The Ancient Charm of a Great Distillate
French Cognacs are protected by an appellation of origin which establishes the exclusivity of production to delimited areas of the historical region of Charente and sets very strict rules concerning the raw materials used, the production method and the minimum ageing in wooden barrels. All these rules are based on the very long tradition of the many local producers.
Viticulture in the region was introduced in the 12th century by the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Fontdouce. Over the centuries, the great fame achieved by the Clarets of Bordeaux overshadowed the mediocre productions of the Charente peasants, who were forced to sell them to Dutch traders for low prices. During the 16th century, local producers learned from the Dutch how to distil their wines to create what was called 'brann vjn', or brandy. This activity was also supported and encouraged by English traders, who imported discontinuous stills from Scotland. The so-called Charentais stills were created in copper, and were characterised by the typical swan-neck shape to preserve the most delicate and typical aromas, having a smaller shape than the classic Scottish pot stills. The idea of the enologist Chevalier de la Croix-Marrons to carry out double distillation and the all-French mastery of the use of wood for ageing gave rise to the first French bottles of this distillate.
The production of this spirit developed around the town of the same name, in an area that is today protected and safeguarded by the AOC denomination, established in 1909. The increasing quality of production and the navigability of the Charente river ensured the product's great commercial success, cementing it in history and legend.
The Territorial Designation and the Map of the Crus
In 1909, at the same time as the establishment of the territorial appellation, a 'map of crus' was drawn up, which is still valid today, dividing the production area into 6 parts, which surround the town like concentric circles. This distinction is based on land mapping carried out by geologist Henri Coquand in 1850, who demonstrated the obvious correlation between soil minerality and production quality.
The premium Cognacs come from the crus closest to the city of the same name: Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne, from which elegant, floral and fruity spirits with excellent ageing potential are produced. The combination of these two crus allows the label to bear the 'Fine Champagne' name.
To the north of the town is the small Borderies cru, whose production is very fine, sweet and well-rounded, with structure and a good capacity for ageing. Given the size of this cru, however, it is very difficult to find bottles made entirely here.
Another area, known as Bois due to the rich presence of forests, is characterised by clayey and sandy soils and greater proximity to the sea. This macro-area, where rougher spirits with less than optimal ageing potential are produced, is divided into the following cru: Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaire.
The Different Types and Ageing
The best Cognacs are defined not only by the specification of the cru, but also by the indication of the ageing periods. By law, only Limousin or Tronçais oak barrels may be used, for a period of no less than 2 years. It is common practice to mix spirits that have undergone different types of ageing in order to obtain products with an impeccable balance. In this case, the declared ageing period must correspond to that of the youngest spirit used in the blending.
The abbreviation VS indicates an ageing period in wood of at least 2 years, which is the minimum, while VSOP, which represents Réserve, indicates a minimum of 4 years. The abbreviation XO, on the other hand, stands for Extra Old and indicates an ageing period of at least 6 years. The unofficial term 'Napoleon', inaugurated for Courvoisier Cognac, indicates an intermediate period between VSOP and XO; Hors d'Age is usually written on labels to indicate longer ageing. Naturally, the longer the period of ageing, the higher the price.
Beyond all these classifications, the most famous and sought-after expressions are those of the great Maisons, active since the 17th and 18th centuries. These include Remy Martin, Martell, Hennessy, Camus and others. Hennessy Cognac in particular, with a production of almost 50 million bottles sold every year, is a reference point on the world market. Alongside these large institutions, there are also small artisanal realities tied to the skills of individual master distillers and small productions of value, including Peyrot and Leopold Gourmel.
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