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Gavin Smith Gavin D Smith is one of the world's leading whisky writers and authorities. He contributes to a wide range of specialist and general interest publications and is author of 30 books on the subject. Since 2006 Gavin has been contributing editor of our sister publication, so when he wrote this comprehensive article on Cognac, a spirit made from wine grapes not grain, wine-pages jumped at the chance to publish it.

The Spirit of the Grape, part I

by Gavin D Smith, 2012

Ask most wine-lovers for their opinion of the wine grape known by the French as Ugni blanc and they will be less than fulsome in their praise. The fact is, however, that while Ugni blanc may make relatively indifferent wine, its acidity and low alcoholic strength render it the ideal grape to distil into Cognac.

Cognac is generally recognised as the world's greatest brandy and it has been enjoying a significant renaissance in recent years, partly due to its high-profile associations with rap music in the USA and the allied development of a passionate following among the African-American community, and also because it has been embraced with equal enthusiasm by the growth markets of Asia, and especially China.

Cognac and the Law

map The Cognac region covers some 11,000 square kilometres and is located in western-central France, with the river Charente at its heart. The principal towns of Cognac itself and nearby Jarnac grew up along the river banks, where leading brands such as Hennessy and Courvoisier still have their operational headquarters. Cognac distillation commenced in the region during the 17th century, and today there are just over 4,000 wine-growers who also distil and more than 100 professional distillers.

The appellation is rigidly regulated in order to preserve its reputation and comparative exclusivity. By law, Cognac must be distilled from grapes grown within a delimited area comprising six crus, ranging from Grand Champagne, which boasts the chalkiest soil and produces the best Cognacs, through Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois to Bois Ordinaires. In practice only the first four crus are used for Cognac production.

A maximum number of hectares may be planted with grapes for Cognac production, with some 72,000 hectares currently permitted. More than 98 per cent of the grapes grown for Cognac distillation are of the ugni blanc variety. The Cognac industry is reckoned to provide direct employment for almost 17,000 people, of whom 10,000 are wine growers, while 268 Cognac 'houses' now operate. Distilling is only permitted from the time of harvesting until the end of the following March, with stiff penalties for anyone caught distilling out-with that period. The wine is double-distilled in the same manner as Scotch whisky, using copper pot stills, though there is a stipulation that the second distillation must not exceed 250 hectolitres in capacity. Unlike Scotch whisky production the use of steam to heat the Cognac stills is forbidden, and a live natural gas flame is instead employed.

Cognac Ageing

barrels New spirit, known as eau-de-vie must be matured for a minimum of two years in oak casks in order to qualify as Cognac, though a series of designations is used to denote the age of individual bottlings. VS or three-star Cognac is aged from two to four years, VSOP or Réserve from four to six years, and XO or Napoléon from six years upwards, though from 2018 the minimum age of XO will rise to 10 years.

Maturation takes place in French oak casks, which may be new or refilled, and some Cognac is allowed to achieve great age in the cask. The Hennessy cellars, for example, contain some casks filled with spirit distilled more than one hundred years ago. In order to prevent over-ageing, Cognac is sometimes transferred into glass demijohns, where it may be stored for long periods of time, with very small quantities of 19th century Cognac from these demijohns being included in ultra-premium bottlings.

Some Cognac houses offer vintage bottlings and even single cask bottlings, but the vast majority of Cognac produced is the result of skilful blending by the cellar master and his team. They work with spirit that has been sourced from dozens of different vineyards in various crus, and perhaps distilled by independent distillers who supply the individual houses, though some also distil at least a percentage of spirit for themselves. Add to this all the variables of maturation in casks of differing ages, 'humid' cellars and 'dry' cellars, and it is not surprising that blending is the 'norm' in order to achieve mass-market consistency.

Cognac Houses

stills Some 80 per cent of all Cognac produced is sold by the 'big four' houses of Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier and Rémy Martin, mirroring the sort of consolidation that has equally affected other sectors of the drinks industry and beyond. Martell - now owned by Diageo - has its origins in Jersey as long ago as 1715, while Rémy Martin was established in 1724. Hennessy - part of the LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) luxury brands group - was founded during 1765 by Irishman Richard Hennessy, while Courvoisier - in the ownership of Beam Inc - traces its heritage back to 1843. Other slightly lower profile Cognac houses, such as that of Baron Otard, also boast overseas ownership, with Otard being part of Bacardi Ltd. Pictured: the historic still at Courvoisier.

Cognac and the Marketplace

97 per cent of all Cognac is sold outside of France, and currently earns around 2.2 billion Euros per annum. Overall volumes of Cognac sold grew by 4.3 per cent during 2011/12, with shipments standing at 471,678 hectolitres of alcohol - the equivalent of 168.5 million bottles. Most significantly, there was a 13 per cent rise in value of sales over the same period, with China's thirst for Cognac rising by more than 20 per cent to 25.3 million bottles, while globally the XO category grew by 22.9 per cent.

The USA is the largest market for Cognac in terms of volume, but a comparatively large percentage of it is from within the VS category, as Cognac consumption in the States tends towards younger and lighter styles, more suitable for drinking 'long' or in cocktails. In China, XO category Cognac accounts for a much larger percentage, reflecting its position as a drink to be savoured neat or with water and as a prestige gifting item.

Go to part II - Cognac Recommendations