Cognac in the Making
Winemaking - Transforming Grape Juice into Wine
When it comes to making Cognac, everything starts in vineyards as grape juice is the raw material of the drink, which often is an overlooked fact about Cognac! This inherently places Cognac in the family of Brandies – a spirit obtained by distilling fruit – however it has some distinct characteristics from its close cousins. For instance, the Cognac production zone is geographically delimited to a specific territory and only a selection of white grape varieties – Ugni blanc, Folle-Blanche and Colombard – will make it into the final product. After a carefully monitored maturation process, grapes are harvested, pressed into juice then fermented into wine.
A high level of acidity and a low alcohol volume – typically 9% ABV or less – are the trademark of these wines which are bound to be transformed into spirits through the process of distillation. As part of our commitments towards environmental responsibility we choose to source organic wines only for the preparation of our own spirits.
The Distillation of Wines and Creation of Spirits
To put it in a nutshell, the distillation process aims at extracting the alcohol contained in wines to obtain spirits – practically speaking, this involves heating wine up to 78.3°C which is the boiling temperature of ethanol, to separate it from water which boils-up at 100°C along with other components. Alcohol vapours will evaporate first, then cool down by passing through a condensator to regain a liquid shape. In the case of Cognac, this process is repeated twice to obtain the final product, this is the principle of double-distillation. The distillation process is completed when most of the alcohol contained in the distilled wine has been extracted, leaving nothing but wine residues behind or “vinasses” as is it called in the Cognac region.
Not all spirits obtained through the distillation process will make it into the final product however! Specific portions will be separated by the distiller, to be discarded or distilled yet another time. Simply put, ” the heads” or first liters of alcohol obtained at the early stage of the distillation process and “tails” or last liters obtained will be cut from the spirits “heart”, which is the final product. This process of separating alcohol known as “the cut” varies depending on Distilleries’ tradition or the know-how of a master-distiller and often grants Cognac some very specific characteristics.
Ageing and maturation of Cognac
After much transformation from the vineyards to the wine vats and through the pot-stills, our spirits have yet another key stage to complete to become a full-fledged Cognac, the ageing process. By requirement, the ageing of a spirit has to be completed in French oak barrels, for a minimum period of two years before being able to claim the title of Cognac. During this stage, the spirits will change significantly under the influence of evaporation which will concentrate and reduce the content of the barrel over time, but also due to its exposure both to the ambient air and wood, which will give a Cognac its distinct colour.
The Cognacs of the distillery are mostly aged in oak barrels originating from Limousin forest. The maturation process starts with fresh casks where the young « eaux-de-vie » will be resting for at least twelve months – these new barrels will give our Cognacs their sophisticated amber color, but also grant characteristic wood tannins and vanilla aromas. Once this first step is completed, the spirits are shifted to old barrels where they will acquire refined flavours in the course of their maturation. As the Distillery is located close by a small river, our ageing process benefits from humid conditions that greatly contribute to improving the quality of our organic Cognacs year after year.
Every Cognac has its own unique characteristics granted by a set of factors such as its origin, the harvest year, the quality of the wine, the distillation method used or its ageing conditions. Based on product specifications or his own vision and sensibility, the Master Blender or “Maitre de chai” will however have a decisive impact on the final identity of a Cognac.
Depending on blending choices, a final product may incorporate several cognacs different in age and origin, which often is the case for well known labelling standards such as VS, VSOP or XO. On the contrary, it can be drawn from a single barrel or originate from a specific harvest year. Even though Cognac’s ABV has to be at least equal to 40% by requirement, the drink can also be served at higher proof or be reduced using distilled water by the master blender, it can be filtered using different methods or be sweetened, to a certain extent. It is worth mentioning that organic cognacs can also be blended, however all spirits used in the composition must come from organic wines.
All these choices during the creation phase of the drink will have an impact on the product’s final identity, which leaves a great deal of room for craftsmanship and creativity! At least up until the Cognac is put in a bottle or a glass container, which puts an end to the Cognac maturation process.