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How to make Cognac

  • The Role of Cellar Masters

    Probably only the big cognac houses have imported cellar masters.  Usually they are recruited from family firms whose skills and experience have, over the years, kept the industry in very good form.  Currently most cellar masters are male so, whilst explaining the role, I will use the pronoun ‘he’.

    Cellar masters

    In truth, the cellar master is a multi-skilled person whose understanding of the cognacs in his cellar starts with the fresh eau de vie. He needs to understand how it was made, including the quantities distilled, the distillation temperature and when the cut was made. This information will help him choose the correct barrels to use for both the initial storage and the long barrel ageing in his cellar. Most cognac houses have their own style of cognacs, normally recognisable by experts.  He will try to replicate that style throughout his cognacs.


    Modern cognacs are usually made for blending.  To do this they are poured out of their barrels into large wooden tanks which may hold as much 100,000 litres. Blending is a complex job and much emphasis is placed on the knowledge gained from the cellar’s historical background. Mixing cognacs requires a great deal of experience.  It does not follow that mixing two fine cognacs together will produce something of a similar quality. In some cases, especially when very high quality eaux de vie is used, the quality of the final blend is a total disaster.


    The cellar master’s role also includes an in-depth understanding of his barrels - their size, the oak used and what they have previously contained (the second stage of ageing is always in old barrels). He also needs to understand how much they were toasted and where he is going to keep them.  Many cellar masters move their barrels around the cellar to make full use of the humidity and to keep the cognac moving so it is exposed to every part of the barrel.


    Lastly, he tests the cognac by taking samples and checking the level of alcohol.  This is done by measuring the temperature and using an alcohol meter.  All official alcohol measurements are made at 20 degrees Celsius, so it is important to be able to calculate the actual strength at different temperatures. Small samples are taken to gauge the cognac’s maturity and balance at regular intervals as each barrel produces a cognac with a slightly different flavour and colour. The skill of bringing all these properties together takes many years to learn.  It is for this reason that the cognacs produced by family firms are often of a far higher quality than those from the big houses, which are highly blended.

  • Distilling Cognac on the Lees

    We have often talked about distillation on the Lees but rarely described why we do it or indeed what ‘the lees’ are.

    roadside pressMany years ago, during cognac production, whole bunches of grapes were crushed in presses to release the grape juice.  The process was fairly crude and some stalks, pips and skins found their way into the juice.  This negatively affected the flavour of the wine and sometimes even contaminated it. Grape crushing was therefore banned after the turn of the twentieth century.

    The newly designed horizontal presses had slats on the sides.  These rotated slowly putting very little pressure on the grapes, so only the juice escaped.  Modern rotating presses also have hydraulic plates at either end.  These plates exert slightly more pressure on the grapes which extracts the maximum amount of juice and some of the pulp (but not the skin, stalks or pips).  This combination of juice and pulp is known as ‘the lees’.  It is the pulp which provides more of the grape flavours.  A wine producer might refer to it as the second pressing.

    Most cognac producers will use ‘the lees’ in their distillation as it adds to the quantity produced as well as the flavour.  Not all distillers will admit to it though.  There is a fear that some buyers believe cognacs distilled not on their lees will be purer, albeit with less flavour.  There is also a problem if the producers sell to the big houses as they ask distillers not to use the lees.  The big houses require cognacs with greater neutrality for blending with many others from different distillers.  Extremes of flavour will affect the uniformity of products which are sold in vast quantities.

    Whatever the case for or against this process, those seeking greater individuality of flavours should always look for cognacs that were distilled on their ‘lees’.  The Hermitage range is a classic example.

  • Why Buy Vintage Cognac?

    There are said to be 5000 cognac producers in the Charente, the vast majority make cognac for the big cognac houses and sell it to them within a couple of years.  But some, perhaps around 10%, have learnt to wait until their heavenly nectars have matured for longer.  Locked away in dark cellars they gradually develop the individual and very personal qualities of their makers. When you buy a specifically aged or vintage cognac, you are buying the makers’ skills and experiences that have been honed over generations into a single taste experience.  Every cognac distillation is different. The very finest come from Grande Champagne and those kept as vintage stock will age for much longer than any generic blend and will develop far greater natural flavours during their long sleep in oak casks.

