XO Cognac is costly, but worth the
experience. Photo courtesy Courvoisier.
WHAT IS COGNAC
Brandy is a spirit distilled from grapes. Cognac is a type of brandy made only from white grapes; brandy can use white and/or red grapes. Cognac is named after the town of Cognac in France, and only spirits distilled in the region, following strict rules imposed by the Bureau National Inter professionnel du Cognac (BNIC), can be called Cognac.
By law, Cognac must be twice distilled in copper pot stills, then aged at least two years (often considerably longer) in French oak barrels from the French forests of Limousin or Tronçais, where it matures in the same way that fine whiskey and wine matures.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF COGNAC
There are official quality grades of Cognac based on age, established by the BNIC. As with all spirits, prices climb along with the length of barrel aging.
However, in the ongoing game of marketing new products, some Cognac producers release their own expressions (for example, C by Courvoisier and Remy Martin Coeur de Cognac, and the more comprehensible Courvoisier 12 and Courvoisier 21), which have no official designation but can really tax a Cognac buyer to figure out what’s in the bottle.
Official designations include:
V.S. or Very Special, a blend in which the youngest Cognac in the blend has been aged for at least two years in cask.
V.S.O.P., or Very Superior Old Pale, is a blend in which the youngest Cognac is stored for at least four years in a cask, although the average age of the blend is much older.
Vieux is a grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
Napoleon is another grade between VSOP and XO, equal to XO in terms of minimum age, but it is generally marketed in-between VSOP and XO in terms of price.
XO, Extra Old, is a blend in which the youngest Cognac in the blend is stored for at least six years* but is typically an average of 20 years.
Hors d’Âge, “Beyond Age,” refers to high quality Cognac that does not have an official age scale, but is considered equal to XO.
Vieille Réserve is, like Hors d´Âge, a grade beyond XO that does not have a specific, legal age minimum.
Extra, in which the youngest Cognac in the blend is 6 years of age, this grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.
Why are the names of the different grades in English, rather than French?
Because England was long the primary market for Cognac, and the British importers/merchants named them.
Fine Champagne does not refer to age, but the provenance of the grapes: a blend of Grande and Petite Champagne Cognacs, with at least half coming from Grande Champagne.
WHAT IS FINE CHAMPAGNE COGNAC
More confusion: It has nothing to do with wine-producing region of Champagne.
There are six different districts (called cru in French) within Cognac. Each has been graded by the government according to the quality of the grapes and Cognac produced there. The best district is Grande Champagne, followed by Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires.
A Cognac bottle labeled “Fine Champagne,” is as good as it gets in its age level.
Time for a drink!
*In 2016, the minimum age of the youngest Cognac used in an XO blend will be increased to 10 years.