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Dutch Heritage, Prized Spiders and 10 Other Things You Should Know about Cognac

In western France, between the Loire Valley to the north and Bordeaux to the south, is Cognac, the region responsible for some of the world’s oldest and most venerated brandies.

The region’s rolling hills and valleys of vineyards, along with its centuries-old Cognac houses, primarily span the French administrative departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime. Many are familiar with the age designations associated with Cognac (VS, VSOP and XO) and can probably name the biggest houses, but some of the finer details about the French spirit remain elusive for those who have never visited.

Whether you’re planning a trip to the region or just want to know a bit more about this storied brandy, here are a few facts about Cognac you might not know.

Dutch immigrants were the first to distill wine into brandy in Cognac.

As early as the 13th century, the Dutch began to make genever, a gin-like spirit distilled historically from malted grain. When Dutch immigrants found themselves in Charente, France, in the 17th century, they used their expertise to do the same with its wine.

“Cognac in casks is like red wine in a bottle.” –Patrice Piveteau, cellar master, Frapin

Though the Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes grown in the region made a rather acidic wine, Dutch producers found that distillation was an effective way to better preserve the quality of the product for export. They called this product “burnt wine” and, as it happened, distillation vastly improved the wine’s flavor.

Word spread, and by the early 1700s, unaged brandy, or eau de vie, crafted near Cognac, became big business. Thanks to the barrels used for transportation, producers soon found that extended periods of contact with the wood further improved flavor.

Distillery interior, computers and still in Cognac, France
Modern technology meets Old World technique at this Cognac distillery / Photo courtesy BNIC, Benoit Linero

Augier, founded in 1643, was the first Cognac company.

In 1643, wine merchant Philippe Augier put his name on the first Cognac house dedicated to the production and sale of aged and unaged (then known as “old” and “new”) eau de vie. A number of now-famed Cognac houses followed that included Martell in 1715 and Rémy Martin in 1724. Hennessy followed suit in 1765, and introduced the first age-designated VSOP Cognac in 1818 at the behest of the Prince of Wales, who would soon become King George IV of Great Britain.

Though production by Augier ceased sometime after it was purchased by Seagrams in 1966, the brand was relaunched by new owners Pernod Ricard in 2013. It makes a trio of Cognacs— L’Océanique, Le Singulier and Le Sauvage—all available in the U.S.

Glass of Cognac and Cognac aging barrel in a cellar
Barrels aging Cognac, imparting its distinctive hue / Photos courtesy BNIC, Benoit Linero

It’s expensive to make Cognac.

According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), the organization tasked with overseeing all aspects of Cognac production, the French liquor is generally more expensive to make than other spirits. That’s largely because there’s a finite supply of the fruit used to make Cognac, Ugni Blanc grapes, within the Cognac Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Plus, it requires nine liters of wine to produce a single liter of eau de vie. When you factor in the “angel’s share,” or the amount loss due to evaporation in the barrel, that’s even less mature Cognac produced. Its maturation, which can last decades, also contributes to its dramatic cost difference.

“Time is long in Cognac,” says Patrick Raguenaud, president of the BNIC. “When you plant a vine, it’s planted for 40 years. When you age a Cognac, you can age it for 15, 20 years. It takes time. It takes generations.”

Ugni Blanc vines in Segonzac, Charente, France / Photo courtesy BNIC, Stéphanie Charbeau
Ugni Blanc vines in Segonzac, Charente, France / Photo courtesy BNIC, Stéphanie Charbeau

Roughly 98% of Cognac vineyards are planted with Ugni Blanc.

When the phylloxera outbreak hit France in the late 1800s, Cognac wasn’t spared from its devastating effects. Prior to the outbreak, the eau de vie was distilled largely from Colombard and Folle Blanche wine. After the outbreak, however, when forced to find a more resistant vine, Cognac farmers embraced Ugni Blanc, also known in Italy as Trebbiano.

Currently, about 98% of vines grown through Cognac’s six districts are comprised of Ugni Blanc grapes, which are ideal for distillation as they’re low in sugar and high in acid. However, farmers and distillers, learning lessons from the past, don’t want to have such heavy reliance on a single grape variety again. Growers are working to hybridize hardier vines that are more naturally resistant to pests, disease and other potential complications associated with the ongoing climate crisis.

