The ancient art and know-how of cognac: production, men and women of the profession
A true living heritage, the ancient knowledge of Cognac is transmitted and evolves from generation to generation. Learn more here.
From the planting of the vines to the blending, the harvest, the vinification, the distillation and the aging of the brandies. Discover the whole process of making cognac and the men and women of cognac, their art.
Production of cognac
An overview of the precise and creative Cognac production process, from planting vines to harvesting grapes, through fermentation, distillation, and ageing to blending. Learn the step-by-step.
• Planting Vines
The first stage in making Cognac involves planting vines. This takes place in the spring, generally with “bare-root” vines, usually prepared by nursery growers.
In order to create optimum growing conditions, the young plots benefit from meticulous care and attention: from watering to manual weeding in between the ceps, vine stakes, protection against rabbits and other care and attention, conducive to vine growth.
One, two, or three years later, and the vines are well-developed and ready to produce grapes.
Harvesting generally begins in mid-September, when the first grapes are ripe, and finishes around mid-October. Harvesting is by machine, except for a few winegrowers who choose to pick by hand. In both cases, emphasis is placed on handling the grapes carefully.
The grapes are pressed immediately after harvesting. Pneumatic presses are used in a batch process, to ensure low-pressure extraction of high-quality must, containing low proportions of grape solids and phenolic compounds.
Musts fermented into wine intended for distillation have a low potential alcohol content (around 9% vol.), conducive to optimum concentration of aromatic substances in the grapes and high acidity, ensuring good natural conservation.
The unique feature of winemaking in this area is that adding sugar and sulphites during fermentation is strictly prohibited. This ensures that the intrinsic fruitiness of the grapes is preserved.
• The Double Distilliation Charentais
A batch process is used for double distillation. This method consists of two successive steps, called “chauffes”:
1. The “first chauffe” is the initial distillation of wine, resulting in the brouillis, or first distillate.
2. The “second chauffe” (also called “repasse” or “bonne chauffe”) designates the distillation of the brouillis, and produces Cognac wine spirit once the beginning and the end of distillation (also called “phlegme”) are eliminated.
Heads or tails from the first or second distillation may be added to the wine or brouillis and distilled a second time.
Distillation must be completed no later than March 31st of the year after the harvest. Time is of the essence.
As soon as it comes out of the still, the new wine spirit is put into oak barrels to age for several years, where it develops its color, aromas, and flavors. The aging process may last several decades.
The combination of the origin of the oak, type of grain, humidity in the cellar, and age of the barrels provides an immense playground where cellar masters can age the wine spirit as they wish to produce the desired result.
Long aging results in soft, rich, concentrated wine spirits with good aromatic complexity.
In the long term, the wine spirit develops the characteristic rancio flavors, characterized by notes of autumnal forest floor, mushrooms, and walnut oil. Once again, time is crucial.
Once aging is completed, it is time for blending. This age-old tradition is not covered by any precise requirements in the Cognac AOC specifications. This is the crucial moment when the cellar master, assisted by their team, selects and purchases the wine spirits from winegrowers, and monitors them throughout their aging process to create blends which serve as veritable trademarks for each brand.
Just like the perfumer’s “nose”, the cellar master composes subtle blends of wine spirits of different ages and origins to give the Cognac its full aromatic complexity.
Over time, the spirit is tasted regularly to monitor the aging process, enhancing its intensity, silkiness, roundness, finesse and aftertaste by carefully adding distilled water to bring the Cognac to the desired alcohol level and balance. This process is called “dilution“. As a result, we obtain an outstanding Cognac with personality, length, and subtle aromatic nuances.
The men and women of the art of cognac making
The Cognac region is incredibly diverse in terms of know-how and technical expertise. A wide variety of jobs have been created in the production and marketing sectors.
Each profession plays an essential role in Cognac making. A combination of stringent standards, traditions, and dedication contribute to the authenticity and reputation of Cognac.
The professions in the production of cognac
• The nursery grower
The nursery grower produces vines by grafting scions onto rootstocks. Once the graft has joined these two elements together, they are planted in a vine nursery to develop their roots.
• The winegrower
The winegrower is involved right from the start by planting and replanting vines, as well as caring for them until the harvest. Generally, winegrowers sell their crops once the picked grapes have been transformed into wine by fermentation, placing particular emphasis on both the quantity and quality of the fermented alcohol.
Distillers, like alchemists, transform wine into wine spirits, thus concentrating the aromas. There are several categories of distillers:
–Grower-distillers are winegrowers who either distil their own wines or have their production custom-distilled. There 3,518 grower-distillers.
–Professional distillers are experts in the distillation process. They purchase wines which they then distil and sell as wine spirits or custom-distil for other producers. There are 117 professional distillers.
Cellarmasters guarantee the desired aromas, flavors and styles of each of the 271 Cognac houses. They oversee all stages in production, from selecting wine spirits through to blending. Furthermore, they monitor the wine spirits throughout the aging process, choosing between new and older barrels, as well as dry or humid cellars. They taste the wine spirits regularly to identify those ready for blending and those requiring additional time to express their full potential.
Cognac Marketing Professions
• Wine and spirits brokers
Wine and spirits brokers travel around sourcing wine spirits, facilitating contacts between winegrowers and merchants. These key players act as intermediaries between winegrowers and merchants.
• Professions in the marketing, packaging and design area
The last category are professions in the marketing, packaging and design sectors, including marketing specialists, glassmakers, cork producers, cardboard manufacturers, and printers, responsible for Cognac packaging.
Boilermakers are artisans who design and produce Charentais copper pot stills for distilleries. Nowadays, their profession has evolved towards supplying tools for automated distillation.
Coopers are skilled craftsmen in wood. They make barrels to age Cognac by carving and assembling stave wood extracted from oak trees. Once the barrel has taken shape, it is toasted to develop oak aromas, such as vanilla and toast.
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