Top 10 moments in Cognac historyBy Amy Hopkins
Cognac is one of the world’s most revered spirits categories, but it took entrepreneurship, vision and a dose of good luck to make the sector the success it is today.
With roots embedded in the world of wine, the evolution of Cognac is a fascinating one. Its story began in the 13th century with the enthusiasm of Dutch merchants for the wines of what we now know as “Cognac country”.
The evolution of distillation techniques and a chance creation of oak-aged brandy made the development of Cognac possible, only to be quite literally blighted by the arrival of a sap-draining pest in France.
However, the industry pulled itself back from the brink of destruction, implementing a number of measures to increase and tightly control production.
Discover the 10 biggest moments that have made the Cognac industry what it is today over the next few pages.
13th century: Renowned wine region
The wines of Poitou, La Rochelle and Angoumois became firm favourites among English, Dutch and Scandinavian travellers in the 1200s, leading to the first solid trade channels from “Cognac country” to the rest of Europe. It was around this time that the Frapin family settled in the region of Charente.
16th century: “Brendewijn” created
Dutch sailors travelled to Cognac’s ports in search of the much-lauded wines of Champagne and Borderies, however due to excessive production the quality of the liquid had diminished. As such, the Dutch distilled the liquid to make “brandewijn”, which was consumed with water to recreate the taste of the original wine.
17th century: Distillation techniques refined
In the early 1600s, double distillation began to be practiced in the region, transforming local wines into eau de vie – fruit brandies, dubbed the “water of life” – so that they may be transported overseas without spoiling. The first stills were built in the Charente region by Dutch producers, but were further developed by the French. As cargoes of the liquid faced delays, importers realised that eau de vie improved if it was stored in oak for a longer period of time.
1765: Hennessy distillery founded
Irishman Richard Hennessy founded what is now the world’s best-selling Cognac brand Hennessy in 1765. In 1970, Killian Hennessy, a direct fifth generation descendent of Richard, spearheaded the company’s merger with Möet et Chandon, creating Möet Hennessy. Sixteen years later, the group merged with Louis Vuitton to create luxury goods conglomerate Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessy (LVMH). With significantly greater sales than three of the other “big four” Cognac brands – Rémy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier – Hennessy shifted 5.17m cases in 2013.
1850s: Great French Wine Blight
Phylloxera, a sap-draining pest, breaks out in Europe and wipes out the vineyards of France. As such, the country’s wine, brandy and Cognac production came to a grinding halt, and the industries rapidly declined. Only 40,000 hectares of vineyards were left by 1893, down from 300,000, and the economic recovery of the region would take many years. The cretin originated in North America but was carried across the Atlantic in the late 1850s.
1900s: Planting of Ugni Blanc
Following the devastation of Phylloxera, French vineyards began to replant using American grapes immune to the pest. Traditional grape varieties of Folle Blanche and Colombard were replaced by the more resistant and highly acidic Ugni Blanc, which is now used in 90% of Cognac production.
1936: Controlled Appellation of Origin
From 1936 Cognac was recognised as a Controlled Apellation of Origin, or Appellation d’origine controlee, making it one of the most tightly controlled spirit categories in the world – a reputation that exists to this day. Regulations state that for a product to be called Cognac, it must be made from certain varieties of grapes grown in particular regions. It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged for at least two years in French oak casks from either Limousin or Tronçais.
1948: BNIC formed
The Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac replaced a distribution unit set up during the Second World War to protect stocks of Cognac. A trade body which acts on behalf of Cognac producers, it strictly regulates all stages of Cognac production to “ensure quality and authenticity”.
2001: Pass the Courvoisier Part II
At the turn of the century, Cognac had started to form a new modern image, shrugging off its old fashioned association with the after dinner drinks trolley and becoming synonymous with an unlikely genre, Hip Hop. When US rap star Busta Rhymes released Pass the Courvoisier Part II in 2001, its presence in the glamorous rap world was solidified.
2012: China downturn
In a bid to tackle corruption, Chinese president Xi Jinping embarked on a campaign to crackdown on extravagant spending and gifting among the government and military in the country. Since China had long-been a top market for Cognac due to the potential for luxury goods in the region, producers soon felt the effects of the austerity campaign and sales began to plummet following record growth. According to data released by the BNIC, sales VSOP and above Cognacs plummeted 13.3% by volume and 16.9% by value in the 12 months to July 2014.