On the Trail

The Difference of Grande Champagne

David Driscoll

What does it mean when you see the words Grande Champagne on a bottle of Cognac? We'll tell you! Much like with Burgundy or Champagne, there are actually appellations in the Cognac region where the soil has been classified based upon its mineral content and capability for producing greatness. Much like a grand cru vineyard wine might fetch a higher price than a premier cru wine or a standard village wine in the Cote d'Or, a Grande Champagne Cognac will generally cost more than a comparable expression from the Petite Champagne or Borderies regions. You see, Cognac—like any other wine growing region of France—is broken up into different districts based on the chalkiness of the terrain beneath those vineyards. Whereas an outlier appellation like the Fins Bois contains a heavy clay soil, resulting in a more course and rugged style of brandy, the Grande Champagne district of Cognac contains the region's chalkiest vineyards—and that heavy limestone content makes all the difference in the final product.

Much like the silex in the soils of Sancerre helps create mineral-rich white wines with supreme acidity, the chalky earth in the Grande Champagne region of Cognac also helps the ugni blanc grapes to maintain their acidity. The more acidity and finesse the wines have when they're picked and fermented, the more elegance and ability for aging the resulting brandies have once they're distilled. Whereas a Cognac distilled from Fins Bois fruit might max out at around 15-18 years of barrel maturation, brandies distilled from Grande Champagne fruit usually have the potential for 30-60 years of oak aging—and in many cases, much like a first-growth Bordeaux, they'll require just that. There's a sweet spot where the fruit and structure of the brandy become harmonious with the flavors of the wood, and it often takes longer for Grande Champagne Cognacs to hit that note. As one producer told us on our recent trip: "Grande Champagne Cognac ages in the barrel like Chateau Lafite ages in the bottle."

Even without extended maturation, however, the quality of top quality Grande Champagne Cognac is palpable in the glass. One of our most popular direct imports over the past few years has been Claude Thorin, a Grande Champagne grower/producer who uses minimal to no boise in his brandies (boise is a sweetener used to add color and richness to Cognac—don't be scared, however, as 99.9% of producers use it). Much like a white Burgundy producer, Claude recognizes that the reason his customers are paying for Grande Champagne quality is because of the fruit itself, not the vanilla or the oak flavors that come from maturation afterward. His entry-level VS expression continues to be the top-selling Cognac we carry (an absolute steal at thirty bucks) and the vintage Cognacs he creates—bottled with zero additives or boise—are some of the purest in the business. Even in the young VS expression you can decipher the grace and fineness of flavor with clean bursts of stone fruit that glide over the palate. The unadulterated vintage expressions are almost shocking in their beauty.

More importantly, because we're able to purchase the Thorin brandies directly from Claude we have incredible pricing on these Cognacs, allowing our customers to experience the Grand Champagne difference for themselves without spending an arm and a leg.

-David Driscoll