To visit the Charente in October is one of the most exciting periods of the whole of the Cognac season. There is a huge sense of anticipation - vats and stills are being cleaned, machinery is being serviced and viticulturists are checking the acidity and sugar levels in the grapes. They are also making final checks on the quality and cleanliness of the grapes, ensuring that no mildew or rot exists in the clusters of Ugni Blanc, Colombard or Folle Blanche before they are picked.
On the chosen day, usually at the end of October, and depending on acidity and sugar levels, the whole region will go into action and the mechanical harvesters will work down the lines of grapes, plucking the clusters from the vines. The grapes will be loaded into trucks and taken as quickly as possible to the presses. It is essential that they are crushed as quickly as possible to prevent sulphur dioxide forming on the skins as a result of warm weather and natural sugars in the grapes. Modern presses are long rotating cylinders with slatted sides. Two stainless steel plates move in from the ends as the drums rotate, releasing the juice until the pulp of the grape comes out. This is the lees and is sometimes used in the wine to produce a fruitier flavour.
Generally the juice will take about 6-8 weeks before natural fermentation turns it into a wine with an alcohol content of around 8-9%. Around 95% of the wines are made from the Ugni Blanc grapes, but some specialist houses still like the charming qualities of the Colombard and the traditional Folle, which can produce more peachy flavours in the finished cognacs. The wine is a cloudy liquid with a relatively acidic quality, ideal for distilling. It is usually stored in big concrete tanks before being checked for the optimum quality and pumped into the stills boiler for the heating and reduction process.