Cognacs with a hint of sea breeze

by Katharina Woitczyk

From the exterior the building of the cooperative of the Ile de Ré winegrowers has nothing special to it. The huge white chalked building from the seventies with its flaking off plaster rather looks like an industrial site than a wine or cognac cellar.

But then, all of a sudden, between to freezing cold breezes blowing from the sea, one distinguishes the heavy, warm and sweet perfume of freshly distilled cognac floating from behind a large glass door.

Inside the building the temperature is nicely warm and after all the cold and humidity the smell of Cognac and evaporations of alcohol make one feel a little dizzy.

Didier Tesson, sales director of the cooperative of île de Ré wine growers ( vignerons de l’île de Ré) explains, once we start distilling the stills constantly work, seven days a week and 24 hours a day, until all the wine will have been distilled into cognac. “

According to the rules of the Cognac appellation the distilling period is allowed to last from November until March, yet this year it will be shorter at the cooperative as the yield was relatively small.

According to Didier Tesson, the white wine from the Ugni Blanc variety used for making cognac has an alcohol content of 10° vol. Each year Uniré distills around 20.000hl of white wine.

In the distillery two rows of differently sized stills are separated by a central alley. “All the stills work alike,” explains Didier Tesson.

„The wine is heated is a copper cauldron atop a red brick stove. As the boiling point of alcohol is lower than that of water, the alcohol vapour is the first to rise into the slightly curved copper pipe referred to as swan’s neck because of its incurvation.

The vapour is now runs through the pipe into a second copper container situated next to the oven. Actually the pipe curls into a spiral and runs down inside the copper cylinder which is filled with cold water. The cold causes the vapour to condense and the freshly distilled alcohol runs out of the tiny pipe at the end of the cylinder. Yet this liquid with its slightly cloudy aspect called “brouillis” is not yet Cognac. It is actually a liquid with an alcoholic strength of around 32° vol.

Hereafter the “Brouillis” is distilled a second time. During this second distillation the “brouillis” is distilled in a still with a capacity of 30 hl, the first 50 liters that will run off this still will have an alcoholic strength of around 15°vol. They are referred to as “têtes”  (heads) and will be discarded. Now the so called “coeur de chauffe” alcohol with an average strength of 71° vol will run off the still. This alcohol will age over many years in 400 liter oak vats to become Cognac.

As soon as the alcoholic strength of the liquid running of the still descends under a level of 60° vol, it will be discarded; this end of the distillation is called “queues” (tails). Heads and tails are now added to the wine destined to the first distillation, and will be distilled over again.

Freshly distilled cognac is a transparent brandy, with an astonishingly fruity and aromatic taste. The cognac will gain its typical amber colour through the ageing in oak barrels. The ageing process is also responsible for the development of the Cognacs various aromas ranging from vanilla notes in young cognac to the typical rancio in old cognacs.

The strict classification of the Cognac appellation divides the Cognac land into various crus: Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. The island Ré counts amongst the latter and less renowned district. However still, its cognacs are sought after by some of the most refined cognac houses because the grapes grown on ile de Ré thanks to their closeness to the sea, convey very particular, unusual and therefore interesting aromas to the Cognacs. This makes the ile de Ré Cognacs very exciting to use in blends.

Camus for instance distribute a 100% Ile de Ré Cognac, which has gained very positive feedback by specialists in numerous international tastings.

As for the cooperative, they  produce  a VS , a VSOP and an XO Cognac under their own label. Besides this they sell their freshly distilled cognacs in bulk  to cognac houses who use it to spice  up their prestigious blends.