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Patrick Raguenaud tells the story of Cognac

Patrick Raguenaud tells the story of Cognac

Listen to this Cognac “Masterclass” with Patrick Raguenaud, winegrower and former President of the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC). This podcast is recorded by Philippe Hermet for 20 DIVIN, the Wine Podcast. In this episode, Patrick will tell us about the process of making Cognac, using the famous double distillation method in a Charentais copper pot still. He will talk about the different crus and give us historical markers.




Philippe: “I am delighted to offer you a masterclass on Cognac today, with Patrick Raguenaud as my guest. Born in Jarnac to a family of winegrowers and distillers, Patrick worked as Cellarmaster and Production Manager at Martell, then at Grand Marnier, and was President of the Bureau National de l’Interprofession, known as the BNIC, until 2020.
In this episode, he will tell us about the process of making Cognac, the different crus, and the history of this wine spirit that Victor Hugo called the “liquor of the Gods”.
My name is Philippe Hermet and welcome to 20 Divin.
Today I am interviewing Patrick Raguenaud, and we are in the town of Cognac. Hello Patrick!”

Patrick: “Hello Philippe!”

Philippe: “It is quite a little-known fact that the Cognac region is actually one of the largest wine-producing regions in France.”

Patrick: “Yes, absolutely. Not only in terms of surface area, but also sales volumes and turnover.”

Philippe: “Indeed, the leading region for white wine production.”

Patrick: “Yes, that’s right.”

1/ The different grape varieties used for Cognac

Philippe: “Not many people know, but the main grape variety is Ugni Blanc with a little Folle Blanche.”

Patrick: “You could say that Ugni Blanc wins hands down since it represents nearly 98% of the grape varieties in the Cognac region today. Out of the total 80,000 hectares of vines – which makes for quite a surface area of Ugni Blanc – the remaining 2% consists of a little Folle Blanche and a little Colombard. Ugni Blanc is by far the majority.”

Philippe: “It is a grape variety of Italian origin, I believe?”

Patrick: “That’s right, it’s a grape variety from Italy that has been acclimatized with quite some success in the region. This gives us rather acidic and light white wines, fairly simple wines really, but most importantly they enable us to produce very high-quality wine spirits.”

Philippe: “Is it important to have a slightly acidic wine in order to produce Cognac?”

Patrick: “Acidity is important because, in Cognac, we do not add sulfites to our wines to preserve them. Natural acidity is therefore a natural way of preserving the wines before distillation. Distillation begins after the harvest, in October, and ends in March at the latest.”

2/ The Cognac distillation process

Philippe: “It involves double distillation, right? How do you distill Cognac wine?”

Patrick: “We always use white wine, as you mentioned earlier. Distillation is a two-step process. Firstly, in Charentais copper pot stills. I can tell you about them, but sadly cannot show you them! Basically, we put the wine in a large copper pot that is heated and brought to a boil. The vapors rise up into what is called a still-head, then into a swan’s neck. They are then condensed in a condenser filled with cold water, which is called the coil. So we get a wine with an alcohol content of around 10% to be used for this first distillation. And I do mean the first distillation here, from which we obtain a distillate called “brouillis”, which has an alcohol content of around 30%. This is the first distillation.
Then comes the second distillation, in the same pot still or sometimes a different one. The “brouillis” is put into the still and distilled again. We obtain three main products from this process: the “head”, the “heart” and the “seconds”, also called the “tails”.
The heart really is the most precious one, that’s the Cognac. This is the part we keep and put in barrels to make Cognac. So, the first distillation of the wine gives “brouillis” and the second distillation gives us Cognac.”

Philippe: “OK, so when the distillation process is complete, the alcohol content is around 70%, right?”

Patrick: “Yes, around 71% to 72% alcohol content.”

Philippe: “With the issue of global warming, are there any discussions going on to potentially increase that limit? I imagine there is a risk of losing acidity in the wines?”

Patrick: “What’s important, and always has been, is maintaining what makes our products distinctive and of high quality. To keep this acidity and the distinctive character of our wines, we move the harvest forward and pick the grapes earlier. By doing so, we avoid the grapes overripening and the effects of extreme ripening, thereby preserving their acidity which is, as you say, of key importance for maintaining the quality of our wine spirits.”

