Our latest expert guide offers a deep dive into Cognac! With a particular emphasis on the history of Cognac, this guide explores the development of the category, the region's geography and geology, production methods, cocktails, service, and more. Find an excerpt below.

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Cognac, a brandy that takes its name from the commune of Cognac, has much in common with French wine. Familiar characters mark its history, including the British, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and phylloxera.

The region is built on terroir, with six regions whose differing soils, aspects, and climates add complexity to the final product. What sets Cognac apart from wine is that it undergoes the process of distillation. Wine from Cognac is distilled twice in alembic Charentais pot stills, named after the Charente River, which is the heart of the Cognac region. Furthermore, unlike French wine, Cognac is almost exclusively an export product. Together, 4,300 winegrowers, 120 professional distillers, and 270 merchant firms work to produce a storied beverage that can be found throughout the world.

Geography and Geology

Cognac is in southwest France, just north of Bordeaux. Like Bordeaux, Cognac has a maritime climate influenced by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, which provides moisture to aid in the long oak aging that gives Cognac its characteristic flavor. The heart of the region lies along the Charente River, which provides access to the chais, “cellars,” of the town of Cognac and historically was used to ship the spirit from the region. The river runs low in the summer, requiring flat-bottomed boats, but rainy winters cause it to run very high and even flood. In 1982, the flooding was so severe that the chais were inundated, sending casks of brandy bobbing down the river.

The individual subregions of Cognac were mapped by geology professor Henri Coquand, who conducted the first scientific studies of any winegrowing region in the 1850s. Charentais by birth, he defined the chalky Coniacian, Santonian, and Campanian soils of the region that were noted for producing the best Cognacs. He and an official taster would travel the region on horseback, surveying the vineyards. While Coquand would predict the quality of a vineyard based on its soils, the taster would use his palate, and, as Coquand notes, “taster and geologist never once differed.” Based on these studies, the region is divided roughly into six concentric circles, centered around the Grande Champagne. Note that “Champagne” in Cognac does not indicate sparkling wine; rather it is a reflection of the word’s etymological origin—a derivation of the Latin word for “plain”—and of the similarity in the dominant soil of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. These two regions have a high percentage of soft chalk, the preferred soil for Cognac, whereas the outlying appellations have higher proportions of hard limestone, sand, and clay.

Each Cognac region produces distinct brandies with their own characteristics, in part because of the soil types most associated with each area. Cognacs from the desirable Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne make some of the most elegant spirits, while the regions of Borderies, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, and Bois Ordinaires provide the backbones of entry-level brandies.

If 100% of a Cognac comes from a region, it is eligible to have that region’s name appear on the label. Often, producers will add “Premier Cru du Cognac,” which is an unofficial term for the region, to the label of a Grande Champagne. If a Cognac is a blend of a minimum of 50% Grande Champagne and the remainder from Petite Champagne, then the Cognac is eligible for the label Fine Champagne.