Expansion of the Saintonge vineyards: The roman emperor Probus extends to all Gauls the privilege of owning vineyards and making wine.
Guillaume X, Duke of Guyenne and Count of Poitiers creates a large vineyard known as the “Vignoble de Poitou”.
Dutch ships bringing salt from the area to Northern European countries also carry wines from the “Vignoble de Poitou”. This early wine trade helps develop a business mentality in the Charente region. The success of the local wines leads to the expansion of the vineyard of Poitou into the Saintonge and Angoumois. The city of Cognac becomes renowned for its wine trade adding to a reputation for storing salt since 11th Century.
Dutch ships come to Cognac and Charentais ports in search of the famous wines of the “Champagne” and the “Borderies” areas. The wines from the vineyards in Aunis suffer from excessive production and dropping quality. Because of their weakness, they can’t survive long sea voyages. The Dutch start using them in their newly established distilleries where they are transformed into “brandwijn” – burnt wine – hence the name “Brandy”. It is drunk with water in an attempt to recreate the original wine.
At the beginning of the century, double distillation makes its appearance in the region. It will allow the transformation of local wines into eau-de-vie and their transportation by sea without damage. Given its concentration, eau-de-vie is also much cheaper to ship than wine. The first distillation stills in the Charente were built by the Dutch. They are progressively modified until French distillers refine the method of double distillation also known as Charentaise distillation. Delays in the handling of ship cargo leads to the realization that eau-de-vie improves when it spends extended time in oak casks (made with wood from the Limousin) and that it can even be consumed straight from the cask.
From the end of the 17th century, and most especially from the beginning of the 18th century, the market becomes organized. In order to meet demand, “Local Offices” -most of them of an Anglo-Saxon origin- are created in the main towns of the region. Some of them still exist nowa- days. They collect eaux-de-vie and establish long-term commercial relationships with buyers in Holland, England, Northern Europe, and later in America and the Far East.
Starting in the middle of the 19th century, many trading houses begin to ship eau-de-vie in bottles instead of casks. In turn, this new form of commerce gives birth to related industries such as glassmaking – since 1885 Claude Boucher works with full dedication in the St. Martin de Cognac glass factory, with the aim of automating bottle-making procedures –, case-making, corks, and printing. The Vignoble now occupies nearly 280 000 hectares. Around 1875, phylloxera arrives in the Charente and destroys most of the vineyards, leaving only 40 000 hectares by 1893. This tragedy will lead to the creation of a Viticulture Committee which is established in 1888. It will become today’s Station Viticole – Cognac’s technical center – in 1892. The economic recovery of the region will take many years of patient effort.
The vineyards are slowly replanted using American rootstock immune to phylloxera. Somewhat fragile due to grafting, traditional grape varieties (Colombard, Folle Blanche…) are little by little replaced by the Ugni Blanc, which is more resistant and is now used for more than 90 per cent of the production of Cognac. On May 1st, 1909, the geographical area for production is delimited by the government. From 1936, Cognac is recognized as a Controlled Appellation of Origin. During the Second World War, a wine and eaux-de-vie distribution bureau is created to protect the stocks of Cognac. When the war ends, it is replaced by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac and in 1948 the Station Viticole is placed under its authority. Henceforth, all the stages involved in Cognac elaboration are subject to regulations destined to protect the product, and thus its reputation is increasingly known and respected.
Cognac is exported to over 150 countries. Regardless of the way it is consumed, it is, from the Far East to the American continent and in Europe, a synonym of great quality, a symbol of France, and her lifestyle. Like all luxury products, the success of Cognac is dependent on the international environment. That is why all the producers make every effort to protect Cognac’s unrivalled quality, its uniqueness and its authenticity in the face of global competition.
For more on the history of cognac see “When was Cognac First Produced in the Charente Region?”