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Brandy Education

  • The making of a cognac barrel

    Perhaps the question which comes up most regarding the creation of cognac is that of how it is made. Very little consideration is ever given to the ageing process or indeed the actual barrels used for this most critical part of the process. Indeed the cognac production journey from vineyard to barrel is less than six months. But once the eau de vie is placed in the barrel, fifty years may elapse before a golden cognac comes out ready to drink. Thus the construction and preparation of the barrel is critically important.

    The cognac barrels are made of oak from the Limousin or Tronçais forests. The wood from the trees is cut into stave lengths and split into rough stave shaped blocks, before being placed in piles to weather for five to seven years. After ageing the staves are shaped by planing and placed together - they're held by steel hoops of varying sizes to suit the barrel. The other end of the barrel is dampened and heated over a fire so that the wood becomes more pliable. A steel hauser is placed round the barrel and it is slowly drawn in, then held in place by more steel hoops. At this stage the barrel is toasted to burn off tannins harmful to the cognac maturation. Grooves are cut round the edges so that the top and bottom can be dropped in and held in place with wedges.

  • Did You Know? The Cognac Label

    Reading a cognac label is relatively easy - reading what is not on the label is a little harder! There are labels that will try and give the illusion that what is in the bottle is better than it is. Since the delimitisation of the region and the creation of cru’s, many have tried to provide an image of Grandeur on their labels.

    There are six cognac cru’s. They are from the top, Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire. Very little cognac from Bois Ordinaire is supplied under producer labels. A further term can also be legally deployed called Fine Champagne, meaning that at least 50% of the cognac in the bottle must come from Grande Champagne and the rest from Petite Champagne.

    Modern Cognacs are highly blended and due to shortages have to come from wherever they can be purchased, so it is not that common to see their origin depicted on the label. Naturally enough, producers like to advertise the origin of their cognacs, especially if they come from the Champagnes. What a shame it is that some of these very expensive cognacs that come from the big houses in fancy bottles can’t display their cru’s! Legal information includes the name of the supplier, the volume in the bottle, the alcoholic volume, Made in France and the European “e”. Age statements are not a legal requirement, which here at Brandyclassics we consider a great pity!

    Brandyclassics sell a wide range of exceptional cognacs from the superior crus. Please visit our ecommerce store where you can buy online some truly exceptional cognacs, armagnacs, calvadoseseaux de vie, plus our exclusive range of Hermitage cognacs.

  • Creating a New Cognac

    Here at Brandyclassics we have often spoken lovingly about the benefits of long ageing. It is a pre-requisite of very fine cognac and there is certainly no substitute that will enhance the flavour.

    So how is it possible to create a new cognac, given that it needs so long to age in the barrel? We have discussed in these articles previously the need to find stocks produced from the right grapes, distilled in the right shaped and size stills, then aged for a long period in the right barrels. But this is only the start of the process to find the ideal cognac for our customers. It is also where our work begins!

    Having identified suitable cognac producers we need to optimise the qualities - this is usually not possible with commercially distilled cognacs that have a high level of neutrality, thus our need for the smaller distillers whose families have centuries of experience. There are many factors that can change the flavour of a cognac. We may recommend changing the barrel size or where it is stored, which will affect the rate the spirit comes out of the barrel. We have been known to change the old barrels for new for a short period, or even recommend the use of wood chips to give more exposure to the wood. But probably identifying the right strength to sell the cognac at is the biggest factor and this is a process that can take years to perfect before you, the cognac lover, taste it.

    Brandyclassics sell an exclusive range of Hermitage Cognacs. Hermitage Cognacs are the result of very specific distillation qualities and long, careful ageing in oak casks. They never include additives such as sugar or caramel, and are the very finest cognacs available in the world today. Ranging in price from around £30 to over £1000 per bottle, we have a cognac for every palate and pocket, a small selection of which are shown below.


  • Did You Know? Spanish Brandy Origins

    Spanish Brandy has a longer history than cognac; it is more varied and in some ways more intriguing. Most Spanish Brandy should be called Brandy de Jerez because they are distilled and sold by the firms that make sherry. Brandy making in Spain goes back to the early Middle Ages when the Moors occupied southern Spain and Jerez. As its full name “de la Fontera” suggests, it was on the frontier between Christendom and the then more civilised Moorish Kingdom of Granada.

