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  • The history of Cognac – Phylloxera vastatrix

    The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 was a great relief to the Cognacais. In the following decades the town burst beyond its medieval walls and the new rich merchants such as Otard and Dupuy were able to show their wealth with large houses built in the woods around Cognac. Even so, Martell and Hennessy retained their pre-eminence and most crucially were able to set the process for which the growers would sell their brandies to the merchants. They formed hereditary relationships that were governed not by contract, but by the habit of regularly trading, which had become a style of the people in the area. The merchants' position was strengthened in 1857 by a new law which enabled them to register their trademarks. Previously, most cognacs, especially in Britain had been sold under the merchants own names who had imported them in casks.

    In 1861-2 a brief period of glory emerged when the customs duties were reduced by the British and sales tripled in 15 years to 450,000 hectolitres (65 million bottles) annually.  From Latin America to Tsarist Russia, cognac became the fashionable spirit. The Charente became the biggest vineyard in France and thousands of acres of marginal land were planted with vines to cope with the new found demand in brandy.

    But in 1871 the region was struck down with the dreaded Phylloxera vastatrix, a yellow beetle imported from the New World. The beetle feed on the roots of the vine, causing fungal infection and root deformation that eventually killed the plant .

    The independence enjoyed by many of the growers, especially in the Champagnes, came to and end as the Phylloxera vastatrix beetle quickly killed off most of the vines. The survival of the brandy industry became a real issue during the 20 or so years it took to replant with Phylloxera resistant vines. Many growers decided to change crops to cereals as a means of paying the bills. It probably took more than 10 years to find a vine with a suitable rootstock that suited the chalky conditions of the Charente. It was in the 1880’s that a source was found by T V Munson, who lived in Texas near the Red River.

    The Phylloxera plague changed the industry for good, and it was the larger well financed merchants who got the upper hand. Whilst could have exploited the growers by buying up the their land at very low prices, instead their exploitation was of a longer term. They lead the way offering vines grafted onto phylloxera resistant root stock, advice and fertilizer. This philosophy worked well for the biggest merchants, since it created a high level of allegiance from the growers who became dependant on merchants to sell their eaux de vie.

    There were other struggles, though mainly as a result of fraud that had besmirched the good name of Cognac during the years of shortage. This was largely settled by legislation in 1905 and reinforced in 1929 by the special Acquit Jaune d’Or, the gold coloured certificate of origin which accompanies every load of cognac leaving the Charente region to its customers around the world.

  • The history of Cognac – Early cognacs in Britain (1790-1840)

    Heavy duties on brandies in Britain led to lively smuggling traffic throughout the century. In Rudyard Kiplings words, Brandy for the Parson (together with the other highly taxed item), Baccy for the clerk. In the late eighteenth century, Adam Smith concluded that smugglers were the biggest importers of French goods into Britain.

    By the end of the eighteenth century cognacs were being stored in oak casks for longer periods and the outbreak of war in 1756 actually helped the situation. The Market was big and every year 200,000 barriquess de vin propres à brûler, from which emerged 13,400 pipes, (each of 3 barriques or about 600litres), adding up to 8 million litres of eau de vie.

    Getting these brandies into Britain created great difficulties because of the war, so they had to be shipped over land through Holland by cart, and this meant they were in casks for greater period of time. In addition, the casks were being stored, and in 1780 Richard Hennessey noted that shrewd operators were buying up a years supply, keeping them for a year, befor selling them as “Old Brandies”.

    By the 1790’s both Martell and Hennessey had established themselves and some further names had also come onto the scene, such as Otard Dupuy, two growers who had set up comfortable stocks, Thomas Hine, the descendant of a Dorset family and Ransom and James Delamain, whose son Jacques set up by himself by marrying the daughter of Isaac Ransom. Paul Roullet and Philippe Augier completed a trio by also marrying a Ransom.

    The outbreak of Total war failed to put a stop to sales of brandies, partly due to a drop in price, partly due to  the British Minister Sir John Nichol a declaring “the need for a little wine and French Brandy”.

  • The history of Cognac – Growth in the market

    By 1800 many of the houses that we know of today were becoming established, and their requirement for brandies from the farmers was increasing demand. Coupled to this, the skills in making cognac had improved and a form of standardisation was gradually forming, both in the distillation and ageing process. But very little brandy was sold for keeping and most was intended to be cut with water when it reached its final destination - usually in Ireland or England.

    However some producers had realised the benefits of longer ageing, especially farmers who were supplying quantities to the merchants for onward sales in Europe. By this time, ageing in oak was recognised as the way to develop a unique flavour. But it was noted that this took many years and for commercial reasons only small quantities could be kept back, either for the farmers benefit or for selling at a much greater price at a later date.