Patrick: “You’re right, I almost forgot. Thank you!”

Philippe: “Aged for 6 years?”

Patrick: “Yes, I see you have learned a lot since your last visit! A Napoleon is aged for 6 years, as you say. Then, XO for a minimum of 10 years and XXO a minimum of 14 years. That is the hierarchy of our ageing categories here in Cognac.”

3/ The different Cognac crus

Philippe: “Which departments of France are included in today’s Cognac region?”

Patrick: “The Cognac region extends over the Charente-Maritime in its entirety first and foremost, over two-thirds of the Charente, a small part of the Sève and a tiny part of the Dordogne, so generally we say the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments.”

Philippe: “The region covers six different production areas or crus, right?”

Patrick: You could ask what makes these crus different. There is one essential point to keep in mind – you were here with us a few weeks ago in the vineyards yourself – it is the soil. What makes a wine produced in the Grande Champagne terroir different to a wine produced in Fin Bois or in Bon Bois is the soil. We have different types of soil that give different types of wine, which in turn will produce different types of Cognac and other wine spirits.”

Philippe: “They say that the heart of Cognac lies in Bonzac, in the Grande Champagne terroir.”

Patrick: “That’s exactly right. This area has a chalk-limestone soil from the Cretaceous period, which gives wine spirits that are incredibly fine and elegant, but at the same time very powerful with absolutely extraordinary ageing potential.”

Philippe: “Then there is Petite Champagne?”

Patrick: “The Petite Champagne terroir is quite similar to Grande Champagne, but with slightly less pronounced characteristics. So it produces finesse and power, although slightly less power.

Philippe: “And the third cru is Borderies?”

Patrick: “Borderies is a small terroir but of interest nevertheless thanks to its distinctive soil. It has a clay-siliceous soil with a great deal of flint which makes for very fine, floral and rather feminine wine spirits, sometimes with aromas of violet.”

Philippe: “Then there is Fin Bois?”

Patrick: “Yes, Fin Bois is kind of the heart in terms of the terroir. It is the largest cru with clay-limestone soils mainly from the Jurassic period which give very fruity wine spirits that age quickly.”

4/ Cognac aging categories

Philippe: “You spoke about VS and VSOP. Can you explain all the differences to our listeners? VS stands for Very Special, that’s a minimum 2 years of ageing, right?”

Patrick: “Yes, that’s right. In the same category, we have 3 Etoiles or VS, which are the 2 most commonly used labels. We also have VSOP, which I mentioned earlier.”

Philippe: “VSOP is aged for a minimum of 4 years?”

Patrick: “Yes, a minimum 4 years of ageing. Keeping in mind that for both VS and VSOP, as well as for the other categories, the merchants produce and sell Cognac that has been aged for significantly longer than the regulatory minimum. Then you have XO, aged for a minimum of 10 years.”

Philippe: “But you have the Napoleon between the two?”

Patrick: “You’re right, I almost forgot. Thank you!”

Philippe: “Aged for 6 years?”

Patrick: “Yes, I see you have learned a lot since your last visit! A Napoleon is aged for 6 years, as you say. Then, XO for a minimum of 10 years and XXO a minimum of 14 years. That is the hierarchy of our ageing categories here in Cognac.”

5/ Cognac production

Philippe: “We’ve talked about the distillation process. Then there is a reduction process using water to bring the alcohol content down a little, am I right?”

Patrick: “The wine spirit is put into barrels with an alcohol content of around 71%. During the ageing process, some of the wine spirit will evaporate which will normally lower the alcohol content. I say “normally” because that is not the case in certain conditions, especially if the cellars are relatively dry. Humid cellars and dry cellars give quite different aromatic profiles to wine spirits and this is important to merchants. To winegrowers too because a humid cellar will give a more rounded, softer wine spirit while a dry cellar will give a slightly sharper result. In French, we use the terms “pointu”, “fort” and “sèche” meaning pointed, strong and dry. A combination of dry and humid cellars sometimes makes for absolutely extraordinary and delicious blends! Ageing helps to reduce the alcohol content naturally, but sometimes this is not enough so we perform what is called a reduction by adding water to the Cognac. We work very gradually to bring down the alcohol content while respecting the Cognac.”

