Cognac is the world’s most famous brandy. It’s made in the region of the same name in Southwestern France, just north of Bordeaux along the Charente River. The Romans built settlements here and were the first to plant vines recognizing the area as a strategic trading center. Easy access to the great port of La Rochelle (formerly known as the Bay of Biscay) and its important salt production assured that goods produces along the Charente could reach willing buyers.
However, serious brandy production in Cognac did not begin until the late 1630’s, roughly two hundred years later than its sister region, Armagnac. Brandy production in Cognac was primarily an invention of the Dutch who were the world’s greatest trading and shipping power. The Dutch had been traveling to La Rochelle since at least the 13th century seeking salt and wine to a lesser degree. Initially, the Dutch exported whole casks of Charente wine to be distilled at home in the Netherlands.
Soon it became clear that the prudent, and economical, solution was to erect stills in and near the town of Cognac. Soon, the brandies of Cognac were enjoying great favor in England and much of Northern Europe. Popularity aside, the region along the Charente was an ideal microclimate for the production of grapes and the slow and steady maturation of brandy. Louis XIV granted further good fortune when he directed oak forests to be planted in the adjacent regions of Limousin and Trancais (two forests that, today, produce oak preferred by coopers, wine growers, and brandy producers).
The tremendous thirst for Cognac led to the creation of a three-tier production system: growing grapes and producing wines, distillation, and finally aging and blending. This system is still strong today as Cognac is dominated by large houses that buy eaux-de-vie from several small to large family growers/distillers. The brandies are then aged and blended in their often-massive warehouses. For this reason brandies from Cognac tend to show more similarities than differences from brand to brand. Rare are the independent family grower and distiller that dare to strike out on their own to accomplish all three tiers. Fortunately, this is a slowly developing trend occurring in Cognac today. While many inclinations in the industry are troubling, this direction is very pleasing to me, causing me to believe that Cognac’s best days are ahead. Cognac’s proverbial glass is half-full unless of course you leave it in front of me, which would certainly cause it to be fully empty. It’s important to remember that wine followed the same path, albeit a quicker journey.