    The Brandy making tradition disappeared until the arrival of the Dutch, in the late 17th century, came looking for brandy for their sailors as they had earlier in Cognac. The locals then developed what they called holandas, still the name used in Jerez for brandy, distilled to the same 70 per cent alcohol as cognac.

    The next impetus came when Cognac was invaded by the phylloxera vastatrix louse in the late 19th century. It was Brandy de Jerez that filled the gap for a couple of decades, until Jerez was also hit by the bug. Probably the largest boom was triggered by the demand from soldiers on both sides, during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Spain's post war industrialisation then carried on the good work, by creating a demand from industrial workers looking for inner warmth and by better heeled customers wanting a civilised spirit. The drink was kept afloat until the 1980’s when duties soared and Spanish drinking habits changed.



  • Did You Know? Campanian (Champagne)

    The geology of the cognac producing region is the single most important factor in the success of the famous drink. The spirits success rests solidly on chalk - a very special sort of chalk known as Campanian chalk, named after the Latin original of the word. This became known as Champagne and exists under most of the Grande Champagne area.

    There are two other chalk varieties which are defined mainly by their porosity. Santonian, named after the general cognac region of Saintonge is found mainly to the south of Cognac. Cognacian chalk is found around the town of Cognac. The physical composition of the chalk is almost as important as the geological make-up. It should be friable and not too compacted, so that the vine roots can penetrate through to the underground streams.

    Perhaps a confusing factor is that the boundaries were decided by administrators not geologists, so they include the clay bed of the Charente river and the banks of the Né to the south. Perhaps the biggest problem the Cognacais have, is the use of the word champagne, which was stolen by the wine makers 500 miles north east and who use it for the name of their fizzy wine, which also grows on chalk slopes similar to those around Cognac...

    Brandyclassics's online store sells a wide selection of Grande Champagne cognacsPetite Champagne Cognacs and a exclusive selection of Fine Champagne Cognacs. Cognacs from these crus include some of the most famous cognac houses such as A.E. Dor, Hine, Prunier, Raymond RagnaudA Hardy, as well as our own Hermitage cognac range.


  • Did You Know? The Charente Terroir

    Professor Louis Ravaz was the young professor who established the Station Viticole in Cognac and did much to re-establish the new vines after the Phylloxera around 1890, his definition of the Charente terroir is usefully described thus:

    “The same variety of grape can be grown anywhere and in the same way as in the Charente: distillation can be carried out anywhere else as at Cognac and in the same stills; the brandy can be stored in identical casks as those we employ in the region; it can be cared for as well or maybe even better. But the same combination of weather and terrain cannot be found anywhere else. As far as the soil is concerned, it is not enough that it should belong to the same geological formations, it must have the same physical and chemical composition, and no one has ever found such a duplicate. In addition the climate of the region must be identical to that of the Charente and that is almost inconceivable. There is therefore very little chance that all the elements which influence the nature of the product should be found together in any region apart from the Charente; and thus no other region can produce cognac”

    He went on to say,

    “All the trials which have been made all over the place to produce cognac with the same varieties and the Charentais methods have resulted only in failure”.

    What he described then is still the case today...

    Brandyclassics sell a number of cognacs from Houses in the Charente region, including a number of Pineaus and our very rare pre-phylloxera Sezerac de Forge Vintage 1805 cognac.

  • Did You Know? The Ugni Blanc

    The Ugni Blanc is the main grape variety planted in the Cognac region. More than 95% of all cognacs are made from this plain and rather tasteless variety, which was first planted after the Phylloxera around 1890.

    The variety triumphed and was a huge success, producing weak acidic wines in large volumes. The grape is probably better known to winemakers, especially in Italy as the Trebbiano Toscano from the hills of the Emilia Romagna near Piacenza. It is now so widespread that, according to Jancis Robinson, it probably produces more wine than any other variety. In France it is the most widely planted vine, helped by more than 100,000 hectares devoted to it in the Charente.

    Its popularity is in marked contrast to its qualities. These are summed up crisply and accurately by Jancis Robinson: Pale lemon, little nose, notably high acid, medium alcohol and body. It is a very characterless wine indeed. As a vine it’s twin virtues are the tenacity (it keeps its acid right up to late ripening) and of course it’s extraordinary high yields. These two qualities make it an ideal variety for providing a suitably neutral, suitably acid base wine for cognac. One last advantage is the grape bunch - its shape allows air to circulate thus minimising rot.

