The wine leaves the pre-heater, réchauffe, at about 40°C and flows into the still where it is – slowly! – heated over an open fire. Alcohol already evaporates at only 78°C and travels through the straw into the swan neck (col-de-cygne), before condensing once again in the spiral cooling pipe (serpentin). This is how roughly 28 per cent raw brandy (brouillis) is created and is distilled then once again. In the case of the fine brandy that is now produced, the first and the last part are siphoned off. They contain unwanted constituents, amongst them fusel oils, which cause very painful headaches. Only the cœur, the heart with around 70% alcohol is real Cognac. The fine brandy is distilled in batches of not more than 2,500 litres. Small volumes are expensive to process, but they have the advantage that the individual constituents can be more precisely separated.
2. The six terroirs of Cognac
Moderate maritime climate with a light continental influence, the small river Charente and the lime and chalk soil are the benchmarks for the terroir. These geological structures were called campania in ancient Rome. Just like the region around Reims, the soil is called Champagne as a result. There is a balanced climate on the 13,000 hectares of Grande Champagnearound the capital Segonzac, and the stony soil is good for storing water. This is where the most complex and long-lasting Cognacs develop. Whoever tries these will not be able to avoid using the French’s favourite term “finesse”. The somewhat larger Petite Champagne can thank the less powerful chalky soil and lighter brandies for its somewhat disparaging name. Almost like the black sheep in a family, the 4000-hectare Borderieswith its clay soil mixed itself in amongst the terroirs. Violet-flavoured, but short-living Cognacs are produced here, which often have accents in the coupage. The large Fins Bois (33,000 hectares) marks the begin of the so-called rustic Cognac. They are all fruity and accessible, but they also get old quickly. There are very few chalky soils left in Bons Bois. The more basic brandies often end up in the delicate brandy liquor Pineau de Charente. The most basic Cognacs originate from Bois à Terroir (or Bois Ordinaires). Spicy exception: On the islands Ré and Oléron, with their sandy soils and the sea air, Cognacs with their own very unique style are created.
The wines for all Cognacs must come from the region and from the three authorised types Ugni blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard. In addition to “AOC“, there are other abbreviations to be found on the Cognac labels. The most important ones refer to the length of time that all Cognacs have spent in the cask. Later storage times in the glass balloon do not count:
V.S. (Very Special) or ***: Two years
V.S.O.P.(Very Superior Old Pale) and Réserve: Four years
X.O., Napoléonand Hors d'Âge (literally without age): Six years
However, many good Cognacs contain older amounts. Due to the fact that fewer people are aware of what the abbreviations mean, ever more producers simply omit them.
Fine Champagne contains at least 50 % brandies from Grande Champagne, the rest comes from Petite Champagne.
Early Landed are Cognacs, which are transported to England fresh from the cask. The ageing behaviour in the cool, moist sea air on the coast presents a special quality issue. Generally speaking, Cognacs contain 40 % alcohol.