“Champagne.” Why is this term plastered all over labels and descriptions of Cognac?
Is the drink made from Champagne? Do some Cognacs contain Champagne? Do they come from the same region? What on earth do Cognac and Champagne have in common?
OK, so let’s shed some light on the subject, because it confuses many. Cognac Expert has got the definitive explanation to demystify the Cognac/Champagne issue once and for all.
Cognac and Champagne are two different drinks
To clarify: Cognac is made from grapes. It is double-distilled white wine to be precise. It can only carry the name Cognac if it’s produced in the Cognac region of South West France, and is made adhering to very strict rules. These rules are laid out by the drink’s ruling body, the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac, or BNIC.
Champagne is also made from grapes, but it is a sparkling white wine. It can only carry the name Champagne if it is produced in the Champagne region of Northern France, and is made adhering to very strict rules. These rules are laid out by the drink’s ruling body, the Comite Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne, or CIVC.
There are certainly similarities. Yet, Cognac and Champagne are entirely different drinks. So why do we see the word ‘Champagne’ on so many Cognac bottles? For example, on the Le Roch XO Fine Champagne Cognac?
Well, this comes down to the way that the Cognac regions is divided up into different growth areas. These are called ‘terroirs’.
Growth Area ‘Champagne’
The name Champagne on a Cognac bottle refers to its origin, namely the growth area the grapes were grown in. There are six growth areas–or “terroirs”–in total, and the two that are considered to produce the finest eau-de-vie are named Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. These two premium terroirs have soil that compares to the soil of the Champagne region in Northern France. Hence the shared name. Here’s an image of the Grande Champagne soil:
The soil is characteristic for its large amounts of chalk an limestone. On the surface you find large stones and rocks. Then there are large quantities of chalk. And the subsoil contains huge deposits of fossilized remains from the ocean of former times. The soil allows the roots of the vines to dig deeply in order to reach nutritious minerals while at the same time retaining water and letting excess water drain, avoiding moist grounds. See below an example of Petite Champagne soil:
If you compare the soil of the Grande Champagne to the Petite Champagne, you’ll find that the soil is less airy and more compact. It is similarly chalky, but the stones are more fine and therefore allow for less spaces. The water doesn’t drain as easily as in the Grande Champagne, meaning the roots don’t have to reach as deep and in turn aren’t as resilient.
Fine Champagne Cognac
A Cognac is called a “Fine Champagne Cognac” when it contains a blend of eaux-de-vie from both Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. At least 50% of the blend have to be from the Grande Champagne. When the word Champagne is used on a Cognac, it will either be preceded by the word, Grande, Petite, or Fine. This simply denotes the terroir in which the grapes were grown.
The Cognac house that is famous for producing only Fine Champagne Cognac is Rémy Martin. They pride themselves on the belief that it is the most delicate and complex blend of Cognac.
For a great Grande Champagne Cognac, there is Selection Olivier Blanc S.O.B. XO Extraordinaire Francois Voyer Grande Champagne Cognac.
‘Grande Fine Champagne’ and ‘Petite Fine Champagne’
Sometimes you will find the terms Grande Fine Champagne or Petite Fine Champagne on a Cognac label. This means the blend or vintage contains 100% eaux-de-vie from the Grande or the Petite Champagne. It basically means exactly the same thing is simply “Grande Champagne Cognac” or “Petite Champagne Cognac.”
Why is Champagne so important on a Cognac label?
Grapes grown in the chalky soils of both Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne tend to create an eau-de-vie that is superior to those of their neighbors. The other terroirs, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, Bois Ordinaires, and Borderies have different soil composition–they’re not chalky in the way the Grande and Petite Champagne are.
Historically, Cognacs created from either Grande Champagne or Petite Champagne (or a combination of the two–Fine Champagne) are seen to be superior to those grown in the other four regions. Having said this, Cognacs from the other growth areas are not of lesser quality, they simply have different qualities about them.
Discover more about the common and less common aromas that can be found in Cognacs in our article on Cognac Aromas.
The history of the word Champagne
Much wisdom seems to say that the term ‘Champagne’ is derived from the French word for chalky soil. However, there is some disagreement from many sources about this, so we feel it only fair to put some of the other explanations forward.
The most likely is that Champagne is derived from the Latin word, ‘campus’, ‘campania’, or ‘campagna’. This simply means, open wooded area, or open countryside.
There is also reason to believe that when the Roman armies fought, they preferred, naturally, to do so in such areas. These often coincided with areas that had a predominantly chalky soil, such as the Grande and Petite Champagne terroirs of the Cognac region, and the growth areas in Northern France where the sparking wine, Champagne, is produced.
Hence the word ‘campagna’ became associated with such areas, and this eventually was modified into the word, Champagne’. This appears to be the most likely source for the word.