Living in a region famous for a very specific and distinct product, namely Cognac, demands of the newbie resident to learn all he or she or both together in our case, can unearth about it. In order to become more familiar with this mysterious eau-de-vie, this water-of-life, one should taste it, n’est-ce pas, which in turn necessitates one or more visits to a distillery. There are more than 140 cognac producers listed in the encyclopedia of cognac, including the Great Cognac Houses, whose names are globally recognized – Otard, Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Martell, Meukow and so forth. Collectively these businesses farm the almost 200 000 acres or 80 000 Ha of the official AOC Cognac wine region. Additionally, there are any number of small family distilleries, called Brouilleurs de Cru after the ‘Brouillis’ the brandevin (Brandy) collected from the first distillation pass. Most of the big guys sell tickets for guided tours, similar to tours we’ve taken in the past when visiting Bourbon whiskey producers like Maker’s Mark & Wild Turkey in Kentucky. Lately, however, we’ve enjoyed more to visit owner operated individual wine domaines in the Languedoc and Bordeaux regions, so we thought, we’ll try the same for cognac and pineau, cognac’s little sister.
Last week we attempted to do just that and visit a cognac domaine, but, alas, we were informed that tours were presently not available, so sorry. A couple of days later, on the spur of the moment, I called another cognac and pineau producer, the Domaine de Chadeville in Segonzac, the heart of hearts of cognac country. Low and behold, Monsieur was amenable to a visit that very afternoon. The Gourry de Chadeville family has cultivated Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche & Colombard grapes and distilled them into Eaux-de-vie through fifteen (15!) generations. Their name was first recorded as brandy distillers in 1619, which makes the Gourry family the oldest known continuous viticulturist and distiller. Several (copies of) documents from the 17th century are on display in their distillery and attest to the family’s tax-paying diligence. There’s also a bill of lading for an eau-de-vie shipment from La Rochelle to Rotterdam in 1735.
Since the character of the grapes used for the distillation of cognac largely depends on the soil in which the vines grow, geology is the deciding factor for a specific location of the Cognac Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée [controlled designation of origin] the Cognac AOC. If you have never been to France, you can scarcely imagine, how important an AOC label is for any given agricultural product. The designation is granted only to products cultivated in a clearly defined area, the terroir [land, territory], and must possess certain specific characteristics, which are determined by factors typical for that location and nowhere else. The AOC certificates are awarded by the National Institute of Origin & Quality (INAO). The first such recognition was granted to Roquefort cheese in the year 1411 and it has remained an AOC product ever since. To this day, only blue cheeses aged in the Cambalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon may be called Roquefort. Terroir is the significant term here. Terroir means land, certainly, but in a sense of our neighborhood, our home, our past and our future. It implies regional importance but is nevertheless more a cultural concept than a locality.
Since 1936, the vineyard acreage encompassing the Cognac AOC has been geographically subdivided into six Crus, based on soil composition:
In the very heart of the AOC, between the rivers Charente and Né, we find the Premier Cru called Grande Champagne [not to be confused with the bubbly stuff called “Champagne”. The word simply derives from the Latin ‘Campania’ open field]. A prehistoric sea left a rich sediment of calcified ocean critters from Mesozoic times in this area, and the Ugni Blanc vines agree especially well with this chalky limestone ground and ripen with the extra acidity required for distillation. As we learned during our visit to the Domaine de Chadeville, grapes intended to become cognac are not fit for traditional winemaking. The distillation process only works with grapes of high acidity and their natural fermentation must result in a relatively low alcohol content. More about the distillation process later. The Grande Champagne eaux-de-vie need the longest time of all the crus to mature. The Petite Champagne cru has more clay mixed in with its chalky soil and the distillation can develop stronger floral bouquets than the Grande Champagne grapes. The smallest cru is the Borderies, which is said to carry the aroma of violets. It matures faster than the Petite & Grande Champagne eaux-de-vie. And so it continues in concentric circles around the Grand Champagne cru with the respective eaux-de-vie based on vines within their area requiring less time to mature and show somewhat less expressive and refined bouquets, nose and aroma.
But how are these precious fluids created? What about the distillation? How do the beautiful copper stills called alambics or alembics in English, do their job? If you happen to be a biologist like myself, you surely remember your biochemistry labs, when you distilled this or that dangerous substance in a retort, right? For lay people, please remember the three states of any given substance, gaseous, fluid and solid. To purify a substance and reveal its essence, you carefully heat it until the gaseous vapors of the desired extraction arise, which are then cooled into their liquid state. It is the responsibility of the Maître de Chai, the cellar master, with his or possibly her expertise to set up and supervise the entire distillation process. I don’t know if there are any Maitresse de Chai* in the cognac realm, as there are in winemaking.
