Holding Court Since 1869
While the Poitou-Charentes region has been producing wine for centuries, Atlantic France’s most famous beverage is probably Cognac, the strong but smooth spirit endorsed, so legend holds, by no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte himself.
A drink fit for an emperor?
Made famous by brands like Rémy Martin, Hennessy and Courvoisier, Cognac is a type of brandy made by double-distilling white wine, then aging it in oak casks. Its production area in Atlantic France encompasses the Charente-Maritime department, along with most of the Charente and part of Deux-Sèvres.
The process for producing Cognac has not changed much since the 17th century, when double-distillation was first introduced. The first distillation results in brouillis, a low alcohol result that is then distilled once more producing bonne chauffe, which is then aged in oak casks for at least two years (and up to several decades). The porosity of the oak allows the brandy to come into contact with air, transferring its unique properties to the spirit throughout the maturation process.
The final stage for a quality Cognac involves the work of a Maître de Chai, a cellar master who supervises the storage and aging of brandies and puts together the final assemblage, often by mixing different ages and regions to achieve a subtle and harmonious blend of flavours.
Did You Know…?
Courvoisier has long claimed that its Cognac was the favourite drink of Napoleon. The only problem? Napoleon died 14 years before the company was founded! His namesake Napoleon III did however name Courvoisier an official supplier to the Imperial Court in 1869. And that, as The Whisky Exchange put it, “is good enough for marketing department.”
History’s Happy Accident
Add unfermented grape juice to Cognac and you get Pineau, or Pineau des Charentes, an apertif and another specialty popular in Poitou-Charentes, but lesser known outside of the region.
Produced in an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in the Charente-Maritime and Charente departments of Poitou-Charentes, Pineau is a fortified wine born from adding unfermented grape juice to Cognac then aging the concoction in oak casks.
Pineau can trace its origins back to the 16th century; as the legend goes, a vintner accidentally spilled his grape must into a barrel of Cognac, which he forgot about. Years later, he stumbled upon his delightfully delicious creation!
Much like wine, Pineau comes in white and red/rosé varieties. The whites are most common, aged for a minimum of 18 months and taking on the flavour of honey, fruit and spices. By contrast, reds and rosés are aged for a minimum of 14 months, allowing them to develop strong fruit flavours.