“There’s an air of mystery around Cognac,” she said. “It’s a popular spirit and on every restaurant menu, but people aren’t aware of its intricacies or history the way they are about wine.”
The first thing to know, she said, is that for a brandy to be called a Cognac, it must be produced in the Cognac region, comprised of six subregions with a patchwork of vineyards. On a drive through these — Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires — she explained that although Grande and Petit Champagne are considered the most premier, most of the more than 200 Cognac producers rely on eaux-de-vie made with grapes from several subregions to craft their blends.
The landscape I saw has had vines since Roman times, but the origins of Cognac go back only to the 16th century when Dutch merchants came to the region to buy white wines. These delicate wines were hard to preserve over the long distances they had to travel, and to keep them from spoiling, French distillers heated the liquid in copper pots and then cooled it. This process turned it into an eau-de-vie, a concentrated alcohol solution that wouldn’t easily go bad.
Somehow, however, it was discovered that distilling the wine again and aging it in oak barrels — the reason for Cognac’s amber hue — created an enjoyable libation. These eaux-de-vie, like the one I sniffed at Delamain, have an alcoholic strength of around 70 percent when they’re first stored. Their potency drops over time, and the Cognac comes to fruition at an alcoholic strength of 40 percent by blending eaux-de-vie of different ages.
No tour buses intruded on our scenic drive because many houses don’t have formal tours for visitors. Many are even closed on weekends when leisure travelers are apt to go, but their lack of commercialism combined with their rich history is their appeal.
We made our way to the town of Cognac, where several larger brands are based, to see Hennessy, on the left bank of the Charente river and one of the world’s biggest Cognac houses.
Hennessy has guided tours, complete with a short movie about the brand, but Marc Cordier, who was then the director of distilling, would be showing us around.
Mr. Cordier said we would first go to the river’s right bank to see the warehouses where the eau-de-vie casks age.
On the ride over, he told us that despite being part of the luxury conglomerate LVMH, the company still has family roots. Richard Hennessy, an Irishman who moved to France to serve in the French army, founded it in 1765, and Maurice Richard Hennessy — belonging to the eighth generation of the family — is an ambassador for the brand today. And the current master blender, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, is the eighth-generation Fillioux to have that title.
The warehouse was a spectacle of hundreds of casks, each labeled with a storage date and the name of the distiller, lined up in long aisles. These were a sliver of Hennessy’s inventory. “We have around 350,000 casks in 50 warehouses,” Mr. Cordier said. “The art of our Cognac is combining different eaux-de-vie from them to create blends for our core line that are consistent every year.”
Back on the left bank, I tried three Cognacs that are part of this core line. There was the light and lively V.S., short for very special or a blend in which the youngest eau-de-vie has aged for at least two years. The V.S.O.P., a very superior old pale where the minimum age of the youngest eau-de-vie is four years, had more boldness with notes of toasted cinnamon. But, the X.O., meaning extra old or at least 10 years of aging for the youngest eau-de-vie, outdid both. The impressive blend is crafted with 100 eaux-de vie and has a full-bodied mouth-feel and hints of cocoa.
Hennessy was only the beginning of the centuries-old Cognac houses I saw. Most producers in the region have been around since the 1700s and 1800s and are carrying on long-existing family traditions. Many of these smaller labels are in Jarnac, a town with a jumble of narrow streets that is a 15-minute drive from Cognac.