Cognac 101: Everything To Know About This Delicious Brandy

Informational

Two glasses of Cognac and bottle on the wooden table

We often hear about whiskey or wine partly because of their many types, hence the numerous tastes to explore. But, if you want to try a new liquor that shows some similarities with the alcohols mentioned above, get acquainted with Cognac!

Cognac is a type of brandy made from grapes grown in the Cognac region of France. It’s distilled twice and must be aged in oak barrels for at least 2 years. 

In this post, we will explore what cognac is, how it is made, its different classifications, and other compelling information about said liquor. Let’s get started!

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History of Cognac

Barrel with a bottle and glasses of cognac

The story of cognac spans centuries, starting with Dutch settlers in the 16th century who would purchase goods like wood, salt, and wine from the Southwestern parts of France.

However, every time they took the wines they purchased back to their hometown, they noticed that it was hard to maintain and preserve them. This was when they generated the idea to distill the wines to possibly strengthen their longevity and maximize the flavors.

Just when they thought the new version tasted good, they tried experimenting again and decided to distill the wines twice. It resulted in what's known today as "brandy."

They used to call cognac "burnt wine." The distillation made the wines taste even more pleasant and refined. Today, brandy is one of the great spirits produced around the world.

By the 19th century, merchants had expanded beyond just selling brandy in barrels and refining their process to create additional revenue streams. One such example is bottle and cork manufacturing.

Since then, cognac has been progressively succeeding. But it wasn't until 1946 that the French government created and assigned a specific Bureau in charge of the cognac industry. They're known as the BNIC or Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.

What is a Cognac?

Lined up glasses of Cognac

Cognac is a distilled spirit, specifically, an exclusive type of brandy. According to French law, a bottle of cognac can only be legally called "Cognac" if it is made in the Cognac region, in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments.

Cognac is situated in the Southwest part of France and has proximity to Bordeaux. To put it simply, all cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. It's is very similar to Champagne since this type of sparkling wine can only be made in the Champagne region in France.

The aging process has a significant impact on the flavor of cognac. Proper aging should make cognac rich and complex. You can expect caramelized fruits, leather, spices, and citrus flavors on most cognacs.

Meanwhile, the aromas of this liquor are also extensive. One event that can attest to this is a gathering between highly-skilled cellar masters, sommeliers, and expert tasters carried out in 2019 at the International Cognac Summit.

50 experts spent 4 days smelling various cognacs. Imagine the dedication! The whole purpose of the event is to simply make a definitive guide that'll unravel all the brandy’s complexity and extensive aromas.

They decided on five very notable aromas in cognacs, including vanilla, caramel, prune, orange, and apricot. Furthermore, they recorded 63 additional subtle notes.

What is Cognac Made of?

Cognac In Glass, Grapes, And Vine

The main ingredient in cognac is white grapes, but not just any grapes of the white variety. There are only three main kinds of white grapes that can be used. These are the Folle Blanche, Colobard, and Ugni Blanc—also known as Trebbiano.

This is another similarity to Champagne since this sparkling wine is also made with only three main Champagne grapes, albeit different ones from cognac. 

The Ugni Blanc is the predominant grape variety in the entire Cognac region. Approximately 98% of the grape-growing regions in Cognac are cultivated with the Ugni Blanc grape.

This is because it's much easier to cultivate and maintain. Plus, it yields large quantities compared to other grape varieties. However, one downside of this grape is its sensitivity to winter frosts. It thrives the best in mild climates.

The second grape variety is Folle Blanche, which is famously known for being one of the main grape ingredients for Armagnac (another kind of brandy).

It used to be the most famous grape variety used in making Cognacs until the Ugni Blanc overshadowed it. Although, both grape varieties produce wine with acidity, lightness, and freshness.

The third variety is the Colombard grape, which has been around for quite some time. In fact, it is one of the oldest grapes from Charente that still thrives today. Originally, this was made as a cross-product between the grapes varieties Gouais and Chenin Blanc.

Like the Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche, this grape variety has high acidity. Other than that, it has low sugar levels and high alcohol content, which is why the Ugni and Folle are more preferred by Cognac producers.

Other white grape varieties that can be used to make cognac are Montlis, Meslier St-Francois, Semillon, Jurancon Blanc, and Folignan. However, as per French law, other grape varieties can only account for 10% of the whole blend.

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How is Cognac Made?

Distillation factory of Cognac

The Cognac production process is a long and difficult one. Before the double distillation begins, the wine is first produced by fermenting the grapes. The fermentation process lasts for several weeks, and technically the result would just be "wine."

However, it's not the kind of wine people would love to drink. Why? The answer is acid! The wine outcome would be awfully acidic, which would render it unpleasant to consume.

Although acidic wine is not ideal for drinking at that stage, it's actually a vital process when making cognac. It's because the high levels of acid and alcohol help maintain the fruity and floral aromas of Cognacs and their unique flavors too!

Folle Blanche, Colobard, and Ugni Blanc are grapes of great acidity, which is why it's the flagship grape of all Cognacs.

