Charles Braastad, Managing Director of Delamain, has issued this statement: “After over a century, we are very pleased to once again be cultivating vines. We originally abandoned the practice in 1910 upon the sale of our ‘Bois Clair’ property in Saint-Brice. At the time it allowed us to focus on selection, blending and ageing of Grande Champagne Cognacs. From 2019 the house of Delamain is re-committing to the very first moments in the lives of our Cognacs, to their birth and growth in the vineyards.” There is considerable investment in terms of time and money required to produce cognac so this decision cannot have been taken lightly. Perhaps they are struggling to find enough high quality eau de vie for their cognacs? As demand for cognac is ever increasing and such a large proportion of that produced is purchased by the big houses, this is a sure sign that small firms like Delamain are feeling the squeeze.
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.
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.
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.
Having spent a very cold weekend in the garden pruning trees, shrubs and roses, I gave some thought to those people who have to be in the cognac vineyards at this time of the year pruning the vines.
In theory, there is no reason why the vines cannot be pruned as soon as the leaves have died back but at that time of the year, distillation is in full swing so lack of time prevents it. Most of the distillations have been completed by the New Year and it is then that the work outside begins in order that new shoots can emerge in the spring. Most vines are cut back to the main stems. These are usually trained along wires to enable easy access for the machines which need to operate in straight lines during spraying and harvesting.
The harvest is tough on those who have to go out and do the pruning. It is often very cold, often raining and sometimes even snowing but, it has to be completed by early spring. There are thousands of vines in every hectare and at Chez Richon, for example, most of this work is done by a single person. Madame Forgeron, works from 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening. She takes a packed lunch and works tirelessly 7 days a week for about 3 months - quite an undertaking, especially since she’s 70!
To read more Technical Topics go to our Brandy Education page.