If that brandy in your glass isn’t produced in Cognac then it isn’t cognac. French domain names are legally sacrosanct. Champagne comes only from Champagne; Bordeaux is only from Bordeaux.
The spirit known as cognac comes from the Poitou-Charentes region of western France where vineyards grow rooted in the chalk and limestone that once formed a coral reef, and Atlantic breezes trail kites of mist above maturing grapes. Cognac lies at its heart and the special soil of its terroir creates in its grapes a panoply of tastes and aromas.
“There are no bad years in Cognac,” I was told by Le Courvoisier distillery representative Beatrice Bernard at the company’s headquarters in Jarnac. “Each year is different but we blend the flavors to the highest specifications. And our master blender tastes the barrels every morning.”
A tour through Le Courvoisier distillery, one of the five great houses of cognac in the region, is an eye-opening experience. Cognac has been produced here since 1828 although the company dates back to 1809. Napoleon loved the drink so much he took barrels of it with him into exile on St. Helena and this passion was so well known in France that a toast in cognac became a secret gesture of loyalty to the emperor.
Bernard guided me through the stages of blending and distilling where the local ugni blanc grapes taken from the top four growth regions—Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, and Fins Bois—are put through a process of double distillation in copper tanks called alembics to produce vin eau de vie, or water of life.
This potent liquid, 70 percent alcohol, is then divided into three parts, the head, the tail, and the cream of the distillation operation, the heart—the part of the spirit that will eventually become cognac.
The cognac is then transferred to oak barrels for aging, a process that can take as long as 35 years.
These barrels are stored in warehouses or caves near the Charente River where a natural humidity helps the flavors mature.
Roaming around the rows of stacked barrels with their silhouettes of Napoleon stenciled on each end, I asked Bernard about the blackening of the cave walls. She explained that it was a natural fungus formed by evaporation and called it the angel’s share.
“Weather, soil, aging, blending, even the density of the grain of the oak trees selected to make the barrels, everything that touches the liquid affects the flavor,” Bernard said. “The goal is to produce the same quality every year.”
In a secured room called Paradise stood shelves of heritage bottles, two of which date to 1789. Every 10 years the master blender removes their corks, does a sniff examination to test the viability of the cognac and then reseals the bottles.
A group of us joined Bernard in the tasting room where Le Courvoisier presents a sensory experience. Wearing blindfolds and holding small glasses of cognac, Bernard wafted various scents into the room—caramel, vanilla, candied orange, and iris—then asked us to taste from our glasses and see if we could isolate that scent in the liquid.
As a novice cognac sipper it was not an easy task and I kept tasting the butterscotch of pralines. But that was close enough to caramel for Bernard to give me a nod. Napoleon would have been proud.