Cognac might have made a name for itself with its wine and salt trading while the Cognacais, proud of their nickname: "cagouillard" (snail), enjoyed a slow pace of life, had it not been for the river Charente, dubbed "my kingdom`s nicest" by King Henry the IVth.
This river, particularly navigable, gave Cognac easy access to the nearby Atlantic ocean, in South Western France, not far from Bordeaux. A climate and soil most appropriate to vine growing, combined with a solid intuition for trade, and a love of perfection did the rest.
Merchants, mostly English and Dutch, began to distill the wines in order to avoid the long boat trips spoiling their quality. The Dutch turned it into "Brandewijn", or burned wine. This would become the forerunner of "Brandy".
During the XVIIth century, the Cognacais initiated the process of double distillation, allowing the concentrated alcohol, the "water of life" known as "eau-de-vie", to travel in the safest and most economical conditions. This alcohol, stored in oak barrels, was to be diluted upon arrival. It is purely by chance that they realised that these eaux-de-vie improved with time and contact with the oak wood. They began to drink it as such. Soon, it would be named: Cognac.
The Cognac region was then primarily Protestant. The "Edict of Nantes" was their guarantee of "freedom of faith and worship, and safe heaven". When King Louis the XIVth, the Sun King, cancelled the edict, it forced many Protestant families to leave. They established themselves in England, Ireland or Holland and some began to import the eaux-de-vie produced by their relatives in the region. A strong export network thus began to spread.
The XVIIIth century saw the first exports to Holland, England, North America and the Far East. Trading Houses created in the XIXth century began to ship their products in bottles and no longer in casks. This was the start of yet another economic cycle, leading to the creation of factories producing bottles, boxes, corks and labels. Cognac was fast becoming a major trade and export centre.
At the end of the XIXth century a major crisis hit the region, with the onset of the infamous phylloxera, a fungus that spread throughout the vineyards, destroying them. In 1888, a French scientist traveled to Dennison, Texas, where he found the long termcure to phylloxera. The Cognac merchants led the way in replanting, partly from American vines, while helping growers with plants, fertilisers and advice...
Little by little, the vineyards were entirely replanted, and became France`s largest for white wine. This left the Charentais with new battles to fight, such as opening new markets throughout the world, guaranteeing quality, maintaining the region`s global economy and protecting against Cognac`s imitators.
Only a long period of maturing in oakwood casks allows an eau-de-vie to become a Cognac.
The oak wood, quite porous, keeps the Cognac in permanent contact with the naturally humid or dry air of the cellars while losing some of its alcoholic content. This evaporation leaves a dark hallow over the walls of the town, poetically called "The Angels Share". A microscopic fungus - the "torula compniacensis Richon", develops thanks to the humid air of the cellars. The angels over Cognac "drink" each year some twenty million bottles per year.
After the double distillation, the Cognac starts to mature at a maximum of 72% alcohol. Time will help it lose over a third, reaching not less than 40% in order to be sold. The aging process follows three main phases:
The "extraction", during which the wood transfers to the eau-de-vie most of its tannin, bois and taste. The newly distilled colourless eau-de-vie takes on some of the wood`s tannins, naturally attaining its golden amber color. Each Cognac house decides on the respective length of stay in young and old casks according to the desired quality: The younger wood will transmit far more tannin to the eau-de-vie than the older.
The "ageing", also called degradation or hydrolysis, is the period during which the eau-de-vie flattens. After two to three years of maturing, the eau-de-vie reaches qualities proper to consumption. But if allowed more time, the Cognac gains in complexity, perfume, aroma and taste. Bouquet and mellow reach their finest after fifty years.
The "oxidation" gives the eau-de-vie its final bouquet and golden shade. Once transferred into glass, the Cognac is no longer in contact with the air or wood, and stops maturing. It remains immutable. Each Cognac house stores its oldest Cognacs in demi-johns in remote cellars known as "Paradise".