Wine Time: Grapes of Cognac & Armagnac (Or, the virtues of neutrality)

Illustration by Joel Hedstrom

Stay neutral.” Two words designated to Switzerland, minimalist millennials decorating their apartments, and grapes used for distillation—specifically for Cognac and Armagnac.

When we think of beverages made from grapes, we immediately rush to wine (especially when reading a wine column.) But, let us take a moment to examine the grapes of the much-loved Cognacs and Armagnacs of France—ugni blanc, colombard, folle blanche, and baco 22A. 

These grapes are all high in acidity, consistently consistent, and overall pretty resistant to disease and rot. The acidity of the grapes also acts as a natural antiseptic and deterrent to bacterial infection, which is essential because of the lack of sulfur used in grapes grown for distillation purposes. Sulfur could potentially provide off-putting qualities when distilled, resulting in the infamous aroma of rotting eggs. The high acidity of these grapes is essential to turning out a product that can be reproduced to similar effect year after year.

That said, each harvest is different and therefore yields different results, so there isn’t a perfect formula for replicating a Cognac or Armagnac from year to year. However, by using these grapes, distillers can count on relatively consistent wines to be used as a base for the Cognacs and Armagnacs. Ugni blanc is used almost exclusively in Cognacs, where ugni blanc, colombard, folle blanche, and baco 22A are all allowed in Armagnac. Cognacs are considered to have leaner, more floral characteristics, where Armagnacs have rougher, more butterscotchy, and salty flavors. 

These grapes can result in good distilled spirits, but what about as simple still wines? Colombard and ugni blanc, also known as trebbiano, are often used as blending grapes in southern France and in the wine of Orvieto in the Umbria region of Italy. These wines are often (surprise!) high in acid, possessing flavors of honeydew, lemon, lime, and grassy herbs. Folle blanche is often more floral than the other distilling grapes and is less resistant to disease, which adds texture and depth to wine as well as distilled spirits when used correctly.