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Home > The AOC Cognac > Elaboration of cognac

Elaboration of cognac

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The cognac goes through several stages: the harvest of grapes, vinification of white wines obtained after a few weeks, the distillation from mid-November to late March at the latest, the aging of 5-20 years or more with the quality of the production of traditional coopers, and, finally, the delight of gourmets.

The various stages of cognac elaboration : from grapes to tasting

Cognac distillation. Barrel Making. Aging. Blending. The Art of Tasting cognac - Drink - Gastronomy

 Harvest and wine making

The vineyards of the Delimited Region of Cognac include approximately 5,900 grape growers who produce white wines for cognac making. The variety most widely planted is Ugni blanc, although Folle Blanche and Colombard are also found. This late maturing variety has a good resistance to grey rot and produces a wine with two essential features : a high acidity level and, most often, a low alcohol content. Since the phylloxera plaque suffered at the end of the 19th century, all the varieties used have been grafted onto various root stocks according to the type of soils.

On average, rows of vine are planted every three meters. All types of pruning are permitted. The most commonly used is the « Double Guyot » method.

This is followed by harvesting, then pressing of the grapes and wine making according to natural methods.

Harvesting may begin as soon as the grapes are rip, most often at the beginning of the month of October (but since few years by mid September), to be over by the end of the same month. Few growers continue to harvest by hand, but most of them now use harvesting machines. These machines have been used for about 30 years and today they perfectly suit the needs of the region’s growers.

The grapes are pressed immediately after harvesting in traditional horizontal basket presses or pneumatic bladder presses. The use of continuous screw presses is banned. Juices are immediately stored as fermentation starts. Chaptalisation (addition of sugar) is forbidden by law. Pressing and fermentation are closely supervised as they have a determining influence on the final quality of eaux-de-vie.

Wines obtained three weeks after the start of fermentation contain about 9% alcohol. With their high acidity and low alcohol content, they are perfect for distillation.

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Alcohol in wine is resulting of the fermentation of sugars found in their natural forms in fruits as fructuose and glucose. Alcohol is also associated to many other components and must therefore be isolated from them. This operation is performed by distillation. The principle of distillation is based on the volatility difference between components. Only those volatile substances that make up the main features of the bouquet are found in the eau-de-vie.

The distillation of cognac is carried out using a special Charentais copper still. It is made of a uniquely shaped boiler heated on a naked flame topped by a still-head in the shape of a turban, an olive or an onion and prolonged by a swan-neck tube that turns into a coil and passes through a cooling tank referred to as the "pipe".

The traditional Charentais still is often equipped with an energy-saving wine pre-heater. This optional device, in which the the heat is provided by the alcohol vapors passing through it, preheats the wine that is to be distilled in the next cycle.

The distillation method has not changed since the cognac was born. Cognac distillation is performed in a two-stage process :
Stage one : unfiltered wine is poured into the boiler and brought to the boil. Alcohol vapors are freed and collected in the still-head. They then enter the swan-neck and continue into the coil. Upon contact with the coolant, they condense, forming a liquid known as « brouillis ». This « brouillis » is slightly cloudy liquid with an alcoholic content of 28 to 32 % alcohol.
Stage two : the « brouillis » is returned to the boiler for a second distillation, known as the « bonne chauffe ». For this second heating, the boiler capacity must not exceed 30 hectoliters, and the load volume is limited to 25 hectoliters.

The distiller must then carry out the delicate operation known as « cutting » or « la coupe » : the first vapors that arrive, called « the heads », have the highest alcohol content and are separated from the rest. Then comes « the heart », a clear spirit that will produce the cognac.
Afterwards the distiller gets rid of « the second cuts » when the alcoholometer registers 60% and finally he eliminates « the tails ». The « heads » and « second cuts » are re distilled with the next batch of wine or « brouillis ». The success of the distilling cycle, which lasts about 24 hours, lies in the constant supervision it requires and in the extensive experience of the distiller who may also intervene in the distillation techniques (proportion of fine lees, recycling of « tails » in batches of wine or « brouillis », temperature curves...) thus conferring cognac facets of his personality.

The distillation season for white wines destined for the production of cognac closes on March 31th following the harvest.

