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Cognac, from VS to XO and Beyond

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While Cognac has more than established its own reputation on the international market, ultimately it is still classified as a brandy or an eau-de-vie: a fruit-based distilled spirit. In addition to terroir and other quintessentially French establishments of quality, there are also a few technical differences worth noting:

  • First, the spirit must be produced from grapes, unlike schnapps or Calvados. While there are eight permitted varieties that may be grown in Cognac, the most common are Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano), Columbard, and Folle Blanche (a traditional component, now going somewhat out of fashion).
  • Second, the spirit is distilled from a wine base rather than from the skins and pips leftover after pressing for a still wine, as is the case with grappa. This process requires not just quality grapes, but those with extremely high acid and low sugar content that can survive the distillation process without oxidizing or spoiling.

The distillation itself is conducted in a copper pot still, where the spirit is distilled twice to achieve the needed ABV (72%), before aging begins. The more the spirit is run through the still, the more neutral it becomes, so the finest Cognacs are made only from the heart of the distillate, the purest and cleanest spirit. In the related yet distinct appellation of Armagnac, the spirit produced is comparable, but by using a column still they must only perform a single distillation, meaning that Armagnac tends to be fuller bodied and richer than Cognac.

After distillation comes the aging process, possibly the most significant factor in Cognac production. Somewhat unconventionally, the requirements as laid out by the DOC are rather lax and often vastly exceeded, especially by the finest producers seeking to produce exceptional, age-worthy bottles. However, officially, the labeling of the regions is as follows:

VS / “Very Special”: All spirits in the blend must be aged at least two years in French oak. Often Cognacs will start in new French oak before being transferred to older barrels, and as it is found almost always a blended spirit, details of aging are often complex or unreleased. Spirits aged less than two years may not be called Cognac.

VSOP / “Very Superior Old Pale”: All spirits in the blend must be aged at least 4 years in French oak.

XO / “Extra Old” / Napoléon: Technically the oldest Cognac, this is where it gets fuzzy. XO Cognac must be aged a minimum of 6 years in French oak. Oftentimes, all of these designations see at least the aging minimum, but since it is traditional in the region to age significantly longer than required, these terms fall into an unofficial hierarchy. Generally, the average age (not minimum) for XO cognac is 20 years. Napoléon is typically aged slightly less, falling between VSOP and XO. A Cognac can also be “Extra,” meaning it meets and exceeds the legal standards and often even the traditional standards of aging.

Hors d’Age / Vieille Réserve: Hors d’Age is aged literally “beyond age,” and the term is used only for the highest quality products. Vieille Réserve is comparable.

In Cognac, products can be adjusted after distillation. While adding sugar to increase alcohol levels is not allowed (you’re distilling, why would you want to?), producers can add artificial coloring (especially to younger Cognac that does not see the same oxidation/oak contact), and can dilute the spirit to reach the correct ABV (common in the distillation process). Certain exceptional producers, however, are trending towards non-interventionism, such as Paul Beau and J. Navarre.

There are also sub-appellations within Cognac, just as in Bordeaux or Burgundy. It’s never easy with the French, eh? The finest region for Cognac production is Grande Champagne, at the center of the appellation. Not to be confused with the region of Champagne, the name refers to the high chalk content of the soils, excellent for drainage, water retention, and preserving acid. Outside of Grande Champagne is Petite Champagne, of slightly lower, but still excellent quality. If these brandies are blended, the bottle can be labelled as “Fine Champagne.” Outside of that lies Borderies, Fins Bois (Fine Wood), Bons Bois (Good Wood), and Bois Ordinaire (Ordinary Wood). As most Cognac is blended, many bottles, especially from larger brands, do not carry an appellation.

Tonight, we’re opening Cognacs from opposite ends of the spectrum: we have Hennessy, a massive brand that produces 40% of the Cognac imported to the U.S., without released aging specifications, without an appellation, with additives and colorants, but holding a massive share of the market. We’re also pouring the Cognac of Paul Beau, a small family producer in Grande Champagne that details their aging regimen, sources only from within their appellation, and adds nothing to their products after distillation. Stop by and see the difference for yourself, tonight from 6-8 PM.

Santé!



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