Let’s understand how to make Cognac !
First of all, it starts in the vineyards !
The Cognac production zone is geographically delimited to a specific territory and only few white grape varieties are part of the final product, as Ugni blanc, Folle-Blanche and Colombard. 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 (around 9% ABV) are typical from these wines which are about to be transformed into spirits through the distillation process.
THE DOUBLE DISTILLATION
After vinification, the distillation process is meant to extract the alcohol contained in wines to obtain spirits.
This involves heating wine up to 78.3°C (boiling temperature of ethanol), in order 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 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 France
However, not all spirits obtained through the distillation process will make it into the final product !
Some portions will be separated by the distiller, to be discarded or distilled another time. The master blender will 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” (the final product).
This process of separating alcohol is called “the cut” and it varies depending on Distilleries’ tradition or the know-how of the master-distiller and gives Cognac specific organoleptic properties.
THE AGEING PROCESS
After transformation from the vineyards to the wine vats, another key stage is mandatory to become a Cognac, the ageing process.
By requirement, the ageing of a spirit has to be completed in French oak barrels, for a 2 years period (minimum) before being able to claim the title of Cognac.
During this stage, the spirits will change significantly under the influence of evaporation : it will concentrate and reduce the content of the barrel over time. Also, its distinct colour comes from the exposure to air and wood.
Every Cognac has its own unique characteristics given by different 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 also have a huge 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 equal to 40% (minimum) by requirement, it can also be served at higher % or be reduced using distilled water by the master blender. it can be filtered using different methods or be slighlty sweetened.
All these choices during the creation phase will have an impact on the product’s final identity, which leaves a great space for creativity!