Snails are the unofficial mascot of Charente.

You may be familiar with escargot, the French word for snails. However, throughout Charente, where the city of Cognac is located, snails are known as cagouille (pronounced kah-gwee) and are a sort of unofficial mascot. Despite typically thought of as an agricultural nuisance, you can find their likeness on everything from souvenirs like magnets and T-shirts to bottles of the apéritif wine Pineau de Charente.

Left: White doors with black mold, the tell-tale sign of a Cognac house / Right: Demijohns with rare, ultra-aged Cognac / Photos by Anna Archibald
Left: White doors with black mold, the tell-tale sign of a Cognac house / Right: Demijohns with rare, ultra-aged Cognac / Photos by Anna Archibald

Barrel houses are referred to as paradis, or paradise.

If you’ve ever visited a rickhouse in Kentucky or a rum warehouse in the Caribbean, you’ve likely been awestruck at the towers of barrels filled with maturing spirits. It should come as little surprise that in France, these barrel cellars are referred to as a paradis, or paradise.

“I think you understand there is a similarity between the image of paradise coming from the Bible and the paradise of our Cognac,” says Raguenaud. “…there is a notion of excellence behind the work of something which is the best.”

No two French paradis are quite the same. Some come in the form of historic stone buildings, while others are in more economical warehouses. You may even come across a paradis within the city of Cognac. Just look for a set of imposing white doors speckled with black mold, or Baudoinia compniacensis, a naturally occurring fungus often found where spirits are distilled and aged.

Cognac from as far back as the 1800s is still aging in cellars in demijohns.

If you need another reason to visit Cognac in person, many producers still have stocks of Cognac that date to the 1800s. Raguenaud says that the practice of holding on to these stocks is common for older Cognac houses, who sometimes use them to bottle rare limited-edition spirits. “It’s part of the identity of the brand [and] of the memory of the company,” he says.

Frapin is one producer that has hung onto such stocks.

“Cognac in casks is like red wine in a bottle,” says Patrice Piveteau, cellar master at Frapin. “When Cognac is done aging, [we] put it in demijohns. We have Cognac in demis from the 1870s, from [even] before the phylloxera [outbreak].”

Bottles covered with cobwebs in a Cognac cellar / Photo by Anna Archibald
A dusting of history / Photo by Anna Archibald

Paradise is chock full of spiderwebs—and spiders.

A single barrel can be used to age Cognac for 10 to 50 years. More often than not, these barrels stay put once they enter a paradis. This gives eight-legged creatures plenty of opportunity to build webs, which eventually creates a, moody decor and sense of history throughout the cellar.

While some Cognac producers claim that the spiders help control less benign critters in the cellars, Raguenaud insists that their presence simply adds to the historic ambience of the cellars. Squeamish about arachnids? Just don’t look too closely at the nooks and crannies between barrels.

Barrels were once transported with the help of chestnut rings.

Up until the 1960s, chestnut rings were placed over the metal hoops that held barrels together as a means to help transport barrels from one place to another.

“The chestnut rings were used to roll the barrels because at that time, they didn’t have trucks to move the barrels and they were obliged to roll the barrels,” says Raguenaud. “The chestnut rings helped the barrels to roll more easily, which was more comfortable for the workers.”

You’ll still come across barrels with chestnut rings, some of which are still intact. These days, they mostly help add to Cognac lore.

“Today, in some places, they continue to purchase those rings, but it’s more for the show, for the image,” says Raguenaud.

France exports 98% of its Cognac.

The production of Cognac, from farming and the crafting of barrels, to distilling and aging the eau de vie, maintains the economy of the French region and livelihood of many of its residents. However, only about 2% of Cognac is sold in France.

A staggering 98% of Cognac is exported, and the U.S. is currently its biggest customer, with 87.4 million bottles imported in 2018. The popularity, and longevity in the face of upstart craft spirit brands, comes in part to hip-hop artists who developed an affinity for Cognac and refer to brands like Hennessy and Courvoisier in their lyrics. That includes icons Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Snoop Dogg (who rapped, “Cognac is the drink that’s drank by Gs,” in 1993) and Jay-Z, who famously took a swig of D’Usse, his Cognac brand, out of his Grammy award in 2013.