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Vintage and Pre-Phylloxera Cognac
The Greatest Brandy
Only brandy made from Grapes grown in the delimited district of France in the Charente known as Cognac
may be named cognac. The boundaries of this area were set down in 1909 and have been subdivided into
seven divisions of varying quality. In order of preference, they are: Grande Champagne, Petite
Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, Bois Ordinaires and Bois à Terroir. All cognac is made from
wine that is fermented from whole grapes - flesh, skins, seeds and all. The resulting wine is
double-distilled in pot stills, and the heart of the second distillation is destined to become cognac. It is
aged in new oak casks for one year, and then transferred to used oak casks, lest it take on too much
tannin from the virgin oak. The letters on the label V.O. and V.S.O.P. mean that the cognac has been
aged for at least 4 and a half years, although in practice V.S.O.P. cognacs have usually been aged for at
least 8 years. If the label is printed with the words Extra, Napoléon or Vieille Réserve, the French
government warrants that the cognac in the bottle has been aged for a minimum of 5 and a half years.
Stars found on cognac labels came from a superstitious shipper of brandy who put a star on his bottles to
pay homage to the great "Comet" vintage of 1811, one of the best ever for cognac. Today, French law
states that three-star cognac, the youngest, must be aged for a minimum of 18 months.

Pre-phyloxera cognac

Pre-phylloxera cognac is fundamentally different from the modern product in a way not true of most other
spirits or other wines. The original Cognac vineyards - which are believed to date back to Roman times,
were chiefly planted with Folle Blanche, a thin-skinned grape variety, highly prone to mildew and rot, but
which in good vintages produces a brandy of incomparable perfume and character. Under huge financial
pressure, when it come to re-planting the vineyards after phyloxera, the Cognac growers replanted with
grafted Ugni Blanche, which yields a less interesting brandy, but is much higher yielding and easier to
grow. The unique character and depth of the 50 - 60 year old Folle Blanche vines was lost forever. Today,
less than 5% of the total Cognac vineyard is Folle Blanche, the rest is all Ugni Blanche (and the Cognac
vineyard is far smaller - just on 80 000 hectares compared to 230 000 hectares in its heyday in the mid
19th century).

Pre-phylloxera cognac has a unique quality, not found in modern cognacs.

The 1811 vintage

1811 was regarded at the time as the greatest vintage in living memory, and is now universally held to be the finest vintage of
the 19th century throughout the vineyards of Western Europe. A long hot summer and a warm dry autumn meant an abundant
harvest of perfectly ripe grapes, from Bordeaux to Burgundy, from the Rheingau to the vineyards of Tokaji. In Cognac, the folle
blanche reached an unequalled level of perfection, and the distillers knew that they were dealing with a once in a lifetime
harvest. In the same year, Napoleon himself visited the region, and was presented with a barrel of cognac as a gift for his young
son. Many ascribed the extraordinary weather to the remarkable astronomical event that had dominated the year - The Great
Comet. The comet was visible by astronomers for 17 months, but for two months - September and October 1811, exactly the
time grapes were harvested - it was clearly visible to the naked eye, illuminating the night sky with a coma that at one point
exceeded the diameter of the sun. It was taken as sign of supernatural blessing on the harvest, which henceforth was known as
"The Comet Vintage".

The exceptional quality of 1811 cognac was recognised immediately, and the leading producers marked the vintage either with
the date on the bottle, or, more unusually, with a picture of the comet forever associated with the vintage. The date "1811" or
the star (as the comet symbol soon became) were regarded as signs of infallible quality, and the leading producers were not slow
to exploit this. By the late nineteenth century there were a plethora of "1811 Cognacs". Some of these still survive today, and
most are very fine, but perhaps some should correctly be regarded as tributes to the vintage of 1811, rather than as the actual
product of the year - producers simply used the designation "1811" as a way of signifying their very best and oldest blend,
regardless of the actual composition of the brandies. In the 1930's and 1959's unscrupulous producers mainly in the US re-bottled
many ordinary brandies under faked "1811" labels - these are easy to recognise, but still turn up every year on auction and can
fool the unwary.

Contemporary bottlings of the 1811 vintage can be recognised first and foremost by the characteristics of the glass bottle itself,
which must clearly date from the 1820's or 1830's, when this cognac was originally bottled. They are extraordinarily rare.
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