How Cognac becomes Cognac
Cognac is distilled from fresh wine of the year, and after the process of double distillation it is almost perfectly clear –only sometimes the distillate, or eau de vie, may have a tenuous shade of golden. The color and much of the taste, and even the flavor, will come from the oak barrels in which it ages for anywhere from three years to a century or more.
All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac, mind you. Armagnac is also a wine distillate but the process is slightly different. In fact, "brandy," comes from the Dutch for "burnt wine," and these days can be applied to all kinds of spirits, even with no relation with wine, distillates extracted from fermented concoctions of nearly anything, from potatoes and wheat to peaches and apples.
Now, for starters, when you distill from a fruit the taste will be much more complex whatever you may get from something distilled from grain. But then the most important part of the process, prior to the blending or “coupage”, is the aging in oak wood.
The young distillates make a few notes of vanilla and citrus flavors and then, with time, deeper and earthier perfumes will develop: mushroom, chocolate, leather and dried fruits; this principle is valid for all aged distillates, even those like vodka, whiskey, bourbon based on grain. In fact, to strengthen the aromas of grain-based distillates several procedures had been introduced: charring the inside of the barrels to produce smoky scents in whiskey, bourbon and some Italian grappas. In Northern and Eastern Europe, the realm of vodkas, grasses and fruits are used to enhance the dull almost medical smell and taste of plain book; the Polish are the masters of this trade.
To go back to wine based brandies, Cognac stands out because of the stringent regulations that govern every single detail of the production, starting with the varieties of grapes which may be used to produce the wine to be distill. White grapes always, typically Ugni blanc, producing a week, characterless white wine which can only be used to produce eaux-de-vie through the installation, nearly impossible to be sold by itself. Producers of brandies, particularly in warm sunny climates, like Spain, Greece, Armenia or Georgia use other varieties of grapes, which can be harvested later than in Cognac, when they are completely mature, with a more elevated sugar content which will yield higher alcohol by volume in the wine, and thus require less time-consuming installation, BUT we will also lack the complexity of floral scents of the humble, thin and weak Cognac wine.
The refined and savvy French vintners almost never use red and black grapes to produce brandy, any brandy, let alone Cognac. The tannins present in red grapes are quite good bitter-sour and forbid a long drawn aging that would accentuate the problem.
The new barrels give vanilla tones and tannins to the eaux-de-vie, and, very important, starts to color it. After a year or two in new caskets a school of Cognac makers transfer the brandy to more seasoned old barrels, to continue to maturing but avoid tannins.
The final and most crucial stage of Cognac making is blending. The blender is the artist, the Chef. He (these days sometimes she) usually assembles tens and at times hundreds of eaux-de-vies, occasionally very divers, to conform the final product that will be offered to the consumer. From the Four Big — Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin, and Courvoisier– to the smallest maker of exclusive boutique Cognac, say André Petit, Ragnaud, Voyer or Fillioux, all pride themselves in the sophistication of their blends, of their including in them Cognac that is 60 or a hundred years old. Sometimes even older.
After fifty to sixty-five years in oak Cognacs are taken out of wood and poured into glass demijohns. The aging process is thus over. Once in the demijohns, and this is the great difference with wine, Cognac doesn't change neither in taste or alcohol content. So, as a matter fact, if a Cognac is 100 year old of which the last 35 it's been in glass, taste wise it carries no difference with some older eaux-de-vie just taken out from the barrel after the 65 years of aging. When a Cognac maker, say Remy Martin with its Louis XIII, boasts that this of that component of the blend is over 100 year of age, one has to admire the acumen that takes keeping such a wonderful, almost magic, product into their operation. That's the true miracle of Cognac.
However, it is when one gets at the XO category that Cognac reaches another level, when Le Cognac’s splendid motto attains all its meaning: “Challenge of the Senses, a Journey for the Mind. Cognac.” The sheer experience of the senses of a good XO can bring the Cognac lover to another plane of feeling his or her being there. Then may start the wandering of the mind, thinking, meditating or just getting away from the swamp of the dull and drab day after day. The experience of the senses allows for the reclaiming of those precious moments of one-selfness. That is why an XO Cognac’s personality is so important.
Take Martell’s Cordon Bleu. It is a great, very idiosyncratic blend, dating back to the beginning of the 20th Century which I love to enjoy by myself. Martell has always called it its most characteristic Cognac, partially because of the high, out of the ordinary, proportion of grapes from Borderies, the smallest of Cognac's four main growing areas, which confer to the eau-de-vie an aroma of violets. There is however more, much more, to Cordon Bleu than the particular floral scent; I think it is –do not laugh- its uniqueness. Not only is it distinctive to nose and mouth. It is inimitably one of a kind, at least for me, because it triggers in me a strange state of the mind, of peace and alertness simultaneously. As soon as the familiar aromas develop in the back of the mouth, even before I swallow the first few drops, attention evolves into concentration, thoughts into awareness… There is a shift of paradigm, as Thomas Kuhn would have put it. And the Cognac experience, my Cordon Bleu experience, is the catalyst of that stupendous change.
Before we go further into the question of personality, allow me to point at a crucial aspect of Cognac’s journey of the mind experience. It is the exact opposite, the antithesis of the familiar image of alcohol induced stupor. Hegel would have written about it. Brillat-Savarin did.