Burnt offering – the history of cognac
The history of cognac goes back four centuries. The area around Cognac was, however, a recognised wine-growing area for centuries before cognac was ‘invented’; there are records of wine production here stretching back to the 3rd century AD.
For many centuries, too, the wine was transported down the River Charente to the coast for export and for drinking on board ships. Then in the 17th century it was discovered that if the wine was first distilled it not only took up less space but it also improved with age, too, in the oak casts in which it was stored. The Dutch merchants who were behind much of the trade called this product brandewijn meaning ‘burnt’ or distilled wine – hence the name ‘brandywine’, which was shortened to brandy.
Local producers gradually developed the practice of double distillation that is crucial to the drink, as is the ageing in oak barrels. In time therefore this distinctive brandy took on the name of the local town. Thanks, too, to Cognac’s history as a trading area and the presence of many Protestants who had trade links around the world, cognac became a major export.
However, it was not until 1 May 1909 that the official area in which cognac could be made was set out by official decree. And it was not until 1936 that cognac was awarded its own Appellation d’origine contrôlée or AOC, which legally denotes an area in which a product can be made. However, these decrees did not invent the area and different crus and vintages of cognac – they merely confirmed them.
‘The history of cognac is much older’
As Alain Philippe, director of the BNIC (Bureau national interprofessionnel du cognac), the product’s supervisory body, says: ‘The vintages made their appearance with the AOC. But they existed well before. The law made official what was already in existence. Just as the 1909 decree legalised an area that was already in place. The text is a hundred years old, but cognac is much older than that.’
Although the numbers of people working cognac production has declined in recent years, it is still a hugely important industry to the region. In early 2010 it was estimated that there were just over 5,200 growers producing the white wine that can legally be made into cognac. Many smaller producers simply produce eaux-de-vie or brandy for the big name producers such as Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier, Camus and Otard.
However others produce their own cognac to drink, as well as their own wine and pineau which is often sold direct to the public. A number offer their own cognac tours.