    Most cognacs and armagnacs for sale on the Brandyclassics website contain additional information including the Viticulture, Grape Variety and Flavour about the bottle. Some typical products are shown below.


  • What does VSOP and XO Cognac mean?

    Perhaps the most confusing aspect facing shoppers seeking a decent bottle of cognac is the use of generic terms such as VS, VSOP and XO. The big cognac houses such as Hennessy, Martel, Courvoisier and others use these to describe their highly blended cognacs. These big negoçiants buy their cognacs from around 5000 small producers and blend them together. Often, these blends may contain as many as 2000 different cognacs from individual producers.

    The rules governing cognac are many, but essentially it must be double distilled and the final distillation must be between 67 to 72 degrees (alcohol by volume). It can take several decades for the strength to drop naturally to that which most of us drink cognac, 40 degrees. This natural process is by evaporation, the lost alcohol being known as ‘Part des Anges’, the ‘Angel’s Share’. To avoid waiting and to minimise cost, the negoçiants will dilute the young cognacs, often adding sugar syrup and caramel. These additives give colour and soften the fiery effects. In contrast cognacs that have aged naturally develop richer qualities and greater individuality of their flavours.

    To set standards of ageing in the wood, the big negoçiants created the terms that we see on the High Street shelves, VS (Very Special) Cognac, VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) Cognac and Napoleon Cognac. Cognacs must be aged in oak barrels and although distillation is not allowed after 31st March, it is usually finished by around Christmas. Official ageing starts immediately after the last official distillation day, i.e 1st April. VS cognacs must age in wood for a minimum of 2 years, VSOP cognacs for 3 years and Napoleon cognacs for 6 years. In practice most houses keep their cognacs in wood rather longer than the minimum period.

    Technically XO Cognac  does not have any legal additional age requirements to that of Napoleon Cognac. The term “XO” was created about half a century ago by Hennessy to describe their oldest cognacs. In those days it usually meant cognacs with an average (not minimum), age of around 25 years. Today regrettably, with the pressure on sales volumes most XO cognacs are rather less than 10 years old.

    VSOP  Cognacs from Brandyclassics:

    At Brandyclassics, we specialise in selling single producer Cognacs, and hence attach rather less importance to the generic terms such as VSOP and XO, and more on the "age statements" and the talents of the individual distillers. However that doesn't mean to say that you can't buy VSOP Cognacs from us. We've a range of exceptional VSOP Cognacs from the smaller, quality cognac producers - they're aren't necessarily more expensive than the big brands, but we're sure you'll find they have a much more distinct character and flavour. Here's a few suggestions for you...

    XO  Cognacs from Brandyclassics:

    We have a number of excellent XO Cognacs from smaller artisan cognac producers, not the faceless brands such as Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Hine and Martell and Hennessy. XO Cognacs are often bought as gifts by our customers, add we'd like to encourage you to buy a Cognac that's as unique as the person you're buying it for...


  • Did You Know? Brandy and St Bernard Alpine Rescue Dogs

    There are 135 official mountain rescue dogs in the Swiss canton of Valais. The St Bernard story began in the year 962 when Bernard of Menthon founded a monastery and hospice in the Swiss Alps. The monastery, situated at 8000 ft was on a route over the Alps from France to Italy and in a particularly treacherous spot, where the monks were able to provide shelter for lost or injured travellers.

    By the time Bernard was canonised in 1681, the monastery he founded had started to keep dogs, which the monks found helpful in carrying out their rescue missions. They bred a type of dog that was particularly suited to the harsh weather conditions. It was a huge, energetic, friendly and faultlessly loyal type of Mastiff, with thick fur and a keen sense of smell and hearing. From the 17th century, when the oldest records were identified, through to now, the animals have rescued more than 2500 people.

    The monks provided each dog with a barrel around its neck containing brandy, as it was critical to provide a warming drink as soon as possible. The dogs were first referred to informally as St Bernards in 1833 and the name became official in 1880. It has been reported recently that due to the harsh economic climate, the traditional brandy barrel around the dogs neck has been replaced with a Nespresso coffee machine which offers a choice of espresso or  black coffee. The makers also wanted to include a cappuccino option but they had problems with the wind - plus it looked as though the dogs were rabid.

    Whilst avalanche victims may have limited options, you might think twice before attracting a 100 kg animal foaming at the mouth! So if you are going on a winter skiing vacation this Christmas, do make sure you take your own bottle of Hermitage Cognac - strictly for emergencies of course!


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