From local wine to noble drop…

La Rochelle was a key port for the salt trade throughout the Middle Ages. Charente salt was famous as being the best for preserving food. The sailors of the Hanseatic period used to tale a few casks of the local wine back with them on the salt ships.

In the 16th century the Dutch came to buy renowned French wines from the «Champagne» and «Borderies» areas. With its high acidity and low alcohol content the wine often spoiled on the voyage, so the Dutch started distilling it on arrival. The distillate was called ”branwijn” – burnt wine, now known to us as brandy. To recreate the original product, water was subsequently added to the brandy. As time went on, people started distilling the wine before it was shipped. The smaller volume cut costs by reducing the need for labour and warehouse space. The name gradually changed to eau de vie de Charente, then cognac. Double distillation was not practised until the early 17th century.

Great discoveries are often made by accident. Oak casks of grape brandy were often left standing at the harbour in La Rochelle and it was discovered quite by chance that the brandy improved enormously after being left in the cask for a while, with the result that it could be drunk straight from the cask.

In order to satisfy demand in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, «comptoirs» were established. These were commercial houses that collected cognac and offered it to their contacts in Holland, England and Northern Europe, and later in America and Asia. The growing trade attracted the most important players in today’s cognac market to Cognac: Jean Martell arrived from Jersey in 1715, James Delamain from Dorset in 1759, Richard Henessy from Ireland in 1765, Thomas Hine from Dorset in 1782 and Jean Antoine Otard in 1799. The British were followed by the Scandinavians, Germans and Russians.

In the 19th century the commercial houses started exporting cognac in bottles instead of casks. In 1875 Charente fell victim to the phylloxera vine louse, which destroyed most of the vineyards, reducing the area under cultivation from 280,000 hectares to 40,000 hectares in 1893. Slowly but surely wine growers began to reconstruct their devastated vineyards by grafting onto resistant American rootstocks. In the process the traditional Colombard and Folle Blanche grapes were replaced with Ugni Blanc, which was more resistant and now accounts for a full 98% of production.

The phylloxera crisis was followed by a chaotic period in which the business community in Cognac had to deal with all sorts of evils, including higher taxes, counterfeit trademarks and brandy from other countries and regions being sold under the Cognac trademark. In 1905 the French agricultural authorities passed a law to protect consumers against fraud and counterfeit products. This law restricts the area where cognac can be grown and imposes strict requirements for every stage of production.