    Blended cognacs are produced to feed the insatiable greed for mass volume sales. The big cognac houses produce very little of their own cognac. More than 99% of the cognacs used in their blends are supplied by the thousands of small growers and distillers in the Charente region.  Not only are these cognacs young and still relatively tasteless, when they are mixed with up to 2000 others to provide one generic blend it is impossible to distinguish individual flavours.  A blend, even in its finest form (XO), needs only to have been aged in a barrel for 6 ½ years.  It is therefore little surprise that every generically blended cognac relies heavily on the addition of sugar syrup and caramel to obscure the fiery and tasteless spirits.

    Jean Monnet, the famous cognac producer and politician, once said “The great thing about making cognac is that it teaches you above everything else to wait, but time and God and the seasons have got to be on your side”.  I would add to that by saying “Very few know where to find the finest and most individual Premier Cru Cognacs and Hermitage is one of them”.

  • Why Chill Filter Cognac?

    Non-chill cognacPernod Ricard has launched the first Martell non-chill filtered cognac. Chill filtering is a process routinely employed by the larger cognac houses. It is a means of clarifying the appearance of the drink as it forces the spirit and water to mix more quickly and effectively. (The effect of mixing spirit with water can be seen when water is added to whisky as it often becomes cloudy). Young, mass-produced cognacs need to be reduced with water quickly to prepare them for market so chill-filtering is a useful tool - although it is only effective on spirits with an abv of less than 46 degrees. The temperature of the cognac is reduced to between -10 and +4 degrees to assist reduction and a fine absorption filter is also used to take out very small particles. This filtration reduces haziness but also captures some of the esters and fatty acids which are produced during the production and ageing process. Most experts claim that this filtering affects the flavour since some of these esters and fatty acids form into congeners (flavouroids) which add flavour. We do not chill filter at Hermitage Cognacs as all our cognacs are reduced naturally or over a very long period of time.  Take our Hermitage 1917 for example - distilled 100 years ago.

  • Cognac Balance

    cognac stillThe process of distilling cognacs requires that the wines are distilled twice, the second distillation must be between 67-72.4 degrees. The spirit, known as eau de vie, is water clear and tasting it can render the tongue numb for several days. Little surprise then that young cognacs, aged for the minimum time, have to be reduced to a lower level of alcohol and additives used to colour and hide the aggressiveness of the spirit and so achieve some Cognac balance.

    The natural colour of cognac is derived from the tannins in the oak barrels. The use of new barrels after distillation to give the cognac a quick boost can actually provide a more aggressive fieriness in the spirit in the early stages. Whilst a level of colour will develop in the spirit during the first stages of ageing, nothing can overcome the huge imbalance between alcohol and taste until the cognac has been in the barrel for at least ten years. Both sugar syrup and caramel are therefore often used to help address the fieriness and lack of colour in young brandies, a process known as obscuration.

    About twenty years ago there was an unscripted charter between the big cognac houses that the maximum obscuration of cognac would be no more than 2%. The increasing demand for young (and cheaper) cognacs has meant that the big houses now buy their cognacs for ageing sometimes only eighteen months after distillation. Often they are bottled as young as 3 years old. This creates a massive problem especially when they are blended with cognacs from the Champagnes which age at a much slower rate than those from other crus. Inevitably, the younger the cognac the more sugar and caramel is needed to create an acceptable level of flavour and balance. As available cognacs become younger, the obscuration level has had to increase and it is now substantially more than 2%.

    Of course there is another element to balancing cognacs – dilution. Cognacs will gradually reduce naturally, however, nowhere near quickly enough for the big houses to sell profitably. Young cognacs between 60-65% abv will need more than 50% water adding to them before they can be sold. Water itself is difficult to add successfully though very quick chilling of the cognac can help.

    Perhaps the most accepted additive, and one that is far more natural than others, is the use of boisé. Produced by boiling oak chips over and over again in cognac, it is dark in colour and can be viscose. When added to cognac it can provide quite a bitter effect until it has had time to complete its accelerated ageing process. Some people refer to this as a “false ageing” but it is not. It uses exactly the same ingredients as occur naturally in cognac so in effect, it is an age accelerator. However, too much can provide an undesirable bitterness when used in young cognacs.

