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 the namesake of one of my favorite drinks and only a three-hour train ride from my home in Paris. Naturally, I had to make the trip to learn about (and more importantly, taste) this spirit in its place of origin.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in the fourth annual Les Journées Particulières, which offers the public behind-the-scenes visits of LVMH Group Maisons around the world. 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 that are usually closed to the public, and of course, taste some of the best cognac at the source!
The area that produces cognac consists of 73,000 hectares of vineyards which can be divided into six distinct growing areas. The soil of each area has a different makeup, which gives each variety a unique flavor, although the “Grande Champagne” and “Petit Champagne” regions are considered to be the best. (Despite their names, these regions have nothing to do with the part of France that produces my favorite sparkling wine!)
In order 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!), as it produces an acidic wine with a low alcohol content. Harvest season is during late-September or early-October, at which point the grapes are pressed using nomadic presses, which prevent the skin and seeds from going into 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 Cocktail
From there, 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 at this point, 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.
There are over 200 cognac producers in the world, and I highly recommend that on your next visit to France, you take a quick trip down to Cognac. 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 own special niche and character, and visiting gives you a glimpse into what makes each house unique. Just remember, it’s important to make your appointments in advance, as the tours can fill up quickly, especially in high season.
I hope this piece encourages you to explore beyond the traditional visits of the champagne and other wine regions of France. I am always looking for new territories to explore, and Cognac is one region and spirit I am happy to enjoy again and again.