How Cognac Is Made (and How To Enjoy It)

Posted: Jun 05, 2019



The barrel-aged brandy isn’t just meant for sipping with a cigar.

Perhaps it’s strange to dedicate a day on the American calendar to a foreign spirit, but then again, almost all of the Cognac produced in France is exported and enjoyed elsewhere in the world. In fact, the reason we sip and savor the stuff on June 4, National Cognac Day—as well as all other days—isn’t because of the French, but rather, the Dutch.

Back in the 16th century, sellers from the Netherlands set up shop in the Cognac region of Southwest France and wanted to ship the local wine back home. The problem? The wine ran the risk of spoiling during long shipping trips. So the Dutch came up with a creative solution: Distill the wine down into brandewijn—brandywine, or burnt wine—to more easily transport it to the Netherlands, and store it in oak barrels for the ride.

Then a funny thing happened: The Dutch’s DIY brandy became a big hit. Before long, the deliciously oaky brandy from Cognac spread to other countries and put the region on the map as a hotbed for booze. Centuries later, we now celebrate the spirit with an arbitrary American holiday. Surely the merchants would be proud.

Of course, Cognac has come a long way since the Dutch first developed their crude method for distilling wine. These days, it takes a lot of work to produce such a sophisticated spirit.

Let’s start with the location. For a brandy to be considered a Cognac, it has to be distilled from white grapes found in the regions that surround the town of Cognac: Charente and Charente-Maritime. Those regions are broken into six terroirs, or vineyard areas with distinct growing conditions that affect the quality of the grapes. It’s in the chalky soils of Grande Champagne—not to be confused with the other Champagne in France, home to the world’s foremost sparkling wine—that the best grapes for Cognac, Ugni Blanc, grow.

Ugni Blanc grapes, however, produce low-alcohol (around 8 or 9 percent), very acidic wine that’s excellent as a base material, but not so great for drinking on its own. That’s where distillation comes in.

Make a Flavor-Packed Old Fashioned
Per the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), producers must distill the white wine twice in a copper still called an Alambic Charentais. Cellar masters must then take the resulting eau-de-vie (the colorless fermented juice) and drop it into specific oak barrels made only from the forests of Limousin or Tronçais, where it has to age for at least two years before any blending can occur.

Naturally, for a spirit with such a long and rich history—not to mention a lengthy rulebook—French distillers must walk the fine line between sticking to time-honored traditions and continuing to innovate with their products. One such producer, Frapin, particularly nails that balance.

The Frapin family has called Southwest France home since 1270, first growing wine in the region before turning to distilling in Grande Champagne with the advent of Cognac production. The house owns about 600 acres of Grande Champagne’s highly sought-after terroir, which explains the high demand for some of its premium offerings, like Cigar Blend Premier Cru de Cognac (aged 10 years) Château Fontpinot (20), XO VIP (25), and Plume (60), which can fetch up to $3,000 a bottle. Unlike many other producers, Frapin’s Cognacs are exclusively harvested, distilled, and aged on its historic estate.

But adhering to old habits doesn’t mean there isn’t room for modernization. Frapin recently unveiled the latest offering in its range—an entry-level bottle that pays homage to the house’s roots in Cognac (the name: Frapin 1270) while relying on newer distillation techniques.

To make the 1270, Cellar Master Patrice Piveteau distills his unfiltered wine over lees, a mix of the grape’s juice and pulp. While other producers avoid lees due to concerns about potential inconsistencies, Piveteau leaves them in so the wine can fully retain its fruity flavors and add length on the palate.

From there, Piveteau’s first distillation releases around 30 percent of the brouillis, or condensed liquid, while his second releases about 70 percent of the spirit volume. He then cuts the head and the tails from the distillate—the first and final parts, respectively, which contain unwanted substances—to pull out the heart, a.k.a. the really good stuff in the spirit. After around 24 hours, the distillate is ready to be aged.

This is where Piveteau works his magic. He and his team of three assistants—no one else, including computers—use two types of cellars to age the liquid in new oak barrels, then finish it in century-old casks, each with different temperatures. “In the cellars with more moisture,” Piveteau says, “there is moderate evaporation, with more alcohol evaporating than water.” These conditions result in the Cognac’s “roundness and suppleness.”

In the dry cellars, meanwhile, more water evaporates than alcohol, leading to the Cognac’s “finesse and elegance,” he says. Though Frapin 1270 doesn’t come with an age classification, on average, it spends about four years in the cellars, which slots the bottle somewhere between a Very Special (“VS”) or Very Superior Old Pale (“VSOP”) designation.

The result? A slightly spicy blend with notes of apple, vanilla, and a nose of vineyard flowers—complex, delicate notes that hearken back to Grande Champagne. “It’s the perfect introduction to the entire Frapin collection,” says Piveteau.

You might be used to treating Cognac as an after-dinner digestif or cigar companion, but it works just as well in cocktails, says Pamela Wiznitzer, Beverage Director at The Lookup in NYC. “It’s a beautiful spirit, not only because it derived from grapes, but [also] due to the aging process, which imparts more flavor and characteristics to the spirit,” she says. “Its nuanced profile lets it play well with many ingredients.”

The spirit is spicy enough to be suitable for colder months, but works best in warmer weather, when its fruit notes really shine, Wiznitzer says. Now that you’ve had a crash course in Cognac, try her exquisite summer cocktail below.

By Andrew Daniels
June 4, 2019
Source and Complete Article:Popular Mechanics




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