COGNAC, France — We Americans have influenced the life style of the 23,000 people who live in the town of Cognac. Because we have made Cognac a status drink, something has happened here that has not happened with the rest of France's or Europe's liquor industry. Last year, Cognac sales to the United States rose 36%.
Since 1976 this most expensive of the world's brandies has tripled its exports to the United States, the world's largest importer of Cognac at more than 20% of worldwide consumption.
But you'd never realize the commercial importance of Cognac as you explore the source of the product. The only brandy that can legally be called Cognac comes from 235,000 acres around the town of Cognac in southwestern France.
It is a magnificently beautiful and verdant village--uncrowded, calm, peaceful, even a bit slow. So slow in fact that the people jokingly call themselves \o7 cagouillards\f7 , snail people, because they're as slow-moving as their famous and delicious snails.
If you drive through the area, stop and ask for directions at your own risk. The story goes that a tourist from the north on his way to Bourdeaux stopped to ask a farmer for directions. It was getting late and he wanted to be in Bourdeaux by dinner time. The farmer ignored his question and began asking a few of his own. "Are they your children? How grand of you to bring them with you. May I talk to them? I love children." And on and on.
Finally the tourist got impatient and said, "I am sorry, but we must be in Bourdeaux in time for dinner." The farmer laughed. "Here in the Charentes (the two counties) there is always time. Have dinner with us. You have the time."
The people of the Cognac area, called Charentais, often use that phrase: "You have the time." It is not that they waste time. Far from it. They respect time and use it well. Time is the major ingredient of their lives and livelihood.
In Tune With Nature
The soil, the raising of the grapes, the aging of the Cognac, all have as the important process the passing of time. And this time seems to have softened the people, putting them in harmony with nature, another employer of time to do its work. It also gives them the time to be friendly, warm and generous.
In the departments (counties) of Charente and Charente-Maritime the Charente River flows toward the Atlantic Ocean. The Cognac area is divided into six growing zones, selected according to the composition of the soil (in some areas the hard, white chalky lime is only a few inches below the black topsoil), the climate and the quality of the wine produced from the grapes grown in that zone. The core or heart zone is the \o7 Grand Champagne\f7 ("champagne" means field) and the next is the \o7 Petite Champagne\f7 .
What's in the Name
The words "Fine Champagne" on a Cognac bottle do not mean it is a fine Champagne. This is the name given only to the blend of the two best growths (at least 50% Grande Champagne, the rest Petite Champagne only).
If it has the words "Grand Champagne" or "Grand Fine Champagne" on the bottle, the Cognac comes solely from the Grand Champagne area; if labeled "Petite Fine Champagne," it comes from the Petite Champagne area. The other four growing zones are \o7 Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois\f7 and \o7 Bois' Ordinaires\f7 .
Cognac is made in onion-shaped potstills, or vats, called \o7 alambics\f7 .They were brought to France more than four centuries ago by the Moors and were first used by alchemists trying to turn non-precious metals into gold; later they helped make perfume.
Using the Saint Emilion, Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes of the region, the brandy is distilled twice, unlike any other brandy in the world. Then it's aged in wooden barrels made by hand by a process handed down from father to son since the 16th Century. The special kind of oak in the region from the surrounding Limousin and Troncais forests gives color and taste properties to the aging Cognac that brandy makers in other parts of the world haven't duplicated.
The English and Dutch were among the first to import Cognac from this area a few centuries ago, when sailors of ships sent to bring back salt from the French coastal islands discovered the drink. In England, one has the image of gentlemen retiring to the drawing room after dinner, lighting big cigars and enjoying their Cognac as they talked.
But particularly in the United States we have invented a variety of ways to enjoy Cognac. Sometimes even in cocktails, although some traditional purists prefer the finer, older Cognacs unmixed.
Designating the Aging