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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Aging and Blending of Cognac, France’s most Famous Brandy. Cognac II.

Aging and Blending of Cognac
Why you cannot age Cognac at home
Behind the French Menu
Bryan Newman

A tulip Cognac glass.
Photograph courtesy of The Ideal Glass.
Cognac and other liquors, unlike wines, only mature in a barrel; once bottled your Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and also your whisky or whisk, will age no more.

That bottle of a six-year-old Cognac bought twenty-years ago, and just rediscovered in the back of a dark cupboard, is only as good, maybe, as it was on the day it was bottled. It is not a Cognac that has matured for twenty–six years!  Luckily, many Cognacs, in old bottles, are valuable for the rarity of the bottle and the label.
Storing Cognac at home
Cognac and other liquors must be stored standing up; otherwise the liquor will attack the cork. If the cork, of an old Cognac, has deteriorated over time and some of the Cognac has evaporated then the taste of the Cognac that is left will be different; however, that is not aging, it is the results of evaporation and a dried out cork will hardly have provided any improvement.
This old Courvoisier Cognac bottle was found in a cupboard; 
 it doesn’t look too bad;
however, its value is still largely the label and bottle.
Photograph courtesy of Mike Miller
Caveat Emptor:  When you see a one-hundred year-old Cognac, or an even older Cognac, offered for sale, you are, in fact, being offered a Cognac that was bottled one-hundred or more years ago.  None of these bottles will contain Cognacs or eau-de-vies that were aged in barrels for one hundred plus years, that does not happen; if a really old bottle does contain any Cognac it was probably in a barrel for less than ten years and then was bottled, and the Cognac will remain a ten year-old Cognac   On the upside, the bottle and label may be truly unique. For more information about the legal ages and grades on Cognac labels read the post Cognac I.

The meaning of eau-de-vie,
A young eau-de-vie, in the world of Cognac, is a young liquor not yet a brandy; these eau-de-vies, as they age they will become simple brandies; though not very drinkable ones; however, when the aging is complete and blended with others they will become a complete and  truly unique grape brandy, a Cognac.  For more about the meaning of brandy and eau-de-vie see my first Cognac post: Cognac 1.

