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Cognac & Terroir
Cognac is the world’s leading grape brandy
September 23, 2020 | ELEMENT: spirit | article | 10 minute read

Cognac is the world’s leading grape brandy. For centuries the region north of Bordeaux has developed and refined its production based on terroir. Whilst it was not a term used by the pioneers, it certainly explains how this most famous spirit evolved and is analogous with the thinking behind Waterford.

The Dutch traders moved from salt to low alcohol wine. Whether it was to add to the sailors’ water to make it palatable or to boost the strength of the wine, the decision was made to distil it. The choice of soil and micro-climate, coupled with vine varieties and topography, could be a modern textbook for understanding terroir. 

Even by the 18th and early 19th centuries, Cognac came to be named after the specific land where the vines were grown. The most chalky soil was found around the village of Segonzac and yielded a distillate called ‘Champagne de Cognac’. This was a reference to the opaque white soft limestone of a small sub-district, today termed Grande Champagne. The effect of cultivating vines on such strata was to produce a Cognac with sublime subtlety and finesse.

By contrast, brandy made from the wooded area was less highly prized and distinctly cheaper. According to Cyril Camus, fifth generation of the Camus Cognac family and a major producer, Borderies was the first district to be planted in the region and where the brandy was initially made. This key district is the smallest of the designated six.  It lies north-west of the town of Cognac. Its soil – with half the limestone content of Grande Champagne – and specific microclimate impart both minerality and violet aromatics to the wine.

When legislation was required to codify the trade, geology formed a key element. It was to safeguard the name and those who depended on it for their living – from farmer to distillery and alchemist to trader.  The appellation or controlled zone formed what today is called intellectual property.

The choice of vine to gain the most potential from the Cognac vineyard is significant. Pre-1878, before the phylloxera aphid devastated the region, such varieties as Balzac, Blanche Ramee and Gros Bouillau were planted. Today there is choice of six white vines, chosen specifically because they yield grapes low in sugar but with high acidity.  The resultant wine is the perfect base for Charentais distillation.

Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Folle Blanche, Montils, Semillon and Folignan can be grown and the choice lies with the farmer. Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, Hennessy’s master blender, and colleagues annually taste over 10,000 samples; he says, “We follow the quality done by each grape grower. We know them, where they are, how they work. We work constantly with them to improve our ability to get the best from the potential of their vineyards.”

“Provenance is not a destination but part of the journey,” he adds. Like barley with whisky, vines contribute different qualities.  Folle Blanche has wonderful aromatic qualities and is grown even though it is susceptible to disease. Folignan is a relatively new cross (Ugni Blanc x Folle Blanche) and cannot make up more than 10% in a blend. Vine trials continue with two plots (100 plants per variety); the varieties are currently unnamed, just numbered.

Micro-climate is another factor. A temperate one is formed at the heart of the Cognac region from its location midway between the Atlantic and high ground of the upper Charente valley.

cognac map

Forming a semicircle around Cognac’s centre is the Petite Champagne district. Again, it has a high chalk content to such an extent that when spirit from grapes of the two sub-districts (Grande and Petite) is combined, the authorities recognise it as Fine Champagne, provided not less than 50% is Grande Champagne.

The alchemists depend on such variety. Patrice Pinet, master blender at Courvoisier, says, “The crus are crucial in understanding the style and character of a Cognac. I strongly feel the provenance talk will remain based on the crus and what they bring to one’s blend.”

The significance of specific terroir is recognised even by the large Cognac houses. Frapin, which relies totally on its own vineyards, creates single estate Cognacs from Chateau de Fontpinot in Grande Champagne.  Hine, founded by a Dorset man who went to learn French in Cognac in 1793, is now selling single vineyards from individual years. This counters all commercial homogeneity.

Whilst the three districts of Grande and Petite Champagne and Borderies are known for different floral characters, finesse and elegance, contrasting individuality is shown by wines and their spirits from the Fins Bois and Bons Bois districts where fruit and structure are the hallmarks. Tasters can detect aromas of orange, liquorice and carnation.

The latter two districts are concentric circles around the three named other areas. To the coastal plain of the west, Bois Ordinaires has much marsh and sand. This includes the isles of Oleron and Re, yielding Cognac largely of iodine and salty character which is sold to tourists.

From time to time, the INAO updates the legislation. The marketing moves seen in recent years make the 1983 remarks of geographer Patrick Daniou prescient: “It seems eminently desirable, in order to defend the quality of Cognac’s brandies, to take greater account of terroir in a new definition of the Cognac appellation, which should be based on scientific criteria and on boundaries that should not necessarily be administrative ones.”


– Conal Gregory, MW

“The Cognac Companion: A Connoisseur’s Guide” by Conal Gregory MW is published by the Apple Press, London. His international awards include the Mercier Champagne Scholarship and other books include A Caterer’s Guide to Drinks. He is a wine and spirit consultant whose skilful blends including achieving one of only four gold medals awarded in Brussels for Bordeaux estates.

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