    Balancing the strength and flavour of fine cognacs is a great skill. There is a place for some additives but we avoid the use of sugar and caramel as we believe that any cognac from the Champagnes under ten years old is not sufficiently developed to ever create the truly memorable qualities found in Hermitage Cognacs.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • The Rancio

    Brandyclassics MDProfessionally, as an industry assemblage of blenders, cellar masters, connoisseurs, distillers and negoçiants, our aim is to provide the very finest cognacs we can for each market sector. We know that there is no alternative to long ageing in oak barrels to enhance the distillers’ skills and provide the flavour and richness (Rancio) that is so desirable. Perhaps it was by accident in the 16th and 17th centuries that the chemical changes taking place between wood and spirit were noticed. Over the centuries the effects of ageing have been recorded and gradually formed the criteria by which the standard of a modern cognac is defined.

    Cognac cellarsPerhaps also by accident, after discoveries of old barrels in the corners of family cellars, it was found that some of the oldest cognacs had acquired a sort of maderization and developed an interesting richness. This effect was noted in some cognacs after only 20 – 30 years of barrel ageing but those from the Champagnes took longer to develop it. Charles Walter Berry of Berry Brothers is said to have described this character of fullness and fatness in some brandies as rankness (rancio), an effect also noted by some tasters of Roquefort cheese.

    cognac ageingIt is the oak barrels which produce this most agreeable ‘rancio’. Oak has little or none of the resinous substances found in other woods (that can pollute the spirit with undesirable tastes) and it provides a number of useful elements: tannins the best known comprise a mere 5% and lignin, equally vital, a further 23%. Much of the rest is made up of the relatively neutral hemi-cellulose which gradually dissolves in the maturing spirit and imparts an agreeable sweetness found in older cognacs. The tannins and lignins dissolve at different rates so after 5 years 10% of the lignins and 20% of the tannins will have been absorbed. After ten years this will have doubled but in later years the rate of absorbtion will slow. Conventional wisdom says that in some cases it takes 50 – 80 years to absorb all the tannins in the wood.

    Chemically, rancio derives from the oxidation of fatty acids in the spirit into ketones which produce the richness felt on the palate. It is reminiscent of an old madeira wine, a sort of rich pineapple mustiness which we all hope to find when tasting old cognacs. But this is only one of many chemical reactions and their effect on the palate. One team of scientists, led by Dr Heide, detected 334 ingredients in cognac; 24 acetals (ethylates of aldehyde and alcohol), 27 acids, 63 alcohols, 34 aldehydes, 25 ketones, 77 esters, 19 ethers, 3 lactones, 8 phenols and 44 diverse substances. Many of these substances have still not been separated and analysed; some form an important part of the mix; some strongly influence the taste. For example, ethyl compounds are strongly reminiscent of rotten fruit. Finding the right combination of these elements in an old cognac does not always happen but when it does you will know that you have tasted a very fine cognac that may have started its life as much as a hundred years ago. Perhaps the very best example of 'rancio' we can offer is the Hermitage 1914 Borderies.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • Cognac Houses Address Climate Change

    As temperatures steadily rise across the globe, the knock on effect of climate change on viticulture is being felt by all wine producers. In the Cognac region it has been found that during the last 30 years, a 1°C increase in the maximum daytime temperature during the growing period of the vine has resulted in a 10 day advancement of the harvest. Whilst harvesting early has so far been successful, temperature increases also compromise the acid levels in the grapes (high acidity is essential for cognac production.) Longer term a different solution must be found so some of the big houses have got together to try and find one. Currently the majority of vineyards are planted with Ugni Blanc, a grape known for its high acidity levels, so a new grape variety, Monbadon, is now being trialled. Monbadon is known to have a higher level of acidity and lower level of alcohol than Ugni Blanc but it should have a similar aromatic profile and harvest later. Due to the ageing process of cognac, the overall experiment will take nine years but it is in 30 years’ time that the solution will be required, when global warming will have made a real impact.  Hermitage Cognacs are hand selected to take advantage of careful harvesting and ageing processes used during their production.

  • David on Technical Topics - The Cognac Wines

    For many years, cognac quality has centred mainly on the distillation process and the basic needs of providing a relatively acidic and low alcohol wine. After the Phylloxera, in the late nineteenth century, viticulturists started to recognise the need to control the wine, harvest and production methods to a far higher level. The St Emillion (Ugni Blanc) grape, favoured for its resistance to disease and greater cropping, became the dominant variety and a key part of modern cognac wines.

