Five Cognac Curiosities

Cognac CuriositiesAll good wine and spirits students know that Cognac is a high-quality French Brandy, made from grapes grown in the delineated Cognac region, located just north of Bordeaux. There are several grape varieties allowed, of which Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano) is the preferred; the ferment goes through a double distillation in an Alembic still, followed by a minimum of two years’ aging in oak. Good! We’ve covered the basics. But did you know…

#1 – The product of a third distillation is known as “Espirit de Cognac.” Espirit de Cognac was awarded an AOC in 1936, and is an unaged product that – after hours and hours of distillation – comes off the still at 80 – 85% abv. Brandy lovers of the world, don’t feel bad if you think you’ve never had Espirit de Cognac. In reality, you actually might have – as all of the production is destined to be used in the “liqueur d’expedition” for sparkling wines such as Champagne.

#2 – Don’t confuse the unaged, bound-for-bubbly “Espirit de Cognac AOC” with a product labeled as “L’Espirit de Cognac.” Many Cognac producers use the term “L’Espirit” to designate their top-tier bottles. For instance, “L’Espirit de Courvoisier” is an assemblage of old cognacs – the oldest is rumored to be from the 1802 vintage (“the few precious drops that escaped Napoleon’s lips”), and the youngest from 1930.  Bottled in a numbered, hand-crafted Lalique crystal decanter, L’Espirit de Courvoisier sells for upwards of $5,000 per bottle – if you can find one.

Cognac grapes#3 – Cognac is distilled from a white wine base, which is typically based on Ugni Blanc with soe Colombard, Folle Blanche, Montils, and Sémillon sprinkled in. In practice, Ugni Blanc is by far the dominant grape, accounting for up to 90% of the total vineyards. Folignan, a Folle Blanche X Ugni Blanc cross may be used up to a maximum of 10%.

#4 – Three other grapes are currently allowed to be used in the base wine as well. These are Jurançon Blanc, Meslier-St-François, and Sélect. However – it gets a little tricky here – they are only permitted through the 2020 harvest, and only if they were planted prior to September 18, 2005. Most of these grapes fall into the “uninteresting” category; however Meslier-St-François is (according to Jancis Robinson, et al, in Wine Grapes) a historic French variety that once grew in Champagne, the Yonne department of Burgundy, and the Loire Valley. As a matter of fact, in 1990, Charles Jumert of Cave de la Berthelotière “saved” the last surviving Meslier-St-François grapes of the Loire Valley by taking cuttings off of a vineyard as it was bulldozed under. He planted the grapes in Villiers-sur-Loir (north of Tours) and has been making a varietal “Vin de France” from them since 2003.

Cognac curiosities 2#5 – 97% of all Cognac produced each year is exported. That’s right – only 3% of the Cognac produced, on average, is consumed at home. As a matter of fact, the French consume as much Scotch whisky as they do Cognac. This means that an average of 130 million bottles of Cognac are exported each year, which is enough to make grape brandy one of France’s most valuable exports. (As for France’s other valuable exports, #1 is airplanes (as in Airbus), #2 is medications, #6 is wine (as in yeah!), #9 is make-up and sun-tan preparations, and #13 is perfume (we knew those had to be in there somewhere). Number 18 is brandy, Cognac included – not bad. You can see the rest of the data on French exports here.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

One Response to Five Cognac Curiosities

  1. Tom Riley says:

    Some great information and reminders that I can use with my WSET exam on Spirits. Thanks!

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