Distilleries work day and night during the winter months. It is a time when the Charentais adapt their lives to the rhythm of the stills in an atmosphere where the glow of the flames, the quiet bubbling of the alcohol, the water, the copper and the bricks form a marvelous combination.

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 Barrel Making

Cognac is kept and aged for many years in oak casks.

The making of a cognac cask follows a traditional and ancestral method that is near perfection. Nothing is left to chance from the selection of the oak to the assembly of the casks, in order for cognac to acquire the best of the oak for many years.

An eau-de-vie only becomes cognac following slow aging in oak casks whose wood has been selected because of its natural properties and its ability to transfer them to the spirit. The contact with the wood will give each eau-de-vie its unique color and bouquet, without which it could not receive the cognac appellation.

Cognac ages exclusively in oak casks traditionally from the Tronçais and Limousin forests (Quercus pedunculata and Quersus sessiliflora, respectively) depending on the producer and style. These two varieties of oak were selected because of their hardness, porosity and extractive characteristics. The Tronçais forest, in Allier, provides softer and finely grained wood which is particularly porous to alcohol. The Limousin forest produces medium grained wood, harder and even more porous. The tannins in Tronçais oak are famous for their softness whereas those in Limousin oak are known for the power and balance they communicate to cognac. An eau-de-vie will extract more tannins when it is aged in casks made with Limousin oaks.

The « merrains » or boards used to make each cask are culled between the heartwood and sapwood of oak trees that are over 100 years old. Then they must be split in order to respect the wood’s grain and stacked in the open air for about three years where they can lose their sap and the wood’s bitter flavors.

Following this long curing period the boards are shaped into curved staves. The coopers can now start their work.
Coopers hoop the staves over and around a fire made with wood shavings and oak pieces.
The wood is repeatedly moistened and heated to bend the staves into shape giving out an unforgettable smell of freshly baked bread. How much the wood is charred in this process called « bousinage » (barrel toasting) will strongly influence the characteristics of the eau-de-vie in the casks. During the heating period a wire rope placed around the base of the cask is progressively tightened in order to bring the staves closer together and, finally, join them without any need for nails or glue.

After the finishing touches, the cask must pass several solidity and boiling water tests to detect possible leaks. Some coopers still sign their « master pieces » to demonstrate their full commitment to their work.

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Aging, essential stage for an eau-de-vie to be sold as cognac, takes place in casks that hold between 270 to 450 liters of spirit.

Cognac is a living product. During its long aging in oak casks, it is in permanent contact with air. This allows the extraction of substances from the wood that give cognac both its color and bouquet.

This way, the substances extracted by the cognac from the wood, known as « dry extracts », alter the cognac’s physical appearance giving it a color ranging from golden yellow to fiery brown.
With time, the transfer of the natural characteristics of the oak gradually produces « rancio » aromas and develops the bouquet of cognac.

The natural humidity of the cellars in which the casks are stored, with its influence on evaporation, is one of the determining factors in the aging process. When humidity, dryness and temperature are in balance the spirit becomes mellow and ages harmoniously. This evolution in the aging process is made up of three basic stages : extraction, hydrolysis and oxidation.
Extraction : the new eau-de-vie is stored in new casks where it dissolves the wood’s extractable substances and acquires a golden yellow color. Part of the volatile components are eliminated... Eaux-de-vie undergo an evolution in term of color (they progressively pass from being colorless to a marked yellow color), flavor and bouquet (aroma of aok with a hint of vanilla).
Hydrolysis : This is a transitory stage that precedes an important evolution of the spirit’s organoleptic characteristics. The eau-de-vie is about to to « digest the wood ». Its color tends to darken.
Oxidation : The taste softens, the notes of steamed oak disappear and give way to floral aromas with hints of vanilla, the color deepens. With the years, the eau-de-vie becomes increasingly mellow, the bouquet grows richer and the « rancio » flavor appears.

While cognac is aging in casks, absorbing the best of the oak and developing its most exquisite flavors, it is in contact with the air and gradually loses some of its alcohol and some volume, but without excess.

This natural evaporation is poetically referred to as « the Angels’ share ». It is around 2% of aging cognac that disappear into the atmosphere : a high price that cognac producers do not hesitate to pay in their quest for perfection.

