The official quality grades of cognac are, according to the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac):
VS Very Special, or ‘Three Stars’: The youngest brandy is stored at least two years in cask.
VSOP Very Special Old Pale: The youngest brandy is stored at least four years in a cask, but the average wood age is much older.
XO Extra Old: The youngest brandy is stored at least ten, but average upwards of 20 years.
Napoleon: This is a grade equal to XO in terms of minimum age, but it is generally marketed in-between VSOP and XO in the product range offered by the producers.
Extra: This designates a minimum of 6 years of age, this grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.
Vieux: Another grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
Vieille Réserve: Like the Hors d´Âge, a grade beyond XO.
Hors d’âge (‘Beyond age’): This is a designation which BNIC states is equal to XO, but in practice the term is used by producers to market a high quality product beyond the official age scale.
What is genuine cognac?
As an Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), in order to bear the name cognac, the production methods for the distilled brandy must meet specified legal requirements. It must be made from certain grapes; of these, Ugni Blanc, known locally as Saint-Emilion, is the most widely used variety today. It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels.
Read our Guide to French Liqueurs
Most cognacs are aged considerably longer than the minimum legal requirement, because cognac matures in the same way as whiskies and wine when aged in a barrel.
The region authorised to produce cognac is divided into six zones, including five crus broadly covering the department of Charente-Maritime, a large part of the department of Charente and a few areas in Deux-Sèvres and the Dordogne.
The six zones are: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and finally Bois Ordinaire. A blend of Grande and Petite Champagne Cognacs, with at least half coming from Grande Champagne, is known as Fine Champagne.
Is cognac a brandy?
Yes it is. Cognac, named after the town of Cognac, is a variety of brandy, produced in the wine-growing region surrounding the town from which it takes its name, in the French départements of Charente and Charente-Maritime. But to be a Cognac it must be distilled in specific way and only made from certain grapes.
Where is cognac made?
The extensive vineyards of Cognac sprawl across an area of around 200,000 acres. It is the combination of the proximity to the sea, a warming sun that is so perfect for the production of what has been called a ‘happy accident of nature’, and the quality of the soil.
This what the French call terroir, but which really defies translation, except to describe it as a blend of a whole range of tangible intangibles, like air, wind, rain, soil, location, and just about everything that might conceivably have an influence on the end product.
It’s a versatile word; drop ‘terroir’ into a conversation, and sound as though you know what they mean, and your status rises perceptibly.
What is the best cognac?
I used to think that having to select from an extensive restaurant wine list was quite a hardship, until I visited Charente Maritime. That’s not because the wines here have pretensions to vie with the great wines of the nearby Bordeaux vignobles, but because this is cognac country.
And among my many failings I have this weakness for cognac, the rarer, the finer, the better. So, imagine my torment when faced with cognac at the coal face, so to speak.
Do I opt for Grande Champagne or Petite Champagne, and start with the best from the countryside around the eponymous town of Cognac? ]
Or do I lower my sights and go for the Bois Ordinaires or the Bons Bois? In the end I feigned ignorance and had something with ‘XO’ on the label, knowing it to be up there alongside ‘Napoleon’, ‘Extra’ and ‘Hors d’Age’.
The history of cognac
Cognac was not produced until the 16th century. Before then, vines had been planted around La Rochelle from the 13th century onwards, developing a lively trade in wine production along the Charente.
In the 16th century, however, English and Dutch merchants hit on the idea of distilling the wine to produce something stronger that could travel without the risk of deterioration.
Alas, a slump in the demand for this ‘improved’ wine meant that large quantities were unsold, until the day that someone happened to taste the wine and found to the delight of all that it had significantly improved with age.
Brandy production had arrived. But I found it worrying to discover that during the process of distillation around 2-3% of the brandy evaporates – what the distillers call ‘the Angels’ Share’, but something that amounts to around 23 million bottles each year! There must be quite a party going on in Heaven.
Is the town of Cognac worth visiting
Flanking the Charente river, Cognac is an endearing little town, the birthplace of the future François the First, king of France and is well worth visiting if you’re in the region or want to know more about the cognac brandy.
Today, the town is bright and lively, but if you approach from the river, past the tourist information office, you find that it reveals itself layer by layer, street by street.
You begin fairly innocuously and then progress to the centre through ancient thoroughfares lined with 16th-century half-timbered houses, among which the best is arguably the Maison de la Lieutenance on rue Grande, with splendid wooded sculptures.
It houses an exhibition of printing and bookbinding – Le Relieure et l’Imprimerie – which is essentially one man’s private collection of artefacts, the extent and value of which he prefers not to disclose to his wife. But, even if you’re French isn’t up to it, the experience is amazing.
Apart from that, this is a quiet, unassuming, provincial town, worth half a day and lunch of anyone’s time.
But it’s likely you’re visiting Cognac to learn more about the drink. And the Museum of Cognac Know How is well worth a look.
There is over 2000 square metres of exhibits and collections which will tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about cognac, its history, how its made and its secrets.
It also includes a virtual reality experience which is best to do before you enjoy a tipple of the local brew. otherwise you’re going to be very confused.