    The increasing demand on the industry for more cognac created further demands on the viticulturist to provide greater quantities of clean (low in sulphur dioxide), low alcohol wines fordrum press distillation. Regulations introduced in the 1930s banned the use of continuous wine presses that crushed the grapes since the additional pressure produced an undesirable stream of tannic and oily substances from the pips. In their place, modern rotating drum presses gently release the juices from the undesirable pips and skins.

    Although climatically the Charente region is better suited to growing cognac vines than its surrounding regions, sun, rain and occasionally frost can have a severe effect on the wines produced. The Ugni Blanc matures late and is often not ready for harvesting until late October. In exceptionally cold conditions, when the grapes are picked cold, difficulties with fermentation occur creating a wine that is both thin and flat and which develops further difficulties in distillation. Perhaps a bigger problem with the weather, especially with more recent climatic changes, is the warmer autumns that create greater sugar levels in the grapes thus making a stronger and sweeter wine. The fully ripe Ugni Blanc grapes will produce a wine around 11 percent abv so the trick is to harvest just before they obtain maximum ripeness; an ideal strength is around 9 percent abv. The vintages of 1976 and 1989 are a case in point - wines often exceeded 11 percent abv making the fermentation too quick and the ethanol produced too great. This can create a cognac that is flabby and generally tasteless. Rain can also create problems especially in the summer when the grapes are filling out. The damp and warm conditions will allow fungus and rot in the tightly formed clusters so regular, preventative spraying is critical.

    Even today wine making skills are still fairly basic. The wine is usually transferred into concrete, cognac wine tanksor in some more modern cases fibreglass lined metal tanks, for a quick malolactic fermentation. Special yeasts developed by the Station Viticole, the technical division of the BNIC, are used to encourage faster fermentation, a process that should take about six weeks. The longer the period of time between the fermentation and distillation the more the valuable esters that react with the tannins in the oak are lost. Many distillers will use the lees, in effect the pulp of the grape, to add further individuality and flavour to their distillations. A director of the Station Viticole once pointed out that it relies on nature, “We adapt our wine making skills to the needs of the still”. For all they are doing, he says, is preserving the interesting elements in the juice. The better the wines produced the greater opportunity there is to make the finest cognacs, like Hermitage.

  • David on Technical Topics - The Vines

    The chalky soil of the Charente, particularly in the Champagnes, is not unique since it is also a notable feature of the Champagne growing region (it is the ‘Champenoise’ who stole the name for their famous drink). The chalk provides excellent drainage and can also store substantial quantities of water which the vine roots can easily access. Crucially too, chalky soil, which provides very few nutrients, improves the quality of the grapes.

    Whilst the ‘terroir’ in the Cognac region can change, the grape varieties used have changed only twice in the last four centuries. In the 17th Century the region was largely planted with Balzac. It had some important characteristics in that it was a good cropping variety and didn’t bud too early which avoided any potential spring frosts. By the turn of the 19th Century the Folle, or Folle Blanche as we know it today, and to a lesser extent the Colombard, had largely replaced the Balzac. Both of these varieties had already been grown in the Armagnac region with considerable success.

    By the mid-19th Century demand for cognac had grown considerably and there was increasing pressure on the vineyards to produce more wine. This increased demand had a detrimental effect on the vines as their roots weakened and they became susceptible to the tiny, yellow, louse, Phylloxera Vastatrix. The Phylloxera outbreak devastated European vineyards around 1870 – 1875 and most of the cognac vines died. It took twenty years before a new rootstock, principally grafted with an Italian grape variety, known as the Trebbiano Toscana from the hills of the Emilia Romagna, was imported from America. The grape became known locally as the St Emelion du Charente but is better known today as the Ugni Blanc. This green acidic grape, which produces a low alcohol wine with little character, is normally used as a base wine for blending.

    After the Phylloxera the Cognaçaise started to plant their new vines in rows rather than the uneven bush planting methods used before. This new method of planting produced a greater concentration of vines per hectare and more recently has enabled the use of machines to pick the grapes. With careful pruning the vines, which grow on wires, can grow up to 1.8 metres high though are usually between 1.2 – 1.5 metres. The vines are still kept relatively low in order to take advantage of the reflection of the heat from the chalky soil. In some cases grapes at the top of a vine can take a week longer to ripen than those close to the ground.

