Cognac and Other Brandy

Producing the Wines

  • Small holders own most vineyards in Cognac, many of whom cultivate a number of crops in addition to grapes. These crops include barley for the Scotch whisky industry, sunflower, and corn for animal feed. The average land holding is 10 hectares, or 25 acres. The Ugni Blanc grape accounts for 95% of production in the region with Colombard and Folle Blanche making up most of the rest. The wines are fermented and racked (racking is a process by which sediment, also known as lees, is removed from the wine). Sometimes the wines are left on the lees to develop more rich characteristics.

    There are approximately 6,000 families growing grapes in the region. Most of these small growers have their wines distilled by a bouilleur de profession (the Hennessy distilleries act as bouilleurs de profession; that is professional distillers) and sell a base wine to distilleries. The other type of supplier in Cognac is known as a bouilleurs de cru; that is individual growers who distill their own production.

    Bouilleurs de cru discuss the fermentation of the wines each vintage with the master distiller of the house, who decides the length of heads and tails (In distilling the term “heads and tails” refers liquid portions of the entire distillation process – the heads being the beginning parts, just after the distillate begins running and the tails, the last amount when the process ends; the “heart”, or middle section of the process, being recognized by the master distillers as the prime portion.) As such, it is the master distiller who thus controls the distillation. These distillers are permitted to distill the production of any parcels that they own at one central location but they cannot distill the wines of other growers.

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  • Ugni Blanc, called Trebbiano in Italy, currently accounts for 95% of the region's cognac production. Other grapes include Colombard and Folle Blanche, or Gros Plant. Ugni Blanc is favored because it produces wines with low alcohol and high acidity: perfect for distillation.

    Colombard is somewhat less interesting, but Folle Blanche has good potential. Folle Blanche once played an important role in cognac production, but this role declined after phylloxera, since the variety is susceptible to rot. With modernized vineyard techniques, however, Folle Blanche is making a comeback. Other grapes that are authorized but seldom used in cognac include Blanc Rame, Semillon, Jurançon Blanc, Select and Montils.

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  • Since Ugni Blanc is a late budding and late ripening variety, the harvest is generally a full two weeks after that of Bordeaux. The grapes are typically harvested with a potential alcohol of 8–10% abv (alcohol by volume). Producers in cognac machine harvest and the berries are sorted on the tractor and removed immediately from any juice that may be expressed. The addition of sulfur is forbidden because of the likelihood of off aromas after distillation. Even in years when the growers are permitted to sulfur, Hennessy does not use sulfured wine.

    Grapes are gently pressed in a pneumatic press (vertical presses are not allowed) over the course of four hours, and the temperature of the must (the pulp of crushed grapes) is stabilized through the use of a heat exchanger. Very few additions are made to the must, and acidification is not allowed.

    The first cuvée is inoculated with yeast cultured from the area and fermentation in subsequent cuvées is assured by use of a 'pied de cuve’, a small starter culture. The wine ferments for 8–10 days in epoxy-lined cement and stainless tanks at a temperature a little below 27°C but fairly warm.

    The wines are racked off the gross lees (that is the sediment is removed from the wine), although in many cases the wine is distilled with the fine lees and left unfiltered. In some cases, extra lees can even be added into the wine to give it a richer, more buttery texture. This is a risky procedure since the lees can burn in the boiler, ruining the batch. In general, malolactic fermentation is not encouraged, though it can't be blocked, either, because of the restrictions on the use of sulfur.

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