These alcohol vapors feed a microscopic fungus known as « torula compniacensis » that covers and blackens the stone walls of the cellars, giving them their specific color.

The oldest cognacs are usually kept away from the other cellars, in a dark cellar known as « the Paradise ».
Once they have reached maturity, the producer (or master blender) decides to end their aging process and places them first into very old casks and then into large glass containers called « demijohns » where they may rest for many decades with no air contact.

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The blending is a work that requires extensive experience. It allows each cognac producer to control the quality of its spirit. By blending eaux-de-vie of different ages (single estates) or eaux-de-vie of different ages and from different crus (cognac trading houses), the producer (master blender in a trading house) creates genuine harmonies, like a painter or a musician. Like the « master nose » and his perfumes, rigorously, with experience and intuition, he/she strives to achieve consistency in his/her subtle blends. This patient craftsmanship will allow each consumer to recognize and appreciate the cognac he/she loves.

The Master Blender buys eaux-de-vie and follows their development from the moment they come out of the pot stills. He/she monitors their aging, tastes them regularly and decides whether it is time to change them from one oak cask or from a chai (aging warehouse) to another so they become rounder or dryer. He/she also progressively adds distilled or unmineralized water to the eau-de-vie in order to slowly reach the desired alcohol content for its release into the market. Cognac’s minimum alcohol content must be 40%. This delicate operation is referred as « reduction ».

Cognac has a reputation for quality to defend across the world. The constant quest for consistency of quality is the work and main concern of each cognac producer.
Nevertheless, all cognacs are different. Every producer creates unique cognacs to seduce connoisseurs through subtle and endless variations of flavors.

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 The Art of Tasting cognac

In order to discover all the subtleties of a cognac, a taster will take much pleasure in collecting many bits of information with his/her eye and nose alone.

Visual examination...

This is the first contact with the cognac and it is paramount. You can describe the cognac according its color, its clarity and its viscosity. Cognac can display a multitude of different hues, from pale white to dark amber. Its clarity can be crystalline, brilliant, dull or cloudy. Its viscosity can be described as watery, syrupy or oily...

On the nose...

There are two ways of perceiving aromas : directly through the nose or, indirectly, through the mouth (retro-olfaction). The nose examination is the most important phase of the tasting. It is a two-step process : 1st nose is the the « rising » or the release of the most volatile and delicate elements. 2nd nose : being aerated the cognac will spread up the release of all its aromatic compounds such as vine flower, plum, hazelnut, violet, vanilla...

On the palate...

Take a mouthful of cognac and suck in a small amount of air over it. The cognac will reach most of the taste receptors in the mouth. It will also release aromatic vapors in the olfactory bulb via the retro nasal passage. Each flavor compound traces its characteristics to the various steps of cognac’s elaboration. The primary aromas are aromatic compounds which originate in the « base » used to make the eau-de-vie (the grapes). The secondary aromas are characterized by the flavors produced by the alcoholic fermentation of sugar (alcohols, aldehydes, esters...). The flavors extracted during the aging in oak casks play the important part in the tertiary aromas, or final aromas.

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 How to enjoy cognac : Drink / Gastronomy

Straight, on the rocks or in a cocktail, discover the various faces of cognac...

At the end of a meal, when you feel like making a special moment last longer, enjoy the aromas of a cognac served straight in a tulip glass or a balloon glass. Take your time to appreciate all its subtle flavours.

Allow cognac to surprise you. Happily married to sparkling grape juice, sparkling or tonic water, cognac will refresh you when it is time to have a drink with friends. It is enjoyed around the world in many different ways, especially in the USA and in Asia. It may be served as a long drink at the end of the afternoon and as the main accompaniment to a refined meal, all in one day.

When the flavors and aromas of cognac meet the culinary arts, new gastronomical sensations result. No matter what the dish, the fragrance of cognac always adds something that transforms the simply excellent into the clearly sublime.

Copyright © : text from BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac) -

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Cognac distillation. Barrel Making. Aging. Blending. The Art of Tasting cognac - Drink - Gastronomy

Drink in moderation. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to serious health problems.

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