The Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) is the organisation whose role is to promote, protect and develop the Cognac Geographic Indication and its culture. In September their technical arm, Station Viticole, reported that one of their research programmes had seen new varieties of vines, resistant to mildew and powdery mildew, harvested in the region. Six experimental plots are the result of 20 years of collective research work in partnership with the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE), the French Institute of Vine and Wine (IFV), and the main producers in the cognac industry. The newly harvested grapes will now be vinified and the wines distilled to help enable a better understanding of the cultural characteristics of these new varieties as well as the oenological qualities of the grapes and the profile of the eaux-de-vie obtained. The Cognac industry has been working for many years to preserve its terroir and natural resources. This long-term research programme, developing new vine varieties, is just part of the plan and in the long term should (1) reduce, by up to 90%, the phytosanitary treatments against mildew and powdery mildew, the main diseases affecting vines (2) produce distillation wines corresponding to the qualitative requirements of cognac production and (3) anticipate the effects of climate change.
The Land and The Vines
By the turn of the 19th Century, Ugni Blanc had replaced Folle Blanch and Colombard as the most widely used grape for producing Cognac. Grafted onto a new rootstock it helped the Cognaçaise rebuild their industry after the Phylloxera outbreak. At about the same time producers started to plant their vines in rows, rather than the uneven bush planting method used previously, and a greater concentration of vines per hectare was achieved. More recently this has enabled the use of grape-picking machines and with careful pruning the vines, which are now grown on wires, reach a height of 1.2 - 1.5m. Although vine planting is controlled, at a maximum of 3000 per hectare, recent improvements in viniculture have seen the level of alcohol per hectare produced significantly increase. However, weather is still the biggest factor in determining the quality of the harvest and thankfully for the last 20 years it has been pretty good. A great recent vintage to demonstrate the quality is Hermitage 2005 Cognac; try it you won't be disappointed.
The French have a word, 'terroir' which cannot be directly translated into another language but refers to the land, the weather, the climate and just about anything which affects the quality of the vine and the conditions in which it grows. In the Charente the 'terroir' is very special, in theory the component parts could be reproduced anywhere but here the result is unique. According to Professor Louis Ravaz (who did a great deal to help replant cognac vineyards after the Phylloxera disaster),
"The same variety of grape can be grown anywhere and in the same way as in the Charente, distillation can be carried out as at Cognac and in the same stills, the brandy can be stored in identical casks as those we employ in our 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 the climate of the Charente and that is almost inconceivable. There is therefore very little chance that all the elements that influence the nature of the product should be found together in any other region apart from the Charente and thus no other region can produce cognac. The slightest difference in the climate, the soil and so on is enough to change completely the nature of the brandy, and that is as it should be because there are, even in the Charente , a few spots (small ones, it is true), which produce mediocre brandy. All the trials that have been made all over the place to produce cognac with the same varieties and the Charentais method have resulted only in failure. And this lack of success could have been foreseen if people had remembered this one principle, that the nature of products is dependent on a combination of conditions which occurs only rarely."
So it is that we consider the extraordinary terroir in the Charente, the only region in the world that is responsible for making cognac, the King of all spirits.
Read more about the cognac industry on our Information Pages.