Grapes and Wine in Cognac
What makes Cognac so SPECIAL?
What makes cognac unique is a combination of three factors: the climate and quality of the land, the distillation method, and the skill of the master blender.
The Cognac production area lies at a junction where a microclimate and rich, diverse soil meet to produce the conditions that are favourable for the cultivation of vines used to make the spirit. The microclimate is a result of the influence of the Atlantic Ocean on the land. It is characterized by being ‘softly tempered,’ with ample amounts of sunlight and sufficient rain, and an average annual temperature of 13.5°C (55°F). This microclimate, combined with the special soil, is considered ideal for high quality spirit-producing wines.
The soil itself is extremely diverse, ranging from open country chalky soils, to plains with red clay earth, to green valleys. Quality variations in the soil are based on the amount of chalk present, the hardness of the chalk, and the amount of clay mixed in with the chalk. For example, more chalk in the soil increases its quality; the softer the chalk, the better; and the less clay in the soil, the better its quality. Chalk in the soil is important because it retains humidity (moisture). Also, the chalk-flecked soil reflects light and so helps to ripen the grapes. Grande Champagne has the softest chalk and the least clay; therefore, it is considered the best soil and produces the highest quality Cognacs.
Principal Cognac Grape Varieties
FACTS ON GRAPE GROWING AND COGNAC MAKING in COGNAC
Size of the vineyards: 79,771 hectares (74,614 ha white grapes)
Production volume: 6,279,949 hectolitres (640,000 pure alcohol)
Vineyards: 6,000 growers
Soil: Mainly limestone, clayey limestone, sandstone and clay.
Weather: Bordeaux-like, with abundant sunshine and Atlantic influence.
The Cognac Delimited Region is located at the north of the Aquitaine basin, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. The production area covers the Charente-Maritime and most of the Charente departments, and several districts of the Dordogne and Deux-Sèvres. The Delimited Region has a total area of over one million hectares (1,095,119ha), but the actual vineyards only occupy 79,636ha. Approximately 95% of them are used for Cognac production.
The Pineau Appellation area follows the boundaries of the Cognac Delimited region.
COGNAC, PINEAU and WINES of Cognac region
One needs to realise that there are different styles of cognac that suit and are appreciated in different circumstances. They largely reflect the quality of their source fruit, their age and the nature of the barrels used. The young, say 7 years old, will be fruity, fresh and lively with notes of nutmeg, cedar, broom and orange. These are popular as an aperitif on ice or with tonic water, or as a cocktail mix. The middle aged, say 20 years old, will be well balanced, round, generous in the finish, strong and long on the palate with aromatic tones of cinnamon, vanilla, sandalwood and raisins. A 20-year-old cognac can be appreciated in a range of situations and we particularly enjoy one in the evening with friends, or after a hard day to quietly unwind. The well aged, say 50 years old, will have a beautiful dark robe with golden copper highlights. The tasting is a succession of wonderful delights that have to be quietly savoured. They start with initial notes of ripe fruit, plums, apricots and pineapples quickly followed by notes of spice such as curry, saffron, nutmeg and sandalwood. The cognac then opens out in the mouth to reveal generous, mellow and round notes of candied fruits and vanilla. The great length then blossoms into a sumptuous floral and very persistent finish. Obviously a drink to be enjoyed in a reflective moment like after a fine dinner by a warm fire in the quiet of the evening.
Worldwide, Pineau des Charentes is an undiscovered gourmet delight. The French claim that they only make a limited amount and I suspect that they want to enjoy it themselves!
The legend of Pineau suggests that a winemaker, in the town of Burie in 1589, accidentally put new grape juice into a barrel containing a small quantity of eau de vie, and forgot about it. A few years later, the winemaker tasted it, liked it and that is how Pineau des Charentes was created.
Cognac is blended with the new juice within hours of the grapes being pressed to produce Pineau des Charentes. Grapes must be very ripe in order to obtain grape juice that is rich in natural sugars. Pineau des Charentes is the result of stopping the fermentation of the grape juice by adding Cognac which must be at least one year old. Pineau des Charentes must contain between 16.5% and 22% alcohol. Production is strictly controlled to assure high quality through proper blending and ageing.
The dominant white variety of pineau is made using the grapes Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard, with occasional Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Montils. The mixture is aged for at least 18 months in oak barrels, and is traditionally a deep gold in colour, but colours and qualities vary from vineyard to vineyard. The taste is predominantly sweet, but is balanced by both acidity and the increased level of alcohol. Finer varieties are aged for over 5 years in barrel, and often for several decades.