After fermentation, you get wine with about 8 to 10% of alcohol content. Next is the Cognac distillation process, a long and sophisticated piece of work. The copper pot stills known as “Alambic Charentais” or “alembic”  are the traditional equipment of distillers.

The Alambic Charentais is a three-part system that includes the chaudiere or boiler, which heats liquid; chapiteau, or condenser for cooling purposes and; chauffe-vin, or wine warmer that's optional but acts as an energy saver.

The distillation is a continuous process that would go for hours until it's finished. Some distillers are so dedicated to doing their job that they don't leave their work spots just to monitor the entire process. They just bring their sleeping mattresses, televisions, and other commodities to the distillery.

Fermenting then distilling the grapes would produce the ideal eau-de-vie for Cognac. Eau-de-vie is the product attained after distilling the wine twice in copper pot stills.

If you blend Eau-de-vies, then age them, that's when you get Cognac. It is usually aged in French oak barrels, mainly Tronçais oak barrels or Limousin oak barrels.

Cognac Regions

Grande Champagne terroir in Cognac

The French government has designated 6 legal areas in the Cognac region where grapes used for cognac production are planted and cultivated. They are called crus or terroirs, which are as follows:

Grande Champagne

The name "Grande Champagne" may sound fancy and massive, but in actuality, it is just a little over half the size of its adjacent Cognac region called "Petite" Champagne. However, it stands first among the other crus in terms of importance.

The entire Grande Champagne has an area of about 34,700 hectares. Most of the lands are cultivated with grapes; however, there are still areas with narrow country lanes, small villages, and even the Cognac-Chateaubernard military airbase.

Grande Champagne is situated at the center of the Cognac region. The character of Grande Champagne comes from its mainly pure chalk-based terroir composition that provides an ideal environment to grow Cognac grapes.

Petite Champagne

The Petite Champagne Cru is a well-known viticultural area in the Cognac region and is the second most crucial Cru after Grande Champagne.

Its area is around 65,600 hectares, of which 31% of the whole lot is planted with healthy vines that produce high-quality grapes. You can't walk more than 10 meters in Petite Champagne without standing on someone's property that grows grapes!

The soil in Petite Champagne is pretty much still chalk. However, it is more compact than the soil in Grande Champagne. Its high compactness means water flow is slow, and it gets trapped below, making the soil moisturized even during the summer.

This makes for an abundant growing season, even when Petite Champagne doesn't get rain often!

Borderies

The Borderies is home to vineyards that make up about 4,000 hectares. However, the overall area of Borderies is 12,500 hectares, which makes it the smaller cru in the Cognac region. It is situated on the Northwest side of Cognac, bordered by a river called Antenne.

The soil over at Borderies holds historical value as its origin stretches all the way back to the Jurassic era. The soil is called Groies, the fifth type of soil that's basically a combination of chalk and clay, identified by Henri Coquand.

The grapes grown in this terroir provide Eaux-de-vie with distinct features such as nutty toffee flavors.

Fins Bois

The size of this region is truly staggering, with a total area of 235,000 hectares. It is known as the largest in all of the crus at Cognac. In addition, it's also the most productive as 31,200 hectares are planted with grapevines.

The whole annual harvest of this cru makes thrice the amount of Cognac produced in Bons Bois—its neighbor cru.

Fins Bois offers an interesting comparison to its counterparts. This terroir is a mixture of clay, stone, and limestone with less chalk content than the three other terroirs previously mentioned. 

Moreover, the chalk content isn't only fewer in amount but also isn't as porous. Grapes sourced in this cru make round and supple Eaux-de-vie.

Bons Bois

Bons Bois is the second-largest cru in Cognac, with a total area of 222,000 hectares. However, despite its significant compass, only 5% of the entire area is dedicated to producing grapes, making it produce fewer Cognacs than its counterparts with a much smaller space like the Grande Champagne. 

The area of Bons Bois has a special mixture of soil that provides grapes with unique characteristics. It makes the Eaux-de-vie round and age faster than other Cognacs produced in other crus.

The special soil mixture in question is clay, limestone, and sand. However, there is also chalk detected in some small areas in this cru which makes exceptional bottles of Cognac.

Bois Ordinaires

Bois Ordinaires may be less well-known than other Cognac crus, but that doesn't mean it's any less impressive. The area size of this is cru is 158,000 hectares which makes for the third-largest cru in Cognac.

But surprisingly, the area here designated for the cultivation of grapes is only 1% of the total hectares.

The cognacs from this region have a distinctive maritime flavor due to their proximity to the ocean. The soils in these areas are described as very sandy and lack chalk, which is one factor that leads the Eaux-de-vie to age quickly with time.

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Cognac Classifications

Bottle assembly for manufacturing Cognac

Many alcohols have different types like the cases of red wineswhite wineswhiskey, and Champagne. Cognac also has some classifications of its own that include the following:

VS

The "VS" initials in VS Cognac mean "Very Special." A VS Cognac can also be called a De Luxe, or Sélection, and can be symbolized with three asterisks (***).

