What is Cognac? A Quick Guide to the Classic French Spirit

When you think of the French brandy we call cognac, one of two things probably comes to mind. First, you might think of snobbery, of that je ne sais quoi that makes everything French so damn French. If not that, you’re probably conjuring images of the 1990s Saturday Night Live! character “The Ladies Man” Leon Phelps (Tim Meadows), who drank Courvoisier during every show.

cognac glass shadow

Regardless of what you pictured — even if it’s just a blank canvas because you know nothing about the spirit that’s been produced in western France for centuries — you’re in the right place. Below, you’ll find a crash course on everything you need to know about cognac.

What Is Cognac?

Cognac is brandy made, primarily, from a blend of grapes which include the Ugni blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard varietals. The brandy constitute be at least 90 percent of those grapes, while an additional 10 percent can be made of other kinds, such as Semillon, Folignan, and more. Like Champagne, cognac must be made in the Cognac region of France (check out this map if you want to see where that is).

cognac barrels storage

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,” you’re not wrong. The processes and laws are somewhat similar at times). The barrels must be made from French oak sourced either from Limousin or Tronçais.

Cognac Grades

When deciding 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 consider 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.

Example: Courvoisier V.S.

courvoisier vs cognac bottle

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.

Example: D’USSÉ V.S.O.P

dusse vsop cognac bottle

Head here for D’USSÉ cocktail suggestions.

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.”

Example: Remy Martin X.O.

remy martin xo cognac bottle

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.

Example: Raymond Ragnaud Hors d’âge

Raymond Ragnaud hors dage cognac bottle

Cognac-Producing Regions

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). There are six cognac crus in total. They are:

  • Grande-Champagne
  • Petite-Champagne
  • Borderies
  • Fin Bois
  • Bon Bois
  • Bois Ordinaires

In terms of size, Fin Bois is the largest, with around 85,000 acres total, while Borderies is the smallest with just over 10,000 acres. It’s important to note that the sizes mentioned are total acreage, not how much is planted with vineyards.

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. Each cru has its own specific profile.

Now, new cognac experts, go forth and prosper with a snifter of cognac at your side!

Article originally published June 4, 2017. Last updated November 7, 2018, to include more info on cognac-producing regions.

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