A Brief Primer on Cognac


Tomorrow is National Cognac Day, the perfect time to start a short series of cognac reviews here on the blog.  Before we get to said reviews, I thought it wise to preface with a short piece about the French spirit.  Think of this as a Cliff’s Notes version of  “Cognac for Dummies.”

A mysterious aura can sometimes surround the French liquor that might automatically turn people away. When you think of cognac, one of two images probably pops into your head. First is the image of the stuffy old Englishman sitting in a leather chair with a cigar, and second is probably rapper Busta Rhymes and his memorable “Pass the Courvoisier”. Then there’s the lack of age statements on cognac labels. Terms like V.S. and V.S.O.P. are utilized instead.  It can confuse or intimidate people staring at bottles on store shelves.  I hope I can provide a little clarity.

WHAT’S COGNAC?

Cognac is simply a type of brandy.  Where whisky is distilled from grains, brandy is distilled from fermented fruit juice (or wine). In the simplest definition, Cognac is simply a brandy that uses specific grapes grown, fermented and distilled in the Cognac region of France, where the spirit derives its name. So, all Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac. Make sense?  

The Cognac region in France features six subregions, or crus: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaire. When I say Champagne, I’m not referring to the Champagne region where everybody’s favorite bubbly comes from. This is different, and the word champagne actually refers to the chalky soil in the region.  

Cognac is distilled from white wine mostly made with the Ugni Blanc grape, though there are about a half dozen other varietals that can be used. The wine is double distilled to produce eau de vis, meaning “water of life.” The eau de vis then matures in French oak casks until blenders decide it’s ready.

SO EXACTLY HOW OLD IS IT?

A Cognac’s age is determined by a specific aging system that lists the minimum age. Typically, Cognacs avoid using a simple age statement because apparently it is difficult to track the ages of casks. This is because as the Angel’s Share claims some spirit as it matures, the barrel can be topped off with more eau de vie.  So another naming system was put in place.  V.S., or Very Special, means the blend is at least two years old. V.S.O.P., or Very Superior Old Pale, has to be at least four years of age. XO means Extra Old, and any bottle of Cognac that carries that designation is at least six years old. However, starting in 2018, the minimum age of XO will be ten years.

Don’t let age skew your thinking. Older is not better.  It’s just different.  Some younger eaux de vie are aged in first, second or third fill casks, letting the “fresher” oak impart some of it’s flavors. Some older eaux de vie are matured in casks that are so old, they basically impart zero oak flavor and are simply neutral containers. Also keep in mind that boisé can be added. Boisé is an additive made by boiling or steeping oak chips in water and reducing it. You end up with a woody, tannic liquid. Cognac blenders are allowed to use very small qualities of boisé to help round out the flavor of a particular blend and make it seem a little older. Syrup made from sugar can also be added in minute quantities (up to 2%) to help sweeten the blend. Finally, like Scotch whisky, caramel coloring may also be added to cognac. 

After reading this last part you might be inclined to turn your nose up at cognac. Don’t. It’s a wonderful spirit that deserves to be explored and savoured.  Over the next several days, I’ll present Cognacs of different ages from different houses, showing how far the flavor spectrum for this French spirit can spread out.

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