Decanting Cognacs.
The old British tradition of decanting Cognacs and other liquors after a bottle has been opened, will add the beauty of the decanter to the enjoyment of the setting. Serving Cognac in a beautiful decanter can bring smiles all around and warm the atmosphere even before the first sip.  Cognac in a decanter, will remain, more or less, the same as it was when first decanted for up to a year. The more often that the decanter is opened evaporation will begin to show its affect; however, from personal experience that is rarely a problem; decanted Cognac always seems to be finished within two to three weeks.
Cognac begins with white wine.
All Cognacs start with white wine grapes gathered, pressed and made into wine.  The wines that create Cognac are extremely important; however, these wines are never used as table wines. 
The names of the grapes used will not be on the labels of most Cognac bottles though they will certainly affect the taste. The most popular grape in the Cognac region is the ugni blanc grape, locally called the St.-Émilion, but there are eight other grape varieties that may be used and they all bring different tastes to the final brandy.
Ugni Blanc grapes ready for picking.
Photograph courtesy of Pictr One X.
The new wines used to make Cognac eau-de-vies are not aged, and within a few months of becoming wine they will have been distilled twice, and have become fledgling eau-de-vies, young liquors.
The oak barrels used for Cognac eau-de-vies.
The oaks chosen for Cognac’s barrels come from the Limousin and Troncais oaks; these particular oaks have been evaluated over hundreds of years, and no other oak has been found to be better. 
Cognac experts will explain that the barrels made from these oaks affect the aroma, taste, and colors of Cognac in ways that no other oak can replicate. The larger the barrel the greater the exposure of the eau-de-vie to the wood; the wood provides critical contributions to taste, aroma and color; however, the larger the barrel the greater the evaporation. Barrels sizes are from 200 liters to over 400 liters with the most typical barrel size being 300 liters.
The barrels used for Cognac are handmade, and the process of making the barrels is a carefully monitored process. The oak is firstly cut into barrel staves of the desired size and then aged for three years to remove the sap from the new wood; any sap left would affect the flavor of the product being aged.
A cooper, a barrel maker, completing a Cognac barrel.
Photograph courtesy of grazzc.
After three years, the wood may then be used for barrels, and to achieve the perfect curve the wood is repeatedly heated, and then cooled with water. When a barrel is almost finished the interior is given a final toasting, this is a critical part of the process; the color of a cognac and many of its flavors will come from the wood on the inside of these charred oak barrels
In the tonnellerie, where the  barrels are made.
Photograph by Gilles de Beauchêne courtesy of Hine Cognac
What goes on inside the barrels
The newly distilled eau-de-vies are poured into the oak barrels and then transferred to humidity and temperature controlled dark cellars called a chai in French, (pronounced shay) and the aging begins.
Cognac barrels maturing in the cellars of the Camus Cognac House
Photograph courtesy of Camus Cognac.
When you visit a Cognac house they will tell you that, depending on a combination of factors, after two, four, six, ten, twenty, thirty, or at most forty years in a barrel all eau-de-vies will have arrived at their optimum ages; leaving an eau-de-vie for longer would only see it deteriorate. As the Cognac eau-de-vies age, they lose up to 2% of their volume annually due to evaporation through the porous oak. That loss, through evaporation, is charmingly called the angels share and only demineralized water may be added to replace the lost liquor; whatever the angels take they keep!
Another angel on the way to a Cognac cellar.
Photograph courtesy of countrykitty.
The eau-de-vies that are aging in the barrels are also affected by the heat and humidity of the cellars; these factors affect the way the barrel releases flavor, aroma and color from the wood.  From the oak used for Cognac barrels comes vanillin, a compound with a vanilla flavor as well as other flavors and tannins that will bring color. There is no scientific scale, or algorithm, to calculate these influences; it is the Maitre de Chai, the cellar master and master blender, who must evaluate each barrel as the eau-de-vies age over the years.
We, the consumers, cannot evaluate a Cognac by the manner in which a barrel is stored; we do not see this information on the label anyway.  However, for the Maitre de Chai the method of storing the barrels is extremely important.  Barrels may be stored on their sides, standing up, touching the barrels next to each other, separated by wooden divisions or stacked on top of each other; these and other variations will all affect the changes inside the barrels in different ways. The barrels, during the years that the eau-de-vies inside them mature, may also be moved to different cellars that offer different ranges of temperatures and humidity, and in Cognac, many of the cellars are, in fact, sealed thick-walled buildings above ground.
The Maitre de Chai, the master blender,
the cellar master.
Chai is pronounced shay.
The profession of Maitre de Chai is the most senior position in a Cognac house, in many ways it is almost a vocation. The profession and the time spent working to achieve that status and responsibility are not short term jobs.  When you visit a Cognac house you may find that the Maitre de Chai will have spent all or at least half of his or her working life with the same house; in another Cognac house the Maitre de Chai may be a second or third generation of the same family working for the same Cognac house.
The Maitre de Chai oversees each part of the process, beginning from when the grapes arrive to when the Cognac is bottled. The first process is taking the young wine to be double distilled in a process that is unique to Cognac; the double distillation is a fundamental part of the creation of a Cognac eau-de-vie and also makes for a smooth brandy.  From the first distilled liquors, the Maitre de Chai must first supervise the removal of unwanted liquids produced at the beginning of the distillation, liquids that would ruin the taste of the final product.
The traditional Cognac double-distillation apparatus.
Photograph courtesy of Bertrand Cognac
From the distilled eau-de-vies that are left there are many differences, and they will be separated and grouped; some will be sent, with wines not yet distilled, to run through the whole process again.  Finally, the tails, the end parts of the distilled liquors that are not acceptable will be removed entirely, and  the new eau-de-vies that meet the  Cognac house’s standards  and are approximately 30 per alcohol will be poured into the oak barrels.  In the oak barrels the eau-de-vies begin to mature, and the Maitre de Chai will determine how the barrels will be stored and which cellar will be chosen.
The Maitre de Chai and friends,
Testing Cognac eau-de-vies in the Cognac Bertrand cellars
Photograph courtesy of Cognac Bertrand.