    In early brandies, distillation took place many times to increase its strength. By 1800 the brandies were all double distilled and Richard Hennessey noted that shrewd operators were buying up year old brandies and keeping them until they could get a better price. In 1786 the tax laws were rescinded and the Treaty of Free trade was established, allowing the merchants and producers to become more selective in the profitable UK markets.

    Some new names were also springing up - Otard and Dupuy were joined by Hine and all three saw advantage in the British markets by buying from the higher quality Saintonge rather from the south around Bordeaux. This loyalty to the Angoumois was later rewarded as the area’s brandies became known as cognac after the principle town in the region.

  • The history of Cognac – Distillation of the Cognac Brandy.

    Distillation is a simple process, based on the fact that alcohol vaporises at a lower temperature than water, allowing the spirit to escape. When fermented liquor such as wine is heated, the alcohol vaporises and is trapped in the pipe leading from the top of the still, and is then cooled when it turns back into a liquid.

    There are a number of problems such as the shape and size of the vessel, the metal from which it is constructed and the quality of the liquid being distilled. Although in early days distillation was repeated on several occasions to increase strength, by the eighteenth century double distillation had largely become the norm. Initially brouillis, a half strength spirit was produced, before being distilled again in what is called La Bonne Chauffe. The stage when the spirit was acceptable and stopped distilling, are further problems to which only very simple rules were applied. Consequently, the many variations at these stages created many less than perfect results.

    By Muniers (a well known brandy trader) time, the conditions for producing the best cognac had been well defined. White grapes were used where ever possible, and the Folle Blanche had largely been accepted as producing the best distillation. By 1770 the Cognaçaise had learnt the necessity for acidic wines to aid the process.

  • The history of Cognac - The Early Grapes, Wine and Region

    In 1753, one Father Arcère wrote in a history of La Rochelle, “The wines of Aunis was once highly regarded, if in time it has lost its former reputation, this misfortune must be attributed to the poor choice of varieties used”, these plants have impaired the quality of the fruit whilst increasing the yield. It was largely the Balzac and the Folle Blanche which provided the quantity but not the quality. Of course the remark was directed towards the wines which were regarded more favourably than the distilled or condensed wines, later to be cut with water for drinking at their final destination.

    However at this time, the trade in brandy was developing thanks largely to the efforts of brokers such as Hennessey, Lallamand, Roux and Augier, who had found ready buyers in Britain and Ireland.

    By this time many farmers had seen that growing vines could develop a ready market, and the bois (woods) on the slopes around cognac had been cleared for planting vines. The region is today known as Fin Bois and represents the largest geographical area in the region although not the largest producing area. This was certainly different in 1753 when much of the area had been cleared for agricultural purposes.

    However, by this time the quality of the wines from the area around Segonzac was also noted as being “very good” and were fetching a higher price than others, especially those from as far away as Nantes and Bordeaux. This was of course the time when many of the brandy houses were being set up, and the modern cognac industry that we know today was born. But it was to have its problems and over the next 150 years - wars, famines, disease and hardship were to follow.

  • The history of Cognac - The Dutch, French, Irish and British

    From around 1600 many Irish traders and settlers became interested in the brandy business. These were settlers and the potential to condense wines by boiling them had a number of attractions, not least their greatly improved longevity, ease of handling and of course, their greater strength. This last benefit was a useful motivator and anaesthetic in times of war, and barrels of brandy which were in plentiful supply during the wars were kept on ships for this very purpose.

    During the next century The Dutch, who had been distilling their own gins and selling them in France, imported the wines from the Charente producers and distilled them. They were referred to as brandywijns, the quantities and strengths being expressed in Dutch. The Velt, at just over 7 litres, was a basic measurement of quantity and sold in barriques. The spirit was expressed in relation to standard Dutch gin (prevue de Hollande) at about 49% alcohol. London gin was about 58% and cognac around 60%

    By 1700 traders had established themselves and the more superior brandies from around the town of Cognac, and notable names such as Richard Hennessey, Martell and James Delamain were later joined by Saul, a friend and confidant of Hennessey, Lallamand of Lallamand Martell, Jacques Roux and Philippe Augier (said to be the oldest house in Cognac). All of these names were traders, who employed “correspondents” to get orders for their brandies, which were then shipped back to Ireland and England.

    These brandies were purchased from the farmers and growers from the regions around Cognac and Bordeaux, who harvested grapes as a crop which they fermented and distilled on their estates.

  • The history of Cognac – In the beginning, wine into water

    As early as the 16th century, when the English had been chased from France for more than a century, we find the expression Vin du Cognac. Wines shipped along the Charente from the town of Cognac were traded, initially for salt but later for timber, furs and wools which had been shipped from England, Ireland and Holland.

