France’s Cognac region is famous for its spirits. Cognac is considered the best fruit brandy in the world. It ages well in oak barrels. Often as long a whisky. It has a full-bodied flavor composition, which is amazing for a fruit-based spirit. And – here it comes! – Cognac is made from grapes that are considered too bad to make a drinkable wine from! Here’s an interesting fact that we need to dive deeper into. There’s much to learn, so let’s get started.
Location, location, location
The Cognac region sits north of the Bordeaux region. Bordeaux is world-famous for its wines. The Cognac isn’t, because the colder climate it faces, results in smaller grapes, with a lower sugar content, and generally a higher acidity level. Making wine in the Cognac would result in poor yield, low ABV, and a sour, very sour wine.
Every disadvantage has its advantage
In a weird twist of events, the disadvantageous climate and grapes for wine, turned out to be perfect for brandy making. So much so, that it’s the qualities of the grapes, and the resulting bad wine, are essential for the creation of the world’s best and most full-bodied fruit spirit! What those qualities of those Cognac grapes are?
- Low sugar content
- Thick skins
Low sugar content
As the Cognac region sees less sun hours than for example the Bordeaux, the grapes end up with a lower sugar content. Low sugar content results in the Cognac wine being low in alcohol. Where a Bordeaux wine easily hits 13%, Cognac wines seldomly exceed 9%.
Now, imagine taking the very best Bordeaux wine, at 13%, and via distillation, maturation, and dilution, making a bottle of brandy out of it at 40%. The alcohol percentage, and most of the flavor of the 13% Bordeaux wine, will be concentrated about three times. Three times 13 equals 40 … or thereabouts.
All right, let’s move on to that 9% Cognac wine. If you distill, age, and dilute it to a bottle of brandy at 40%, the alcohol and flavor concentration is well over 4x. A lower percentage wine results in more flavor concentration! And that’s one of the secrets of what makes a great Cognac: the disadvantage of a low alcohol yield results in 35% more flavor concentration, comparative to Bordeaux wine. That’s 1-0 to the Cognac grape, when making great brandy is the goal!
Overall, the grapes from the Cognac region have thicker skins to help protect them from the colder climate. Why thick skins are a bad thing in the wine industry? Because it means less fruit juice so less of the base material from which wine is made. Why thick skins are great for brandy making? Because over 80% of the flavor is concentrated in the skins of fruits. Thick skinned grapes result in bigger flavor brandies. 2-0 for the Cognac region when it comes to spirits? You bet!
Acidity creates an almost undrinkable wine, but acidity in fermentation creates … tails! Tailsy alcohols and tailsy flavors. Flavors of the third dimension. And that is an amazing achievement, since fruit brandies by definition have those fruity, first dimension flavors, but lack those all-important back of mouth, long-lasting, flavors that any spirit that desires barrel aging needs.
The acidity levels of Cognac grapes and wines add exactly those flavors that make the spirit three-dimensional. And at the same time, since flavors associated with tails smearing make up 50% of the total flavor count (or ester molecule count), this is exactly what’s needed to help the base Cognac brandy stand up to the wood flavors, that come from extended barrel aging.
Every disadvantage comes with its advantage. Bad wine translates into the best fruit brandy in the world. This post explains why. If you want to fully understand the how, then reach out to Veronika@iStillmail.com and register for the iStill University, the distillers world’s biggest and most advanced educational center.
Small, thick-skinned, and sour Cognac grapes …