Philippe: “You then have all these wine spirits that will age for different lengths of time. Next comes the maestro – the cellarmaster – who will do the blending, right?”

6/ Blending by the cellarmasters

Patrick: “Before talking about the blending process, I would just like to say a few words about barrels. For me, they are an essential element in the quality of Cognac and its production. The barrels are generally 354 to 400 liters in volume. They are made of oak, often French oak. They confer aromas, a bouquet and a distinctive character to the Cognac, depending on the type of oak. The cellarmaster’s work of blending is based on the cellars and the barrels and depends on the terroirs and the crus.

The blending process starts with a table full of samples from the various terroirs, barrels, cellars, etc. that I mentioned. Despite this diversity, the cellarmaster must create a product that is exactly the same, year after year. This ability is what we call the art of blending, which the cellarmasters perfect over time. Their expertise is about always making a very high-quality product of consistent quality using different ingredients. It is a long process of learning and expertise. It takes tremendous practice over many years to master the entire process. There is also a know-how that is passed down from generation to generation. This is at the very heart of Cognac craftsmanship.”

7/ Creation of the Bureau National de L’interprofession du Cognac (BNIC)

Philippe: “I imagine the industry requires a great deal of structural organisation between winegrowers and merchants.”

Patrick: “Rather than organisation, I would say it requires a well-understood and shared interest between winegrowers and merchants, who are partners by obligation. When the British, or rather the British merchants settled in Cognac, a trade of buying and selling was established. They did not produce wine spirits and Cognacs, instead, they bought them from a number of winegrowers in the region.”

Philippe: “Grower-distillers?”

Patrick: “Mostly grower-distillers, but also large distilleries. But these merchants were not producers as such; they did not own any vineyards. This is still the economic model that prevails in Cognac today. That is to say, the merchant buys wine or Cognac from winegrowers, ages it, processes it, blends it and then sells it. This model can only work if everyone understands where their interests lie. The merchant’s interest is to have goods to buy in order to sell, and the winegrowers’ interest is to create products that will sell. Naturally, there must be an agreement, a negotiation needs to take place and there has to be an understanding. It is from this principle and observation that the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) was founded. The BNIC was born out of this desire to work together towards a collective interest and it expresses this logic of collective life based on the shared interests of both merchants and winegrowers.

Philippe: “Are they represented 50-50?”

Patrick: “Absolutely.”

Philippe: “Among the illustrious figures of the region is Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of Europe, a native of Cognac and the son of a merchant who did a great deal to defend free-trade agreements. I noted a remark his grandfather supposedly made to him, “Never forget that in Cognac, a new idea is a bad idea.”

Patrick: “Those words reflect a certain conservatism, a certain strict adherence to tradition. I don’t think it reflects the spirit of the trade particularly well. On the contrary, I feel Cognac has always been at the cutting-edge, listening to its consumers, listening to the market and always knowing how to adapt. You can’t survive more than 300 years without having been constantly attentive to change, to the trends of the time. It’s just not possible. In fact, I think one of the great strengths of Cognac has been to preserve what makes Cognac what it is: the terroir, production methods and a great respect for merchants and winegrowers, while being innovative in terms of consumer habits. The way Cognac was consumed in the 19th century is very different to how it is consumed today. There has always been a constant adaptation both to global demand, since we export 98%, and to consumer habits. For me, this is what Cognac is about.”

8/ The Cognac region soon to be recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Site?

Philippe: “The region’s latest project is an application to be recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Site, is that right?”

Patrick: “Yes, the whole of the BNIC is working on this project alongside many other people. It is a long and intricate application to be completed step-by-step and I believe the entire sector, both winegrowers and merchants, is fully motivated. I have no doubt we will achieve our goal; I am certain of it.”
Philippe: “Perfect. Do you have anything you would like to add, Patrick?”

Patrick: “I hope that your listeners will be pleased and will have learnt a lot about Cognac. More than anything, I would like to invite them to come and see us, to visit and taste Cognac. You can visit both merchants and winegrowers. It’s a beautiful region and I think you can testify to that, Philippe. Come visit us, I feel that’s the best message I can pass onto everyone.”

Philippe: “Thank you so much for your time, Patrick. I hope to see you again soon!”

Patrick: “Thank you!”


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