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Cognac and Other Brandy

History

  • Wine growing is thought to have begun with the Roman legions in the Cognac region as long as 2,000 years ago. There is a Roman farm in the area that dates to the 1st century BC, and the town of Sainte was a major Roman garrison. From this garrison sprang a trade fair that continued throughout the centuries after Roman rule.
    The Romans are also responsible for naming many of towns in the region; those towns whose names end in “ac” come from the Latin word for water, aqua, as in aqua vitae, water of life. Names such as Cognac, Segonzac or Jonzac – towns in the Charente region (and elsewhere throughout France) – have names which by their very ending convey the fact that a spring or aquifer is located in this or that town or village.

    The region gained even more importance in the middle ages since the salt that was produced nearby was necessary for the preservation of foodstuffs. Another flourishing local industry was paper making, which was done in mills along the Charente River. The wine of the region naturally prospered at the same time with the traffic of these traders. A third factor in the area's success was their proximity to the sea. It was easy to trade with the region, since the Charente River was easily navigable and close to the sea.

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  • The origin of distillation in the region is thought to be tied to Dutch traders, who had ordered ‘burnt wine' or brandewijn as early as 162; the Dutch word, then, is the origin of the word ‘brandy’. The first distillery to offer its brandy under the ‘brand name' of cognac was Augier in 1715. Now the word ‘brandy' in the EU is legally defined as any spirit distilled from fruit and through many regions of the world it is synonymous with alcohol of any type.
    As the old saying goes, “All cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac.”

    During the 19th century, cognac was very popular in France and also in the colonies, in part because it traveled well. Phylloxera, the First World War, and the Great Depression crippled this industry as it did so many others.

    During World War II, however, the industry was protected by the German invaders, and following this period, the trade became increasingly dominated by the big four houses that control the majority of it today.

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