It is the nose and taste buds of the Maitre de Chai, along with modern technology that follow every barrel of eau-de-vie as it matures. At their peak, the mature eau-de-vies will be transferred from barrels to large glass bottles called Demijohns that hold about 25 liters each; each of these Demijohns will be marked with the  age of the eau-de-vie and its the individual attributes.  A sampling will be taken to the blending room where blends are tested.
Samples of older eau-de-vies ready to be tested with the latest production.
Photograph courtesy of Martell Cognac.
The Demijohns
Demijohn bottles, containing Cognac, like all bottled alcoholic liquors must be stored standing up; unlike wines, liquors will attack the cork. These bottled eau-de-vies are kept in temperature and humidity controlled dark cellars; there the corks will not dry out, and light, which would lighten a Cognac’s color, will not enter. In the same manner when you are storing Cognac, or any other liquor, at home keep the bottles standing up, and when possible in a closed dark cabinet.
Glass Demijohns.
Photograph courtesy of will200
The blending
The blending begins when a particular Cognac is required or when a new Cognac is being created; then the eau-de-vies are taken from glass Demijohns and blended with other eau-de-vies. The youngest will have spent two years in a barrel, and most eau-de-vies will come from the same cru, the same rated vineyards, but they will be from different years.
The least expensive Cognacs may be blends of just a few eau-de-vies while an unusually complex Cognac may be a blend of over forty or more different eau-de-vies with the youngest eau-de-vie being over ten years old.  From  2016 the term X.O. may only be used for Cognacs where the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least ten years-old
The Cognac Vineyards
The vineyards that grow the grapes used for Cognac cover a large part of the French région of Poitou Charente; their are even Cognac vineyards on the islands of Île de Ré and  Île d'Oléron. The islands of  Île de Ré and  Île d'Oléron  are famous for their beaches, oyster farms, mussel  farms, fresh sea fish and their Cognac, as well as much more; they are off the coast of Poitou Charente near the City of La Rochelle.
Vineyards for the grapes used for Cognac
 on the Isle De Ré.
Photograph courtesy of Camus Cognac
The vineyards are divided into six crus, graded growing areas; these growing areas supply the grades to the Cognacs made from them.  Exceptionally, there is one grade that has no vineyards; it is a blend of eau-de-vies from the first and second rated crus; called Fine Champagne, and it is discussed in the post Cognac 1.
These grades, the crus, should be on the label of every bottle of Cognac.  The advertising departments of some Cognac houses may highlight the words single cru as a special attribute, but most Cognacs are, in any case, the product of a single cru, a single growing area.
For knowledgeable Cognac lovers, specific Cognacs will have an undefinable je ne sais quoi, a distinctive taste and aroma that cannot be defined; that results from aging of the eau-de-vies, their unique attributes and color and the expertise and knowledge of the Maitre de Chai.   Elsewhere, the marketing department of another Cognac house may demand a competitively priced Cognac that they can be marketed as containing a 50 year-old eau-de-vie and advertised as such.  The result of that request may be a relatively  inexpensive Cognac that is legally a V.O., a two year old Cognac, and it will contain a very small percentage of a fifty year old brandy.  The je ne sais quoi will be missing as the percentage of that 50 year-old eau-de-vie, and its impact on the final taste may be negligible. Like wines, so with Cognac, stay with the one you liked the best, not the one with the fanciest label or the most beautiful bottle.
When I request my favorite Cognac, in another country, I know that it will taste the same as the one I bought five years ago half a world away. I rely on the ability of the Maitre de Chai to replicate my favorite year after year.
The permitted additions:
Cognacs, Armagnacs and Calvadoses, have a three permitted, but controlled additions. A small amount of caramel for color is permitted along with up to 2% sugar syrup to enhance the taste. Then comes a small amount of liquid called boise; boise is made from boiled oak chips for more of that "natural" aged oak flavor. There are Cognacs that do not use one or more of these legally permitted additives, and that will often appear on the labels, boxes or advertising as a sales factor. However, knowing the secrets of a Cognac’s additions will not change the magic of a Cognac’s aroma and taste.
To train your nose and taste buds to detect the differences between Cognacs. Look for  a tasting at a wine and liquor store in your home town; it can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience; however, it will also require a designated driver!  
Tasting three different Martell Cognacs
Photograph courtesy of the Dunleavy Family.
Tasting Cognac
Another option is to try a blind test of two or more Cognacs with friends; a group of Cognac lovers are much like whisky lovers who relish the opportunity to sample three or four different whiskies. When you have found a Cognac that you like, and also fits your budget, stick with it; the master blenders will not let you down. When you are satisfied with a particular Cognac use that as your own gold standard to grade others.
Traveling to France and tasting Cognacs there:
The ultimate indulgence for a Cognac lover is to include two or three days of a one or two-week trip to France with a side-trip to Cognac; in fact the area around Cognac is so beautiful and special and you can easily spend one or two wonderful weeks without travelling very far. Beautiful sandy beaches are 50 minutes away from the town of Cognac; Bordeaux with its wines and World Heritage city are an hour and a half distant, and the city of La Rochellele  with its own incredible history and beauty as well as its with wonderful sea fish and seafood restaurants in its vieux port, old harbor, is just one hour away. 
On the internet, you will find many companies who organize tours to France and Cognac country, some offer flights to France as part of their packages. Other companies meet you upon arrival at a local airport or railway station, and all offer one, two or three plus day tours with tastings in Cognac houses great and small, discussions, trips to museums, areas of historical interest, local farmer’s markets and much more.  There are also sites that show their love  for Cognac and offer information on Cognac and links to other Cognac web sites with tours etc.
Tours in Cognac, France.
Cognac and wine tours.
Cognac Tasting Tours
Cognac and Wine Tours
The companies above, I have learned, have solid reputations; however, I have not travelled with them.
Welcome to the town of Cognac.
Photograph courtesy of pierre-alain dorange.
You can find a great deal of more information on Cognac as well as Cognac happenings at home and Cognac tours in France at the site below:
The site below  this paragraph  is run by over fifty companies that  promotes all things Cognac and are also based in the town and area.
 Les Étapes du Cognac.
Trip Advisor also  has pages with things to do in Cognac as well as information on its hotels and restaurants.
Trip Advisor.
Cognac in other languages:

