Words by: Simon Difford
Photography by: Simon Difford
The Cognac region sits at the northern end of the Aquitaine basin plains 120km (75 miles) north of Bordeaux, 80km (50 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean and 483kms (300 miles) south of Paris. To the west it borders the Gironde estuary while the Massif Central foothills lie to the east.
This is a picturesque part of France with rolling countryside, tree groves and the Charente River meandering across the region, along the way fed by the Né, Antenne and Seugne rivers. The climate is mild with an annual average temperature around 13°C (55°F). Its northerly situation meaning that the grapes ripen slowly and evenly so generating the right balance of fruit and acidity required for distillation.
The Cognac region is divided into six sub-regions (crus), reflecting variations in climate and soil as described by the geologist Henri Coquand in 1860 and ratified by decree in 1938. As a general rule, the finest crus have more chalk in their soil and are at the centre of the region with the most regarded, Grande Champagne, having only a very thin layer of top soil over solid chalk so the vine routes have to force their way through the chalk to find water. Unlike in other winegrowing regions, irrigation is not permitted in the Cognac appellation (expect for the first year after planting). As you move to the outside of the area the soils have more clay.
The Crus received their names when the local forests were cleared at the beginning of the 19th century, hence the reference to woods in some of the area names. In order of quality these are Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois (fine woods), Bons Bois (good woods) and Bois Ordinaires (ordinary woods).
The biggest houses only use grapes from the first four regions (Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois) to produce their cognacs and only a small vineyard area remains in the last two regions (Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires), with the little wine that is produced only used by small family producers and for the production of Pineau des Charentes. Even in Fin Bois a lot less than one-sixth of the cultivatable land is under vine. This is in stark comparison with Grande Champagne and Borderies where over half the land is covered by vineyards.
Grande Champagne (13,450 Ha, 33,200 acres)
The top (premier) cru centres on the town of Segonzac and spreads out north and east. Champagne cognac has nothing to do with champagne sparkling wine, which is made many miles away, but their shared name probably comes from the Latin 'campania', which means broad, rolling, open countryside. Thus Grande Champagne means 'large meadow'.
Fine Grande Champagne is a term that can only be applied to Cognacs made from grapes grown in Cognac's Grande Champagne region.
Petite Champagne (15,870 Ha, 39,200 acres)
To the south of Grande Champagne, and extending west of Segonzac, Petite Champagne (meaning 'small meadow') is the second finest cru of Cognac. The term Fine Champagne refers to cognacs made only from a blend of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne and to qualify as Fine Champagne cognacs at least 50% of the blend must come from Grande Champagne.
Borderies (4,070 Ha, 10,000 acres)
Meaning 'edges', Borderies is the smallest, and due to its geography, the coolest of the cognac regions. It is also more humid, partly as this region retains some wooded areas. It is located above the Champagne crus, to the north of the town of Cognac. There are few pure Borderies cognacs available and by far the majority produced is blended with cognac from the two Champagne crus.
Borderies cognac tends to be nutty as opposed to the fruitcake-like flavours associated with the Fine Champagnes (made from the two Champagne crus). Floral flavours, particularly violet are also associated with Borderies. Some claim that Borderies matures more gracefully than Grande and Petite Champage.
Fins Bois (33,670 Ha, 83,200 acres)
The largest of the cognac regions surrounds the first three crus. The name means 'fine woods' since when the vines were planted much of this area was wooded. Fins Bois is favoured for producing younger blends due to its relatively quick maturation.
Bons Bois (12,260 Ha, 30,300 acres)
Meaning 'good woods' although again little of this area remains wooded, Bons Bois surrounds the Fin Bois region. Wine from Bons Bois now rarely finds its way into the cognacs produced by the major houses and tends to be used in the production of Pineau de Charente (a fortified wine aperitif for which the Cognac region is also noted).
Bois Ordinaires or Bois à Terroir (1,530 Ha, 3,800 acres)
This cru includes two areas, one to the northwest, including the islands of Oléron and Ré, the other to the northeast of Segonzac. Known as Bois Ordinaires (ordinary woods) and Bois à Terroir (earth woods) (although the woods have long been cleared) the vineyards' sandy soil and closeness to the sea impact unfavourably on their wines. Ordinary by name and ordinary by nature, this is the least important of the six areas and its eaux-de-vie are rarely even considered for use in cognacs made by the major houses.