    Cognac grape picking Grape picking machine in the Charente

    Machine harvesting is now used in virtually every vineyard and has become well adapted to the modern methods of viniculture. Vine planting is controlled at a maximum of 3000 per hectare but this is a substantial number. Improvements in harvesting have increased the amount that a hectare can now produce. This was demonstrated a few years ago when the Chinese demand for cognac was high. As a consequence the BNIC changed the maximum permitted allowance to 10 hectolitres of pure alcohol per hectare (hl/ha) and many vineyards achieved this – only a few years earlier they had been struggling to produce 8.5 hl/ha.

    However, as with all harvesting the weather is the biggest influencing factor. Whilst in most cases the Charente ‘terroir’ holds good, extremes of rain and sun can either delay the harvest or produce too much sweetness in the grapes creating a ‘pappiness’ in some cognacs. Cognac viniculture has come a long way in a relatively short period. If we can find Grande Champagne cognacs in 80 - 100 years’ time that were made in the last 20 years, they will be the true Siècle d’Or.

  • David on Technical Topics - 'Terroir', The Land

    The French use the term ‘terroir’ uniquely to describe geological and climatic conditions as a basis for their system of ‘Appellations Cognac Controlee’. This is the geographic, quality control that defines the cognac crus and is vital for the Cognaçaise to differentiate their products. All the brandies entitled to the ‘cognac appellation’ are made from the same grape varieties, harvested in the same way, at the same time of the year, fermented in similar vats, distilled in the same type of still and aged in regulation oak barrels.

    There are six crus of cognac and in the centre is the Premier cru de Cognac, Grande Champagne, from which most of the finest cognacs come. Most Hermitage Cognacs originate from here.  Cognacs crus form concentric circles with Grande Champagne as a rough semi-circle in the heart. As you move further away from the centre, the cognac quality steadily decreases. Over time, cognac producers have gradually moved closer to the centre of the region.

    Cognac crus Cognac crus

    In the west of the cognac region lie the islands of Ré and Oléron and the port of La Rochelle. Towards the east is the region of Limousin famous for its oak forests, the wood of which is used for the production of barrels used to age cognac. The landscape of the region is generally that of rolling hills, resembling the Sussex Downs, only with vines rather than pastures. This comparison is no accident since 'cognac is a brandy of chalky soil'.

    The heart of the Grande Champagne is composed of a special sort of chalk, the Campanian, a name which echoes the Latin origin of the word ‘Champagnes’. This pure chalk is found mainly on the higher elevations of the cru and is one of three layers of variously chalky soil which comes to the surface in the area. The other two layers are also rather special. Santonian chalk is named after the collective area of ‘Saintonge’ which covered much of Petite Champagne and Cognaçian chalk which surrounds the town of Cognac. The soil in Grande Champagne, like all other chalky soils was formed by the accumulation of small fossils including one found nowhere else called Ostrea Vesiculari. Fault lines made up of silica and marcasite also exist but it is the chalkiness in the soil which is crucial due to its physical properties, crumbliness and friability. The Santonian chalk is more solid and slightly less chalky but still quite crumbly and extends over some of the smaller slopes of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne.

    The Borderies cru, to the north of Grande Champagne, has special clay in the soil known as groies which dates geologically from the Jurassic era, some ten million years ago. It is a mixture of chalk, which is gradually breaking down and clay and produces a unique cognac with nutty and toffee qualities. Sometimes underrated this cognac is very different from the other crus. The surrounding crus of Fins Bois and Bon Bois are quite difficult to define, being a mixture of arable soil, compacted chalk and clay. They usually produce some unremarkable cognacs but there are a couple of exceptional areas. One is to the North East of Jarnac and the other is close to the Gironde estuary. Both have quite dense chalk and can produce some excellent cognacs. The sixth cru, Bois Ordinaire, makes little, if any cognac these days but it does supply eaux de vie for other purposes.

    The climatic conditions over the area are usually regarded as temperate. Although snow is seen from time to time, very cold conditions are unusual and the extreme heat often experienced on the Mediterranean coast is rare. So it is in these rather special conditions, where vine roots can spread through the soil sometimes to a depth of more than twenty five metres, that the Cognaçaise can claim uniqueness, unmatched by any other part of the world. They are the perfect conditions for ‘Appellation Cognac Contrôlée’.

    To read more Technical Topics go to our Brandy Education page.


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