Understanding Terroir in Cognac

The idea of terroir is a concept most attentive wine drinkers are familiar with these days as consumers everywhere have begun asking more questions about the origins of what they ingest. No longer do we simply assume that great wines are created in the cellar. The more we learn about the world’s great wines, the more we want to know what makes them great. It’s not only the weather of the vintage that allows for superior fruit in the vineyard, it can also be the mineral content of the soil, the way the wind flows through the vines helping to prevent rot, or the way the vineyard faces on the slope of a hill, allowing for a certain exposure to the sun. It’s believed that some of the world’s longest-lived wines draw their preservative powers from the terrain—that limestone, clay, or other specific soils help to preserve acidity and promote more concentrated flavors within the grape. As a drinking culture, we understand more about what makes wine taste the way it does than ever before.

But what about wine distillates like brandy? Does terroir matter in the case of spirits? According to the geographical appellation system of Cognac it does. Cognac is broken down into a number of different grape-growing regions, the most prestigious of which is Grand Champagne—a section of the Charentes that by no coincidence has the chalkiest soil content. When white wine grapes grow in limestone-rich soils the berries maintain their acidity, which ultimately creates a finer distillate and a more delicately-flavored Cognac. I was on the trail in Cognac today, visiting with a few of my producer friends and discussing the importance of location in terms of a brandy’s flavor. It’s no secret that Grand Champagne-grown fruit is more valuable than a parcel of grapes in the Fins Bois region, and the price tags in a retail store will tell you that Grand Champagne Cognac is certainly more expensive than a bottle not labeled as such. The question is: why exactly is that the case? I wanted to find out.

We ate dinner last night with our pal François Giboin, a Cognac distiller in the Borderies region who also has vines in the Fins Bois and makes Cognac from both designations. Whereas most familiar brands of Cognac are negotiants, meaning they buy much of their content from small guys like Giboin, François is what we would call a grower/producer: someone who both grows his own grapes and sells his own Cognac under his own label. François was in the middle of distillation when we were there, running through a batch of Fins Bois fruit as we chatted next to the boiling alembic. The fresh-run eau de vie was fruity and rather heavy on the palate. It wasn’t the light and graceful flavor I had tasted in the new make of Grand Champagne producers, but it did match up with the other Giboin Cognacs I had previously tasted. We bring in the 1996 Giboin Fins Bois Cognac, an eighteen year expression that offers unctuous texture and a more straightforward richness. At around fifty bucks it’s a fantastic value, but I don’t think anyone would ever confuse its simple charm with something truly high-end.

As we moved into the cellar François told me he had taken the 1996 vintage out of cask and put the rest of it into a glass demijohn to prevent further aging. While it’s common to find Grand Champagne Cognac at forty and even fifty years of age, this particular Fins Bois expression had reached the end of its maturation period—it had peaked, so to speak. This brought up an interesting analogy as it pertains to wine. If the great wines of the world need to be aged for decades before reaching perfect maturity, is it also the case that the region’s best Cognacs need additional time in wood? If a Fins Bois Cognac might peak at less than twenty years, does the terroir of Cognac’s Grand Champagne soil allow for the subsequent brandies to age for longer periods? More importantly, maybe it requires that they do!

After a fantastic night with François, we headed over to the Grand Champagne region this morning to meet up with Claudine and Gerald Buraud, the owners of Dudognon in the town of Lignieres-Sonneville. Dudognon, in my humble opinion, makes some of the best brandies in the entire world, which taste even more impressive when you learn they’re 100% natural—no caramel coloring and no artificial sweeteners. Boisé, as the sugary substance is referred to colloquially, is an agent used to round out any of the potential harshness of a Cognac before bottling. It also helps to maintain consistency of color and allows the liquid to appear older in the bottle. It’s not necessarily a bad thing—most rums follow the same practice—but, like plastic surgery, no one wants to admit they’ve had work done. Dudognon was also operating the alembic during our visit today, allowing us to compare between freshly-distilled eau de vie.

Pierre and I took a tour through the cellar while my friend Charles visited with Claudine by the alembic. I wanted to taste some of the younger distillates to see if I could contrast some of the differences with the Giboin Cognacs. The thing that grabs you instantly upon the first sip is the freshness of the spirit. There’s a fresh, clean, and piercingly crystalline flavor to the Dudognon Cognacs which is even bolder and more intense in the younger brandies. Having tasted fifty and even sixty year Cognacs during previous visits, little of this intensity was present in any of those ultra-mature expressions. These youngsters, however, were a completely different story. It was like tasting for potential in wine—like when you taste a young Bordeaux and get a mouthful of tannin, but can still comprehend the fruit buried underneath it.

Where as most VS level Cognacs clock in between two to three years of age (again, the dark color is often due to the caramel rather than the maturity), I don’t think you can even approach most of the Dudognon brandies until seven to ten years after they’ve been in cask. It seems crazy to say, but you can almost taste the minerality in the young Cognacs (almost like the stoniness of a Sancerre). To use yet another wine analogy, it’s a lot easier to make something taste soft and smooth than it is to make it complex. Sugar and oak can mask a lot of impurities, but they can’t manufacture complexity. It’s innate. Give the incredibly concentrated Cognacs of Dudognon fifty years and they’ll blossom into something absolutely unworldly—like the finest vintages of Haut-Brion or Domaine de la Romanée-Contí.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll