Cognac: The Devil Is In The Detail
At last terroir is taking its rightful place in Cognac. What’s weird is that it has not been fully recognised before. Yet the region provides a perfect test case for the truth of this French notion.
Every bottle of Cognac entitled to the appellation is produced from the same grape variety – Ugni Blanc – from grapes of the same alcoholic potential, is fermented in the same way, distilled to exactly the same specifications in precisely the same type of stills and is then matured in the same oak. Yet, after 15–20 years, 95% of the brandies worth further maturation come from the Grande Champagne, the inner ring of the Cognac appellation. So, why are we not used to grading all Cognacs by the names of their sub-regions: Grande and Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires?
The answer is an early case of globalisation. For nearly two centuries after the French revolution, the Cognac business was dominated by two families, the Martells and the Hennessys. They had to buy virtually all the grapes, wines and young brandies they required from thousands of growers, and obviously didn’t want to pay too high a price. Moreover the growers, who could rely on the houses to buy their products, were happy with their role.
So Messrs Martell and Hennessy relied solely on their brand names and insisted that their brandies were blends from different appellations, whose names they didn’t mention. But in the 1930s a newcomer, Rémy Martin, broke two rules. First it exploited a neglected name, VSOP – one up from the basic level, then called HHH and now VS; more importantly, it exploited its considerable stocks of brandies from the Champagnes by advertising what remains the finest VSOP as ‘Fine Champagne’ – a label which guaranteed that at least half of the contents came from the Grande Champagne.
But Martell and Hennessy kept the status quo going until the Great Depression in the region which started in the mid-1970s and lasted for a quarter of a century. One major result was that the vineyard, which at around 110,000ha (hectares) was the biggest in France, was reduced by 28,000ha. And of course the vines were mostly uprooted in the grottiest sites. As a result, the real map of Cognac today bears no relation to the map with which we are all familiar – the series of semi-circles, with the Grande Champagne just south of Cognac on the southern bank of the River Charente at its heart. Today half the land in the Grande and Petite Champagnes, and the Borderies (the small rectangle north of Cognac), is still covered with vines. As a result, they account for two fifths of the vineyard area. The far larger Fins Bois still accounts for over two fifths of the vines, but few of these are to the east of Cognac, while the outer rings, the Bons Bois and above all the Bois Ordinaires, are largely free of vines.
At the same time successive crises meant the major firms broke many of their contracts, leaving hapless growers to sell their produce directly. And their only selling point was the geographical origin of their brandies. As a result we can now clearly distinguish between the qualities of the regions. (The best way is to sample the range of single-region Cognacs sold by Louis Royer).
Of course, as always, man influences the final result. Typically there is an enormous stylistic difference between the brandies produced by Delamain from a number of distilleries in the Grande Champagne and those from the house of Frapin, which all come from its 100ha estate in the heart of the region. All Delamain’s Cognacs are matured in old oak, ensuring that they all share an unmistakable delicacy and elegance. By contrast all Frapin’s offerings have been aged for two years in new oak – far longer than any other firm. The result is richer, fruitier, equally satisfying. But perhaps the best tribute to the force of the revolution is that Martell is now actively marketing brandies bearing the label Borderies. Throughout its 250-year history the firm has always relied on brandies from the Borderies, but only now has it chosen to advertise the fact.
The ‘inner ring’, its heart the slopes above the little town of Segonzac – though the appellation also includes the alluvial southern bank of the River Charente. But the rest is composed largely of Campanian chalk – its name echoing that found in Champagne – which is particularly intense. The brandies themselves take a long time to mature largely because of their intensity.
The outer ring, composed of Santonian, less strongly chalky than the Campanian, but still crumbly. Shares the qualities of the GC – and those of the so-called Petite Champagne d’Archiac from the little town on the River Né which separates the two regions.
The smallest and least known of the regions, it is composed of very special clay soils. These produce brandies with delicious aromas and flavours of nuts and nut kernels.
The soils of much of this enormous region contain very little chalk and thus its brandies are of no interest to us – or the producers. But there are more chalky patches east of Cognac. The ‘Fins Bois de Jarnac’ from the slopes above the town of Jarnac, a few miles upriver from Cognac, can produce particularly floral and elegant brandies – the best range is from Léopold Gourmel, which specialises in Fins Bois.
Only a few patches of vines, to the east and south east of the Fins Bois, but a handful of growers here make light, elegant brandies.
Forgettable – the only vines, in the islands offshore, make thin, salty cognacs.
Nicholas Faith is the author of Cognac (£20, Mitchell Beazley Classic Wine Library).