Is there terroir in Cognac?
In “Goldfinger” there is a great scene where James Bond and M are having dinner with Colonel Smithers of the Bank of England and learning about the gold business. After a presumably sumptuous dinner the banker brandishes a beautiful cut crystal decanter and says, “Have a little more of this rather disappointing brandy.”
M looks at and sniffs at his glass and asks, “Why, what is the matter with it?”
Know-it-all James Bond states categorically, “I’d say it was a 30 year old Fine and indifferently blended with an overdose of Bon Bois.”
The banker replies, “Quite right.”
M, obviously perturbed says, “Colonel Smithers is giving the lecture 007.”
James Bond knows all about the terroir of Cognac
What is Bond talking about?
Look at the map of Cognac and you will see at the center, just below the town of Cognac, the region named Grande Champagne. Around that is Petite Champagne, which is in turn surrounded by Fins Bois which, finally, is surrounded by Bon Bois. There is even a further outlying region named Bois Ordinaires which obviously James Bond wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.
At the very center of the Grande Champagne region is the village of Segonzac. The plateau above the village produces the most age worthy brandies of the entire region. For me Cognac is the greatest illustration of the very concept of terroir, indeed I think that it proves that terroir exists. Here is an excerpt from Nicolas Faith’s fantastic article, “Jurassic Vineyard – How Cognac Loves that Crazy Old Chalk” in issue 14 of “The World of Fine Wine” from 2006:
“There is nothing except geography – and geology and all of the other factors that compose the mystery of terroir – to explain the superiority of brandies fem certain parts of the region, above all from the best subregion – and then, as we shall see, not the whole of the subregion. For there is simply no other possible explanation. To start with, virtually all of the vines are of the same variety: the relatively neutral Ugni Blanc. The dominance of this variety has reduced the effect of terroir when compared with the brandies produced before phylloxera from more aromatic varieties like Colombard and Folle Blanche. All the grapes are harvested at the same time at virtually the same alcoholic degree, which varies only between vintages and not between parts of the vineyard. The grapes are fermented in exactly the same fashion, then all of them are stored for a few weeks with no sulfur or other additive. The distillation process is equally standardized, taking place in precisely the same type and size of stills, with those for the second fermentation limited to 25 hectoliters. The stop and start points of the “heads” and “tails” – the flow of the first heavily alcoholic and last underproof spirit from each individual distillation – do indeed vary, but that’s a matter of style rather than of quality and in any case the variations are pretty minimal.
The raw spirit is then matured in oak casks of exactly the same size. They produce two rather distinctive styles of Cognac, depending on whether they are made from the relatively open-grained Limousin type of oak or the tighter-grained Troncais. But in marked contrast to the to the situation as far as wines are concerned, fine Cognacs are aged not just in both type of casks but also in those of very different ages – the most extreme are those made by the deeply reputable house of Delamain, none of which has ever seen a grain of new wood.”
So Cognac, unlike any other wine or spirit producing region is produced in the same fashion from the same grape variety. The differences come from the soils that these grapes are grown in and the blending of the brandies of different ages and the age of the barrels. The expert blenders in Cognac have found that the only brandies that improve with age past ten or fifteen years are those from the Grande Champagne region, especially from the plateau above Segonzac. Over the years more and more vines are planted in the very best subregions of Cognac and fewer and fewer in the Fins Bois, Bois Ordinaires and Bond‘s disappointing Bon Bois.
After phylloxera ravaged the region it was replanted to one varietal. In Segonzac the chalk soil is highly porous and the subsoil is composed of thick bands of similar chalk. The thin topsoil drains well and the thick spongy chalk subsoil retains water releasing it slowly.
This friable Jurassic chalk, called Campanian chalk, is only found on the upper slopes in the heart of the Grande Champagne region and includes a species of fossil that is found nowhere else: Ostrea vesicularis. The soil also contains lumps of crystallized iron pyrite called marcasite which, incidentally is also found in Pauillac. Petite Champagne has another variety of chalk called Santonian chalk which is almost as good for growing grapes to be distilled into spirit but that does not quite reach the heights of the best Grande Champagne cognacs.
Interestingly more than fifty percent of the land in Grande Champagne is planted with vines, in Petite Champagne it is about thirty percent. The Bon Bois region is very large – three hundred and seventy two thousand hectares. In this vast region only twelve thousand hectares are planted to vines. Why? Obviously 007 – once again, knew precisely what he was talking about.