If a Cognac bottle displays any of the labels mentioned above, although the VS and *** are what's commonly used now, it simply means an eau-de-vie has a minimum age of 2 years in oak barrels. The VS Cognac is the youngest out of all the classifications.

VSOP

VSOP in Cognac labels stands for "Very Superior Old Pale." However, most people refer to it as "Very Special Old Pale." People used to call "VSOP Cognac" Reserve or V.O.

This term was discovered in 1817 when King George IV requested the biggest cognac producer, Hennessy, to bring out a "Very Superior Old Pale." This classification is among the youngest eau-de-vie used in a cognac blend aged for a minimum of 4 years in French oak barrels.

XO

The "XO" in XO Cognac means "Extra Old." It is used to refer to a cognac blend that has been aged using oak barrels with a minimum age of 10 years. Hennessy invented the XO term in the year 1870 when he made his first XO blend.

Same as the two classifications mentioned, "Extra Old" is an English term, which is a piece of evidence that France was closely linked to foreign countries like America and Great Britain.

XXO

Unlike the other classifications, Extra extra old Cognac, or XXO for short, is actually a newly added cognac classification. It was just officially added to the list of aging classification back in 2018.

Like the above-mentioned categories, XXO Cognacs consist of an eau-de-vie that has spent its aging process in French oak barrels. Their difference, however, is the minimum aging period of an eau-de-vie is 14 years, to be called XXO.

Napoleon

“Napoleon" cognac isn't exactly considered an official independent age classification. However, it is under the category of VSOP cognac, which is an official classification.

A VSOP cognac can only be further labeled as a Napoleon cognac if the eau-de-vie has reached an aging period of 6 years or more. The inspiration behind this name is the French Emperor Napoleon and the Cognac House Courvoisier.

The story is believed to have happened during Napoleon's exile. He brought crates of Courvoisier ccognac to the island of St Helena, and thus, the term "Cognac Napoleon" was born.

Reserve

Reserve Cognac and XO Cognac share the same minimum aging period of their youngest eau-de-vie, which is 10 years. However, their "average" aging period of the cognac is where they differ, as Reservecognacs are aged for an average of 25 years.

Also, Reserve cognacs are said to embody a much higher quality than those of younger cognacs such as XO, Napoleon, or Extra Cognacs.

Hors d'Age

Hors d’Age can be translated as "beyond age." As its name implies, Hors d’Age refers to cognacs with an aging period that exceeds the above-mentioned age designations. It still falls under the XO category; however, it's specifically used for XO cognacs that have been aged 30 years and above.

There are various Hors d’Age on the market that has spent 40 years aging, and some even reach a hundred years! Hors d’Age-labeled Cognacs are some of the oldest Cognacs you can find today.

Extra

Much like XO and Reserve, the youngest eau-de-vie that can be added in an Extra Cognac should be aged for a minimum of a decade. But the aging period of Cognac should be between 15 to 25 years. For this reason, Extra Cognacs tend to have more excellence than XO.

Cuvee

The Cuvee label isn't affiliated with aging. Just like Champagne, it refers to a specific blend or batch. Sometimes, producers label their bottles Cuvees because they prefer it over categorizing the bottles according to their age classification. But sometimes, it could also pertain to a limited release.

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What is Cognac FAQs 

1. Is Cognac a whiskey? Or a wine?

No and no. Cognac isn't considered whiskey since the latter is made with grape/fruit wine, while the former is made with grain. Both are products of distillation, but whiskeys are only distilled once while cognacs are distilled twice.

Moreover, Cognacs aren't necessarily considered "wine," even though it's made with grapes. If you ferment grapes, it becomes wine.

But to make Cognac, the process doesn't just stop at fermentation. The fermented wine is to be distilled twice in copper pot stills. That's why Cognac and wine aren't the same things.

2. What are some famous cognac brands?

If we're talking about the most prestigious cognac brands here, you might want to check out Hennessy, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier. These are some of the dominant names in the Cognac industry.

Hennessy VS or Remy Martin XO is an excellent starting point for those who want to experience the taste of cognac. If you're looking for something different and special, try Courvoisier XO or Kelt XO - both worth every penny!

3. What cocktails are made with Cognac?

One can drink Cognac straight, but if you want to take it up a notch, you can try these cocktails that feature the brandy:

4. What makes cognac special?

Cognac is considered the most refined and sophisticated out of all the spirits. You can identify this exquisite spirit for its incredible bouquet and harmonious combination with power, warmth, and subtlety.

In a way, it exhibits some characteristics of other fantastic liquors, mainly wine and whiskey, but it still manages to provide unique qualities that define it as it is.

Conclusion

Sometimes, Cognac is overshadowed by more popular liquors because it is not as accessible as them. But, it is still worth investing in because it provides a spectrum of flavors to explore and information to discover.

We hope you learned something new about Cognac! If you have any thoughts or questions, let us know in the comments section below!

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