(Chinese - 科涅克白兰地 - kē niè kè báilándì), (Greek – κονιάκ –koniák), (Hebrew – konyak - קוניאק), (Japanese -コニャック -  konyakku), (Korean –코냑 - konyag), (Romanian- coniac), (Russian - kоньяк  - kon'yak), (Tagalog – konyak), (Thai – คอนยัค).
The map below covers Poitou Charente including the Cognac growing regions in part of the département of Dordogne  in Aquitaine.


To the south-west is part of the département of Gironde with Bordeaux and its fabulous wines.
   Copyright Google Maps ©

Pineau de Charentes;
The best,  and the most famous aperitif from the Cognac region is Pineau de Charentes; it was to be included in this post; however, this post is already too long, and Pineau de Charentes cannot be discussed in two paragraphs.  Post III will be on Pineau de Charentes.
The other Cognac posts:
This post is Cognac II.
The Aging and Blending of Cognac, France’s most Famous Brandy. Cognac II.
Cognac III:  
Pineau de Charentes, Cognac’s magnificent aperitif.
 Cognac IV:
Visiting the Cognac houses and trying their wares: Rémy Martin, HINE, Otard, Camus, Courvoisier, Martell, Hennessey, Bertrand and more...
The history of the British and the Irish who created great Cognac houses: HINE, Martell and Hennessey.
Cognac from the Atlantic Islands of Île de Ré and  Île d'Oléron
and more…. 

Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu.
Copyright 2010, 2013,2016
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman