This is incorrect. It is a necessary condition, but not sufficient condition, for a cognac to be made in France. Only brandies made in the Cognac Appelation d'Origine Controlee are called cognacs. Again, this is necessary but not sufficient, as these brandies will need to be produced using the ultra regulated methods controlled by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du congac (BNIC). The BNIC (http://www.cognac.fr) is the French official government body which administers all things to do with the production and sells of cognac.
Officially, the French government recognized and legalized the geographic delimitation of the cognac production zone for the first time in 1909 with the formation of cognac as an Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC). A dozen of amendments have followed since, even recently, but the deepest changed occured in 1939.
The Cognac Appellation of Origin Controlled (A.O.C.) is a geographical indication recognized both under the French law and the European Union Council Regulation (EC) 1576/89. Furthermore, Cognac A.O.C. fulfills the requirements under Article 23 of the Agreement of Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Article 23 of TRIPS states that members of the WTO have the obligation to ban products that would use a protected "geographical indication" on their products when these products did not originate from the location indicated in the geographical indication. This article 23 states that a geographic indication cannot be used even in translation or if it is accompanied by “expressions such as ‘kind,’ ‘type,’ ‘style,’ and ‘imitation.” Hence, this agreement protects cognac from imitations and even homonyms.
The trademark of "cognac" to protect production from brandy originating from a specific region was a first in the effort to create a trademark for "geographical indication" which has since been followed by many other regions in the world that have a typicity for certain geographically distinct products.
Even though Champagne for instance, would seem to be a good candidate to receive trademark protection for a "geographical indication" it was rejected by the WTO, and much damaged has been following this lack of protection. In this case, the Champagne Trade Association has had to come up with resources to self-promote their geographical indication and educate the consumers and the trade that only champagnes originating from the region of Champagne in France are true representatives of the products. In their argument, sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region are deceptively trying to pretend something that they are not and consequently should not be trustworthy, as they maybe hidding other things. In addition, the use of the term "champagne" on products made outside of Champagne perhaps is a visible evidence of the lack of confidence a producer may have for his/her products, hence, one may wonder about the quality of these products.
It is an alcohol thus distilled, with most of the cognacs being 80 proof or 40% alcohol by volume. I say most because one cognac brand has an authorization for 38%, and a small number have been authorized to produce cognacs with % up to 45%.
THE CONCEPT OF TERROIR
Terroir is defined as the unique natural characteristics of a land that influences and shapes the production made from it. These natural characteristics are generally considered beyond the control of humans and often include 3 elements: the climate, the soil and the topography.
The concept of terroirs is typically French and wine related . It started from France but it is now well accepted and used by many other countries and product categorires apart from wines such as for coffee and tea. At first sight, it may be perceived as a trick for trade protection, or as a marketing gimmick but in reality it has serious compelling arguments one of them beings that the world is made of different places and that nature has its secrets that cannot be replicated.
In essence, the French through observations and experiential learning have discovered that intricate differences between 2 contiguous lands may be significant enough to warrant differences in the quality/ production of wines. Consequently, the characterisctics of a wine maybe more the expression of its terroir rather than the expression of its winemaker. Hence, a Bordeaux is different than a Burgundy etc... and a Bordeaux harvested on a single parcel of land but with a river crossing it may have a different terroir on each side of the river. I recognize that this concept perhaps is making things a little too complicated for people who want control over nature, and a Merlot or Cabernet is a wine varietal and not a generique term for a wine.
So what the difference between “terroir” and “cru”? A cru is not a specific vineyard but it defines the specific zoning area of a growth place. Cru has a sligh variation of meanings in different places but it is typically used for wine and is also a French term. It is most commonly used under the terms of “grand cru” or “premier cru” which indicates different levels of classification of wines based on an old definition from 1855 in most cases.
Hence, within a terroir you have different boundaries and these different boundaries make up crus. A terroir is the overall concept and a cru is the specific zone of growth which also is subject to its unique terroir.
Exhibit 1 is the traditional map of Cognac producing subregions (i.e., crus).
Exhibit1: Map of Official Cognac Producing Region in France (established in 1938)
TO ENTER THE
1.2. THE COGNAC TERROIRS
The Cognac AOC – “appellation d'origine contrôlée” or “controlled appellation of origin” or “Controlled Appellation” can only be from the region of Cognac which is located in the mid-West of France over the Atlantic ocean, north of Bordeaux. This limited and highly regulated production of cognac is divided into 6 distinct areas of production called crus.
Through time, history, experience and more regulations, the region of Cognac has been parceled to reflect more inner qualities of the distinctiveness of each producing areas and this explains why the different areas may not be delimited with a ruler as well as contiguous. It was the geologist Henri Coquand who in 1860 started designing this map until it was officially ratified in 1938. It has not changed since.
We will summarize here the characteristics of each subregion. For more information related to each Appelation we invite you to visite the individual sites.
This subregion is covering 18% of the cognac total AOC (approx. 13200 hectares total), and represent XX% of the total production of cognac.
This is the most prestigious subregion for 2 reasons:
(1) it produces delicate cognacs long in the mouth and powerful, dominated by floral notes.
(2) and it requires long ageing in casks to achieve full maturity which is good for creating premium and vintage cognacs.
Thin chalky soils with limestone contents in excess of 60% in some instances which helps keep water in dry summers.
This subregion is covering 21% of the cognac total AOC (approx. 15250 hectares total) , and represent XX% of the total production of cognac.
Similar characteristics to Cognacs from Grande Champagne, but shorter on the palate with less delicacy.
This subregion is covering 5% of the cognac total AOC (approx. 4000 hectares total) , and represent XX% of the total production of cognac.
Smallest AOC not in production but in overall size, with the most distinctive, characterized with nutty aromas and flavor, as well as a distinct hints of violet or iris. Requires less aging than Grande and Petite Champagne crus to reach maturity.
Its soil includes clay and flint stones as a result of the decomposition of limestone.
This subregion is covering 42% of the cognac total AOC (approx. 31000 hectares total), and represent XX% of the total production of cognac.
It produces round and fruity cognacs that age fairly quickly, with an agreeable oiliness. Heavier and faster ageing AOC suitable for establishing the base of some cognacs.
Chalky soils similar to those of the Champagne crus but red and with hard stones.
This subregion is covering 12% of the cognac total AOC (approx. 9300 hectares total), and represent XX% of the total production of cognac.
Sandy soils mostly.
This subregion is covering 2% of the cognac total AOC (approx. 1100 hectares total), and represent XX% of the total production of cognac.
This cognac is characterized by fast-ageing cognacs with maritime influences with hints of salt and algae. Mostly produced in sandy soils over coastal areas including the Island of Ré and Oléron.
The two champagne appelations/subregions have nothing in common with the famous sparkling wine which bears the same name. Champagne as of sparkling champagne is also from France (North East). Unlike cognac champagne does not have to be from France but it is common practice to associate this term with sparkling wines only made in the AOC of champagne. In general, only cheap sparkling wines from non-AOC region use the term champagne to gain direct positive associate with the French champagne AOC. Other brands, who do not need to pretend something are rather using the term "methode champenoise".
* Three cities have been and are still critical in the development of the cognac:
Jarnac ---> the embryon
Cognac ---> the growth
Segonzac ---> the excellence for natural products
In addition, the people should be added to this concept of terroir as the people of cognac are very unique in many ways and their uniqueness explains most of the cognac idiosincracies that cannot be separated from the products idiosincracies.