    The Coastal areas around La Rochelle were already developing vines as a stable crop and further south in Bordeaux the trade in wine was more advanced. Gradually vines were planted further inland in the Bois or woody areas usually on the slopes since the flatter land was still favoured for growing grain.

    The term Vin de Ritzel or wines from La Rochelle was generally more favoured than the Vin de Cognac which had to be shipped a considerable distance from Cognac along the Charente by barge to Rocheforte and then onto La Rochelle. The wines were often found to be rancid due partly to being kept in cellars by the negociants until they could be shipped and partly to their long journey to the port for shipping to the more northerly ports. As a result they were condensed by distillation, a skill learned from the Dutch (who were skilled coppersmiths) and famous for their gins. The resulting water clear spirit became known by the traders as Eau de Vie or Water of Life.

    In 1576 a local historian, J Corlieu emphasised that the “Grandes Champagnes de Segonzac” produced great quantities of fine wines that were shipped down the river all over the world. A century later these emerged as some of the best wines for distillation into condensed wine or eau de vie.

  • Serious shortage of aged Cognacs

    BNIC Statistics for March 2010 have revealed that stocks of old cognacs used by the big houses has dropped to one of the lowest levels ever, with only 2.9% of 4 and 5 year old stocks available for blending and 1.8% of stocks over 6 years old. In comparison, new cognacs, which are up to 1 year old are 64.4%

    This indicates that blended cognacs such as VS and VSOP from the big houses will require to be even younger to meet the increasing demands of consumers, especially in America where sales, particularly those of Hennessey have increased and are now better than the pre-recession 2008 level. China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have all increased their purchases considerably over the last 12 months.

  • How to make Calvados – Label, Bottles, Age and Presentation.

    It is common practice with most calvados producers to put the age of the spirit in the bottle on the label, but it is not a requirement and can be confusing. Some producers put the minimum age, but older calvados may be in the bottle.

    Vintages can also be used but whilst it normally refers to the year of distillation it can also refer to the year of the apple harvest. Some of the generic terms as used in the cognac industry are also used but they mainly refer to very young spirits; for example VO or VSOP refers to a spirit aged for a minimum of 4 years, whilst XO or Extra refers to one of 6 years. Where a vintage is shown it refers to the year of distillation. Terms such as Tradition, Vieux, Vieille Reserve, Cordon Or, Cordon Argent or even Hors d’Age also add to the confusion.

    The indication of alcohol is also required in France and shows the percentage by volume of alcohol. The term “Non Reduit” (not reduced), can sometimes be seen on the label (it is refreshing that at least in Calvados they can admit that their spirit is in most cases required to be reduced). The traditional calvados bottle is rather dumpy with a long neck and rather like the other great brandies has been traditionally green or even black in colour, thus preventing sight of the liquid inside. Some special shape bottles and a range of more modern designs are now commonly available - Chateau du Breuil is easily recognised for it’s phallic like neck, but some taller bottles are also available and a range of carafes also seem to be finding their way onto the market. Regrettably label design has never been exciting and remains firmly in the hands of the traditionalist.

    All we can add at this point is to open a bottle this Christmas and enjoy. It’s an exceptionally fine spirit!

  • How to make Calvados – Making the Cider

    Most of the flavours in the calvados comes from the skins of the apples rather than the pulp. The equipment required for making the cider comprises of a grater tank, a press and a vat called a “belleron”.

    In the press house the apples are washed, selected and then crushed or grated. The pulp is left to stand for a few hours in a vat to macerate. This softens the skins and extracts the tannins and aromas and at the same time oxidises, changing the colour of the pulp. The pulp is then pressed and the solids, known as the marc is separated and sometimes sold as feed for the farm animals. Usually the juice from quality fruit is pressed once and the output will not exceed 65% of the weight, however it is possible to produce up to 90% by wetting the marc and re-pressing and providing a juice of lower concentration. The traditional press is made of wooden trays with linen stacked one on top of the other and pressed from the top but more modern methods employ cylindrical presses similar to those used for making cognac. It provides a juice that is both hygienic and retaining the colour and flavours of the apples.

    Fermentation of the cider for distillation is continued until crisp and dry unlike that used for drinking and referred to as “cider bouche”. The fermentation takes place in large oak barrels which have thinner walls than barrels for ageing and the cider ferments on its lees, the yeasty sediment for six to eight weeks before taking it out of its lees. Some quality producers can keep it in the barrels for anything up to a year. The minimum strength of the cider for distillation is 4.5% but most producers will ferment it to 5, 6 or even 7%. Ciders for drinking are stored in open vats where the pectin in the apple will clear most of the impurities.

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