Moving onward from this basic alchemist premise, an eau-de-vie is distilled from the fermented grape juice. To capture the essence of the naturally fermented Must of Ugni grapes, the grape soup has to be heated in the still’s boiling chamber to release its fragrant vapors at the alcoholic boiling point of around 70ºC. These precious alcoholic vapors will rise from the Chaudière through the Chapiteau & Col de Cygne, the swan’s neck of the alambic apparatus, then pass through the warming spaces of the Réchaufffé onion dome, to be cooled back into liquid form along the length of the copper coils of the Serpentin, where the dripping liquids of this first distillation pass, the Brouillis, are collected to be vaporized once more in the second pass, la Bonne Chauffe. That’s the short version. [see diagram below]
In a double distillation to produce cognac, the original alcohol content of the grape must of around 8% is concentrated to about 30% in the brouillis, which is then further purified to 70% alcohol by volume in the bonne chauffe. The maximum alcohol level allowed by law is 72.4% abv. at 20ºC. Naturally, the maître de chai supervises both distillations very carefully. The first pass takes about eight hours to complete, the bonne chauffe usually requires twelve hours. One of the most critical responsibilities for the cellar master to perform is the separation and preservation of only the desired portion of the bonne chauffe. During this second pass, the early fluid released from the cooling coil of the serpentin is almost pure ethanol. This Tête or head, as it is called, has no character and must be discarded. Equally the last fluids emerging from the serpentin, the Secondes, seconds and the tails, the Queues containing many impurities must not contaminate the precious heart of the distillation. The Cœur alone, representing only about 40% of each second distillation shall become cognac. It is the responsibility of the maître de chai to perform this all-important Coupe, the cutting of the bonne chauffe. The reputation of a House of Cognac rests with his talent and expertise to collect the proper cœur for the current year’s eau-de-vie.
So far, we only have the potential for a great tipple. The cœur consists of crystal clear 140 proof eau-de-vie, as yet undrinkable. The next step in the process of cognac making is the aging of the eaux-de-vie in oak casks. The aging lowers the alcohol concentration through evaporation, and it adds flavor and color to the future cognac by leaching tannins and aromatics from the oak into the eau-de-vie. Only oak trees from either the Limousin or the Trançais forests may be used for cognac barrels. Since evaporation is limited to an alcohol loss of around 3% per year, most younger cognacs are ‘reduced’ by adding distilled water. But one can find very old cognacs, which have matured solely through evaporation. Again, it’s the responsibility of the cellar master to decide all the components related to the aging of his cognacs, from oak selection to reduction, as well as the length of aging in the oak casks. Another step in the eau-de-vie maturation into cognac is the blending. Each cellar master has his own ‘nose’ of blending different crus and different ages of maturation into an exciting and balanced finished product to be bottled with pride. In this respect, cognac making is similar to creating perfume. For both, you need a human with a special talent to capture all subtle nuances of bouquets and aromas.
In addition to the human nose in the shape of talented cellar masters, many laws regulate the cognac production. In France everything and his uncle is regulated to within an inch of life itself, thus the process of distilling cognac has more rules than Genghis Khan’s army had horses. Including but not limited to the precise dimensions and product output of a Charentaise Alambic still. The entire still has to be made of copper with brass clamps and joints. The copper cucurbit (bulbous heating chamber or chaudière) and all other parts of the still which are being heated have to be enclosed in brick. Maximum and minimum capacities for distillation batches are just as minutely predetermined as are alcohol content, purity, allowed and disallowed additives, grape varieties, length of maturation/aging of eaux-de-vie, type of wood for aging barrels, and so forth ad Infinitum. Even the spacing of the vines to each other in the vineyards is regulated. It’s a good thing the Gourry family has been doing this for almost 400 years. It must be utterly daunting for a newcomer!
Equally, though, there is great romance associated with a beloved traditional process or custom. Among the legends surrounding the making of cognac, there’s one which really stands out. It’s the story of the origin of double distillation. Once upon a time, there was a knight by the name of Chevalier Jacques de la Croix-Maron de Segonzac. He was as pious as he was chivalrous, writing poetry and praying through the night in his candle-lit chamber.
One night, so the legend goes, our deeply religious knight dreamed that the devil himself put him in a cauldron and boiled the bejeebers out of him in order to force him to renounce his beloved Jesus Christ. To no avail! The knight’s belief was too strong and he hung on to his soul. But the devious Lord of the Underworld didn’t give up so easily. He captured the knight again and boiled him a second time to finally rip out his immortal soul. Thus, when the knight awoke from his nightmare, he experienced a eureka moment and, voilá, double distillation was born.
Several years ago, we were traveling through the Gers department, the traditional Armagnac country. Armagnac is also an eau-de-vie, a fruit schnapps or brandevin based on grape juice. It’s a spirit, just like cognac, but it’s not double distilled like its brother next door in the Charente. I remember people saying to us with a wink: “Well, we don’t have to double distill Armagnac. It’s perfect after the first pass!” That, my friends, is terroir! Hometown pride!!
One last tidbit for your entertainment. Indubitably you have noticed a film of black soot over walls and objects in my pictures of the Domaine de Chadeville distillery.
That is not actually soot, but a fungus called Baudoinia compniacensis. This small, harmless organism feeds on the “Angels’ Share”, the alcohol that evaporates from the cognac in their oaken casks during the aging process. Little is wasted in nature, so this ethanol becomes fungus food. The taxman has been known to cruise the villages hunting for moonshine operations – identifying them by their blackened walls.
We had the most amazing time at the Domaine de Chadeville, where M. Gourry, the maître de chai himself spent over two hours explaining this mystery called Cognac to us. During our visit, he even offered us a taste of their private family ambrosia, a sip of 100-year-old cognac. That’s the golden fluid in the top picture.
* Addendum: Three years later, in June of 2018, we learned of a highly respected female Maître de Chai, Madam Anne Sarteaux, who creates the cognacs of the Maison Meukow, a globally known cognac house.