101 Series-A Beginner’s Guide to Cognac

Eileen Callahan of Champagne Travels visits Hennessy in Cognac France

You’re probably familiar with cognac from the drink menu at your favorite bar, but did you know about Cognac, France? Yup, this wine-growing region is only a beautiful three-hour train ride from Paris, France. Naturally, I had to make the trip to learn about (and, more importantly, taste) this spirit in its place of origin.

Champagne Travels visits Hennessy Distillery in Cognac, France

Last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in the fourth annual Les Journées Particulières, which offers the behind-the-scenes public visits of LVMH Group Maisons worldwide. This gave me the perfect reason to head to Cognac, and I was lucky to take part in the private tour of the Hennessy Maison on the Charente River. It was an honor to explore the most exclusive enclaves usually closed to the public and, of course, taste some of the best cognacs at the source!

Eileen Callahan of Champagne Travels at Hennessy in Cognac, France

The area that produces cognac consists of 73,000 hectares of vineyards divided into six distinct growing areas. The soil of each room has a different makeup, giving each variety a unique flavor, although the “Grande Champagne” and “Petit Champagne” regions are considered the best. (Despite their names, these regions have nothing to do with the part of France that produces my favorite sparkling wine!)

Eileen Callahan of Champagne Travels at Maison Martel in Cognac, FranceMaison Martell

To bear the name “cognac,” the brandy must meet the strict requirements of the Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac. Ugni Blanc, also known as Saint-Emilion, is the most commonly-used grape varietal, making up 98% of all cognac. It produces an acidic wine with low alcohol content. Harvest season is during late September or early October, at which point the grapes are pressed using nomadic presses, preventing the skin and seeds from entering the wine. After the wine is fermented in stainless steel vats, it goes through a double distillation process. Each distillation, which takes place in copper pot stills, takes about 12 hours!

Martell Cognac article in 101 Series by Champagne TravelsMartell Cognac Cocktail

It is aged for at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais. Every year or so, the “eau-de-vie,” as the alcohol is called, is moved from barrel to barrel by hand to improve the flavors and create the perfect blend. When the cellar master and the tasting committee decide the cognac is done, it is put into demijohns, or glass bottles, ending the aging process.

 Eileen Callahan of Champagne Travels at Martell Cognac FranceMartell XO

There are over 200 cognac producers worldwide, and I highly recommend that you take a quick trip down to Cognac on your next visit to France. You may not be as lucky as I was to step inside the Founders Cellar at Hennessy, where the most treasured spirits are left to age. But still, each of the numerous cognac houses has its particular niche and character, making each house unique. Remember, making your appointments in advance is essential. Tours can fill up quickly, especially in the high season.  

Eileen Callahan of Champagne Travels in Cognac FranceHennessy Distillery

I hope this piece encourages you to explore beyond the traditional visits to France’s champagne and other wine regions. I am always looking for new territories to explore, and Cognac is one region and spirit I am happy to enjoy again and again.

Eileen Callahan of Champagne Travels in Cognac France

Make sure to check out more in my 101 Series here.