Understanding Cognac: The Spirit and Lifeblood of France
Made from l’eau de vie (the water of life), cognac is arguably one of France’s greatest offerings in the world of liquor. However, in recent years it has been somewhat eclipsed by its distant cousin champagne. Here, we hope to change that. We explore the basics of this historical beverage, covering the geography of cognacs and its different grades.
As mentioned, cognacs have been losing favour particularly with the younger generation who prefer a glass of bubbly. This could be due to the prevalence of champagne in the media and its association with the glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous. Meanwhile, cognacs have gained a reputation as the drink of wrinkly old men, who spend their evenings seated in an armchair, swirling a glass of the liquor in one hand while holding a pipe in another. To be honest, that actually sounds like a great way to spend life, but I digress. Cognacs have a rich history and amazingly complex flavours that differ from distillery to distillery, making for an incredible drinking experience. Without further ado, let’s dive into this toffee-coloured sea.
What’s in a Name?
Cognac gets its name from the Cognac region in the Southwest of France. Technically speaking, based on the methods of production, the resulting liquor is a brandy. However, for a brandy to be considered a cognac, it has to be made in that specific region, from grapes cultivated in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments of France, and meet the stringent requirements of the appellation d’origine contrôllée (AOC). It’s similar to how all bourbons are considered whiskies but not all whiskies are bourbon. Despite this connection to southwestern France, the origin story of cognacs reportedly begins in Holland during the 1600s. The story goes that French wine exported to Holland was of poor quality and so, would not last long at sea. Thus, Dutch traders began distilling it to increase its lifespan. In the 1700s, the practice caught on in France and winemakers began distilling their product and aging them to produce cognac.
Cognac starts off its journey as white wine, usually made from ugni blanc grapes, which is then distilled in copper stills to produce a spirit known as eau de vie (water of life). At this point, what results is a clear spirit, much like the white dog used in bourbon. Cognac’s signature toffee-brown colouration comes from aging in French oak barrels which exposes it to tannins in the wood and creates more complex flavours.
The Cognac region comprises some 79,000 hectares of vineyards making it the largest wine region in France after Bordeaux. A It is split into six different growth areas or cru, each with a unique terroir which influences the taste of the grapes grown there. These differences ultimately shape the flavours of cognacs produced in each cru.
For instance, the chalkier soils of Grande and Petite Champagne produces fruity spirits while Bois Ordinaire’s sandy soil and proximity to the ocean results in a uniquely salty and oceanic aroma with complex flavours of salted caramel, spices and fruits. In the interest of time and simplicity, we’ll unfortunately have to leave it at that.
Age is Just a Number
One of the things that often intrigues drinkers who are new to cognac is the aging system brands employ. Compared to other alcohols like wine or whisky which states how long the product has been aged, cognac labels are often adorned with a bunch of letters like VS, VSOP, or XO. Each of these represents a different aging period range which ultimately affects the appearance and taste of the cognac. Keep in mind, the different terroirs of each brand’s growth area combined with the aging process produces a diverse range of flavour profiles. To simplify things, we are going to use Hennessy and Martell as a reference points.
Very Special (VS)
Most cognacs are usually a blend of different barrels according to the distiller’s discretion to achieve a consistent aroma and falvour. VS means that the youngest cognac in the blend is aged for at least two years of age. These typically have a fruity aroma with light, citrusy flavours that are perfect mixed into cocktails. An example here is Martell’s VS Single Distillery Fine Cognac.
Very Special Old Pale (VSOP)
The minimum age to be considered VSOP is four years and like the name suggests is usually paler in colour, without the addition of sugar, caramel or agents which give a darker brown hue. VSOP cognacs are still fruity on the nose but bolder and more complex than VS, often having notes of toffee because of the longer barrel aging. A great example is Hennessy’s VSOP Privilege.
Extra Old (XO)
This is what most people, particularly the older generation in Singapore, will associate with cognac. Its popularity amongst older businessmen led to cognac simply being called XO in Singapore for the longest time. As of 2018, XOs must be aged a minimum of 10 years and have a complex nutty and spicy aroma with a sweeter palate of flowers and fruits mixed with pepper. Hennessy XO Extra Old embodies the bold masculine flavours typical of an XO cognac.
The most matured of all cognacs, Hors d’Age means “beyond” and denotes a cognac aged for a longer duration than XO. Given the extended aging, Hors d’Age cognacs have a greater depth and complexity, rounded off with a stronger flavour which lingers longer on the palate. These cognacs have a woodier, spicy aroma and flavour which then gives way to fruity, floral notes that linger in the aftertaste. A fantastic example is one of Hennesy’s finest offerings, the Paradis Cognac.
Not to be confused with the small statured French general, Napoleon is a term that was only recently officially introduced. It denotes a cognac aged a minimum of 6 years, sitting between VSOP and XO. Martell’s Noblige Cognac has a beautifully fruity and flora smell and a rounded flavour of vanilla, grapes and oak.
With this, we’ve covered the basics of this beloved French liquor, hopefully giving you the confidence and ability to begin navigating the palatably complex world of cognacs.