You've probably heard this: "All cognac is brandy but not all brandy is cognac". To be called cognac a brandy must be made from a certain type of grape that grows only in the area of Cognac, western France. It is rated the best brandy in the world, smooth with a heady scent. Subtle differences in the blending and aging process also account for the market taste differences between brands and products of the same brand (i.e. VS and VSOP). Just a little extra information: VS means Very Special; VSOP means Very Special Old Pale; XO means Extra Old.
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There are certain timeless classics that retain their allure in part because of their superior quality and corresponding prestige. Cognac is one of these things. The sophisticated appeal of cognac may stem from the fact that your grandfather savored it after dinner with a Macanudo cigar. Or it may simply be that cognac embodies the quality and cachet that attract people who seek out any item that sits firmly atop a pinnacle of distinction. Such classics are currently in vogue again, and a basic understanding of cognac may make you better appreciate what is arguably the finest distilled liquor in the world.
First and foremost, an explanation of terminology is necessary. Cognac does indeed come from grapes. And cognac is, in fact, a type of brandy. However, while all cognac is brandy, not all brandy is cognac. Confusing? Not really. It's easier to follow than you think, and a little knowledge will at least illuminate your intellect and may help you in pleasing your palate.
You can liken brandy to the plain blue blazer that was de rigeur in college and cognac to the Armani jacket that exudes elegance and sophistication when worn for a high-powered business meeting or over a white T-shirt for a night out with friends. The blue blazer is something you feel obligated to own and is easy to obtain; the Armani jacket you anticipate and ponder before indulging yourself.
Cognac is all about panache, and if you pride yourself on having a refined sense of style, you might enjoy knowing about a drink that is the epitome of label consciousness. You should wear -- and drink -- what you like. Therein lies the telling truth of style. And if you can afford an Armani original, you may wish to savor a premier cognac, such as Louis XIII de Remy Martin, which retails for about $1,000 a bottle. If not be content knowing that any cognac, by nature, is the very finest and most closely regulated of brandies. In short, there are no bad cognacs. There's only what you like and don't like.
Cognac takes its name from a small port town in western France on the Charente River, about one hundred miles north of Bordeaux. While the town has been a trading center for many centuries, the drink actually owes its existence to a fortuitous chain of accidents. As far back as the 15th century, French wines were regarded as the finest in Europe. During that era, Europe's predominant maritime powers (England and Holland) used to import French wine but found that it often broke down during the long sea voyages home. And even if it didn't, it was a bulky and space-consuming good. To prevent spoilage and save storage space, the French producers came up with the ideal solution: distill the wine, transport it, then add water before serving or selling it. So they distilled the wine from nine barrels into one, and because of the fire necessary for distilling the Dutch began referring to the product as wijnbranders (literally "wine burnt"). This, in turn, evolved into brandywijn and ultimately to brandy. It was some time later that the French appellation laws were enacted to mandate what qualifies the finest of French brandies as Cognac.
The Cognac district is one of only three officially designated brandy regions in Europe, along with Armagnac, France, and Jerez, Spain. Only brandies produced in Cognac and adhering to mandated guidelines may legally be designated cognac. The Cognac district is divided into six vineyard districts: the Grande Champagne (not to be confused with the Champagne region that gave its name to champagne), Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. All cognac must be produced from grapes grown and harvested within these regions.
The only permissible varieties of grapes for cognac making are Folle Blanche, Colombard and Ugni-Blanc (known as Trebbiano in Italy) -- all white grape varieties. The majority of grapes used are Ugni-Blanc. The wine produced for cognac making is not a drinkable table wine but rather a light, highly acidic, low alcohol intermediate product produced specifically for cognac.
The distillation process is a vital step in producing cognac, and unlike brandies around the world, cognac is double distilled. For the first distillation, the base wine is heated in copper kettles and passes as steam into a condensing coil. It is then cooled to form a milky liquid with an alcoholic strength of 27 percent to 30 percent. Cognac makers like to talk of this distillation process as conjuring the "soul" out of the wine. After the second distillation, a colorless, fruity liquid is produced, which is the infant cognac. This distillate is of a higher alcohol content but may not, by law, exceed 72 perecnt. When this distillate was exported centuries ago, it was referred to as eau de vie (water of life). In some areas of the world, this type of product is a consumable and marketable drink, somewhat similar in character to Italian grappa. To become cognac, however, a strictly mandated aging process is necessary.
Unlike many alcohols, brandy does not age in the bottle. Legally it must age in barrels prior to bottling. Great care is taken with the aging process with respect to what types of barrels may be used and how long it must be aged. Only certain types of French oak may be used for the barrels: Limousin, Allier, Troncais and Nevers. Cognac producers pride themselves on the craftsmanship of their barrels, and many retain their own craftsmen to ensure that their barrels are free from any synthetic materials, such as nails or glue, which interfere with the aging process and, ultimately, the flavor.
The legal minimum period of oak aging is two and a half years, but the vast majority of cognacs mature much longer, and younger ones are generally blended with older batches in complex processes, one of a cognac artisan's most challenging proofs of craftsmanship. Some finer cognacs may be the result of blending as many as 50 cognacs in effort to achieve a house's desired flavor and maintain a uniform standard of taste and quality.
Even though the aging process is paramount to cognac's quality, cognac makers rarely use vintage years as identification, preferring instead to use a lettering system. The ultimate test, is of course, how well you enjoy it. Cognac is not a drink meant to be consumed in volume. Rather, it's more of a special punctuation mark -- lasting pleasure or something to help you cap off an enjoyable evening with good company or savor long, introspective moments. When you feel like spoiling yourself, when you want to drink something considered the very best of its class, cognac may be just the drink for you. While you ponder your own good fortune, you might do well to ponder the role of the little grape that has given so much of itself to help us enjoy life. Reach across the table, clink your glass against your companion's, and appreciate the sound so that the oft-neglected ear might enjoy the sensation as well. In this way, your drink is able to touch all five senses. Toast the grape and its many gifts!
The letter designations used in classifying cognac derive from English words, as it was formerly the English who were the primary consumers of cognac. The first (and youngest) designation, aged a minimum of two and a half years in barrels is:
- VS -- Very Special
- VSOP -- Very Superior Old Pale, minimum four years
- NAPOLEON -- Minimum six years
- X.O./EXTRA OLD-- Also minimum of six years, though most cognacs of this designation are much older, with the six year age denoting only the youngest cognacs used in the blend
A cognac can only be designated with the classification of the youngest cognac used in the blend, so while a fine four-year old may be blended with a six- or eight-year-old, it will still be labeled VSOP, for the use of the four-year old cognac.
The early brandies were crystal-clear in color until the 18th century, when France was engaged in one of the many European wars that put a temporary halt to the exporting of luxury beverages. The stalwart French wine producers stored their brandy in small oak barrels for the duration of the war, fully aware that after engaging in a long battle what a soldier really wanted was a good drink. Pillaging and plundering can build up quite a thirst. After several years, they opened the barrels, and the brandy had taken on color and flavor from the oak and become better tasting. Pleased with the new product, the cognac makers decided they didn't need an actual war to urge them to age their product and thus took to the process wholeheartedly, in war and peace.
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