Words by: Simon Difford
Cognac was one of the last areas in France to distil brandy but the region had long been involved in international trade and from as early as the 5th century was a major producer of sea salt for preserving fish. The region's grapes produced inferior wines but these acidic wines proved to be excellent for distillation.
It seems likely that the first eau-de-vie were distilled for use in fortifying wines, and sent down the Charente river to the Atlantic ports.
Charente river and typical boat formerly used to transport cognac
The region's brandy quality improved dramatically with the introduction of double-distillation, developed by one Marron seigneur de la Croix, later known as the Chevalier de la Croix-Marron, who retired from military service to his property in Segonzac, in the heart of the Cognac region, in 1610.
Another development came from the discovery that extended storage periods of the brandy in oak casks also dramatically improved quality. Two casks of eau-de-vie were delivered to the Renorville Monastery but only one was tapped and the other stored away until the occasion of Bishop of Saintes' visit to the monastery some 15 years later. The monks discovered that a significant share of the brandy had evaporated and that the normally colourless brandy had taken on an amber hue. The brandy was noticeably smoother and more palatable.
The better quality brandy produced by double distillation and aging drove demand and the start of serious production with the first written reference to the name 'Cognac' being applied to the region's brandy in 1638.
The Cognac region has been recognised as an Appellation of Origin since 1909 and production and marketing of cognac are tightly controlled under French Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée rules established in 1938. The delimited cognac appellation covers a total area of over one million hectares (1,095,119 ha), but of that only 79,636 hectares is actually under vineyard with approximately 95% of those vineyards, some 6,200, used for cognac production.