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The Cognac Process – Part 4. The Royal Connections

By around the end of the 17th century the trade in burnt or reduced wine had become safe in that other European clients from England, Ireland and increased trade from Holland and a little from Scandinavia had created a more profitable trade than grain and the bois (wooded) areas away from the Champagnes were cleared for vine production. In the 13th century, King John, ruler of England and Western France, appointed the town of Cognac its freedom. Three centuries later Cognacs freedom had been reinforced by its most distinguished native, King Francis I, the very model of a Renaissance monarch born in Cognac in 1491 and ruled from 1515 to 1547. Another royal visitor was Louis XIV whose mistress was the Marquise de Montespan who lived in the Charente. But royalty gave way to dictator when Napoleon came to live on the island of Aix. It was probably during the Napoleonic era that Martell and Hennessy started to gain their supremacy over other firms, something that they have never subsequently lost. Legend has it that Napoleon insisted that his personal barrels of cognac remain undisturbed while he was away on his military campaign across Europe. When he returned to claim his cognac six and a half years later, he found he enjoyed the aged cognac even more than he had enjoyed the young cognac. Today, Napoleon cognac is aged for a minimum of six and a half years but more typically for between 8 and 20 years.


The Cognac Process Part 3. The Dutch Influence

Around the middle of the 16th century the Cognaçais had been liberated from the English and lost some of their most important markets. But they were well placed to satisfy the new demand from the Dutch, who were seeking concentrated wines to render palatable the generally putrid drinking water in their ships.

At first they imported the wine from the Saintonge to “burn” in imported copper stills from Sweden. The Dutch authorities disliked using precious grain, the alternative raw material for spirits, because it was an important staple food. The need for the brandywijn increased and the Dutch started distilling at the French ports. The locals who were quick to catch on started to burn or distil the wines themselves, enabling the reduced wines to arrive at the ports in better condition.

The wines generally came from the bois slopes, where the woods had been replaced by vines (as they were not as suitable for growing grain) as well as the area to the south of Cognac known as the Champagnes, where grapes were already being grown. By this time, what was a necessity for the Dutch had become a fashionable luxury in London!

The Cognac Process Part 2.2 A Small Town

Originally the town Cognac was important as a crossing over the river. In the Middle Ages it became a notable trading centre for salt, the regions first stable export, and then for wine. These provided Cognac with an incomparable network of contacts in Northern Europe, since both depended on markets principally in Britain but also in the Low Countries and Scandinavia.

Local brokers throughout the Saintonge – the region from Angoulême to the sea – would buy the salt or wine on behalf of foreign buyers. The casks were shipped down the Charente to Tonnay-Charente, the tidal limit downstream on gabares, the special barges used for 700 years until well into the 20th century. In the port of La Rochelle they were sold to representatives of foreign buyers.

It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the merchants grew rich enough to hold one or two years of cognac stock. Until then they remained effectively brokers. The growers matured the cognacs and shipped them in casks, the eventual buyers financing the purchase which they sold under their own name.

The Cognac Process: Part 1.2 – In the Beginning

In the latter half of the 17th Century the fashion conscious world of Restoration London, like so many others before and since, lived largely in public. The “café” society congregating in the capital’s coffee houses experimented with a whole host of new drinks.

Some, like tea, coffee and chocolate were non-alcoholic. Most were wines; claret, port, sherry, more or less fortified to withstand the journey to Britain (and to accord with the English taste for robust liquors). Only one, from Cognac, a small town in Western France was a spirit.

Since then cognac has never looked back. From newspaper advertisements at the turn of the 18th Century, we can measure by the “conìac” prices at which they were offered, that brandies from Cognac were worth more than 10% than those from Nantes or Bordeaux. The reasons for cognac’s dominance, then as now were geological, geographical and historic.

Even today, it is a relatively small town on the Charente of some 20,000 inhabitants. In the 17th Century, before the town bust its medieval walls, it held only 5,000.

The Cognac Process – Part 1.1 Five Hundred years of History

Although the history of cognac probably goes back 500 years it has been universally recognised as the finest of all the hundreds of spirits distilled from grapes. For the sheer depth and intensity, fruitiness, subtlety of bouquet, warmth and complexity of flavour and length of time for which the flavour lingers on the palate, cognac remains incomparable.

The ability to extract so much of the essential flavour from the grape is no accident. It involves possessing the right soil and climate, choosing the right grape varieties, using the appropriate distillation process and then enhancing the inherent quality through long storage in the right kind and size of wooden cask in damp and dark cellars, often for decades. Yet even this complicated formula would not have sufficed if the Cognaçais (ironically a culturally introverted breed, their qualities epitomized by their nickname cagouillards, snails) had not been prepared to exploit their historic access to markets that appreciate the fine and by definition, expensive spirit they produce.