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The Environmental Future of Wine Production

Environmental FutureThe strength of carbon emissions created during the wine fermentation process is “five times more concentrated than planes and cars” according to UC Davis professor, Roger Boulton.  “We should be capturing carbon in wineries, so they become carbon neutral. A litre of juice produces 60 litres of carbon dioxide. As a winemaker, if you want to be a serious leader in sustainability then you have to do this – a good way is to turn it into chalk,” he said.  Consumer pressure to protect our environmental future by manufacturing in a more environmentally friendly way is becoming widespread.  Also speaking in New Zealand, Villa Maria Estate’s viticulturist, Jonathan Hamlet, derided the use of chemicals in the grape growing process.  “The way we grow grapes today will not be acceptable in the future. We need to respect the land, learn to adapt, and stop using pesticides and herbicides. We live in a world of conscious, value driven consumers who want products that reflect their values.” It will be interesting to see how long it takes for these  views to be echoed in the Northern Hemisphere.

Read more about possible changes to the cognac production process here, where we discuss the future need to accommodate climate change.

How Did Double Distillation Become Part Of The Cognac Process?

double distillationThere are all manner of theories, assumptions and legends relating to the actual birth of cognac. Many relate to Chevalier de la Croix Maron, an aristocratic wine taster and Lord of Segonzac. Legend has it that on returning home from the Crusades, he found his wife in bed with his neighbour. He shot them both. But afterwards Maron could not sleep as he was plagued by dreams of Satan coming from the dark and roasting him not once but twice over a fire. One night after waking from another roasting he sat on the edge of the bed, his fingers wound round a glass of his favourite drink, burnt wine. He wondered if this recurring nightmare might be a message from above.  Looking into his drink he asked his servants to distil the wine again and so provided it with a magical smoothness.  Another story tells of the Chevalier finding a hidden barrel of peasant brandy in the corner of his cellar. It was too crude for his aristocratic palate, so he ordered it to be distilled again.  The pure fruitiness of the double distilled brandy delighted him, and the practice of double distillation had begun.

It is probable that the second story is nearer to the truth. The art of distillation was founded by the Moors as they travelled from the South through France. Originally, they distilled perfumes in pot stills, but they taught the peasants in Gascony how to distil their wines.  Using pots heated by wood fires they extracted the vapours and then allowed them to condense back into strong and fruity spirits.

The Cognaçais also learnt the skills of distillation in order to prevent their wines from becoming rancid during the long journey along the Charente river to the port of La Rochelle.  On reaching their destination they were bartered for leather, timber and copper (which was used to make their burnt wines). Wines were also distilled to reduce their volume prior to shipping to foreign ports.  It was found that distilling them a second time not only reduced them further but also gave them a higher quality and finer taste.

It is also said that Chevalier de la Croix Maron took some barrels of the double reduced wine, or brandy as we know it today, to the local monastery. The monks tried some but disliked its fiery taste. Years later they opened another barrel and found that the brandy had turned golden and the flavour had changed to be rich and fruity.  The benefits of barrel ageing had accidentally been discovered.  It seems that the Chevalier de la Croix Maron has much to answer for in the origins of cognac!

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.