When you think of cognac, you’re probably going to come up with one of two things. First, you might think of snobbery, of that je ne sais quoi that makes everything French so darn French. If not that, you’re likely to bring the 90s SNL recurring character the Ladies Man Leon Phelps (Tim Meadows), who drank Courvoisier during every show. Either way, we’re here to fill you in on one of the brown spirits that you may not have tried yet, but should.
First, cognac is distilled from brandy made, primarily, from Ugni blanc grapes. Like Champagne, cognac must be made in the Cognac region of France (check out this map if you want to see where that is).
Once the brandy is made, it must be distilled twice in copper pot stills, then aged at least two years in oak barrels (at this point, if you’re saying “Man, this sounds like whiskey,” and you’re not wrong. The processes and laws are somewhat similar at times). The barrels themselves must be made from French Oak sourced either from Limousin or Tronçais.
Now, onto how to tell cognacs apart.
When looking at what kind of cognac you are going to buy, there are a couple things you can look for on the label to help you in your journey. First, you can look at the quality grades, which were created by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC). These have everything to do with the liquor’s age.
V.S. (Very Special)
A blend where the youngest brandy has been in a cask for at least two years.
Courvoisier V.S. $25
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale)
Also known as “Reserve,” this designation signifies that the youngest brandy has been stored in casks for at least four years.
D’USSÉ V.S.O.P $50
X.O. (Extra Old)
Extra Old means that the youngest brandy in the batch has been in a cask for at least six years. Starting in April 2018, this designation’s age requirement will change to ten years. Cognacs that would have previously met the X.O. requirement, but would no longer be classified as such by the new law, will be referred to by the designation “Napoléon.”
Remy Martin X.O. $150
Hors d’âge (Beyond Age)
Beyond Age is the final quality designation and is, by law, equal to X.O., but can be used by cognac producers for premium products that go beyond the specified age designation.
Not to be tied to just one type of designation, cognac can also be classified by its cru, or geographic region where its grapes are grown. Much like wine, the grapes of a specific region, even if they’re the same varietal, will taste different due to the terroir (the various environmental factors that influence how a grape grows and tastes, such as climate and soil composition).
Flavor-wise, the different designations of cognac will vary. Much like with whiskies, it’s possible to find fruit notes (both dried and not), a variety of spice characteristics, flowery or herbal notes, or rancio, which helps describe the sweet yet nutty flavor you can pull from the oak aging.
Now, new cognac experts, go forth and prosper with a snifter of cognac at your side!
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