Cognac is rightly regarded as the finest of all the spirits distilled from grapes. It exhibits an abundance of qualities: fruit, subtle aromas, warmth, intensity and – above all – complexity, with thousands of flavours all stemming from predominantly one grape variety.
About 80 miles or so north of Bordeaux lie the two picture-postcard towns of Cognac and Jarnac, the heart of the Cognac industry. The region, stretching from La Rochelle in the north to Royan in the west and Angoulème in the east, is home to nearly 6,000 grape growers who supply white wine for distillation, predominantly made with the Ugni Blanc variety (aka Trebbiano).
These wines are characterised by high acidity and low alcohol – not something you’d particularly want to drink as they are, but perfect for distillation, which takes place (twice) in copper stills, or alembics. The eau-de-vie is then aged in Limousin or Tronçais oak barrels; the latter has a tighter grain, and imparts fewer tannins than the powerful Limousin, making it better suited to maturing Cognacs for longer. Finally, the spirit is usually cut with water to 40% abv.
Cognac has a number of categories, which reflect the time each one has spent in barrel. VS (‘Very Special’) Cognacs must contain eaux-de-vie no younger than two years old; VSOPs (‘Very Superior Old Pale’) must be at least four years old; and for XO (‘Extra Old’), as well as bottles labelled ‘Napoléon’, ‘Extra’ and ‘Hors d’âge’, it’s six years, although this will rise to 10 years from 2018 (with the exception of Napoléon). That said, in practice, the vast majority of XO Cognacs contain eaux-de-vie much, much older than the legal minimum.
Most VS Cognacs are designed to be drunk long (with, say, ginger ale or tonic and a dash of bitters) or in a cocktail; VSOPs can either be mixed or drunk neat; XOs really should be enjoyed on their own – the extended ageing adds a multitude of flavours and aromas, many of which would be lost in a cocktail. The complexity of some XOs can be extraordinary, many of which displaying the elusive rancio character, redolent of dried fruits and Christmas cake.
The concept of terroir is perfectly demonstrated in Cognac, too; the region is divided into six Crus: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fin Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires. There are notable differences between each one, with Grande Champagne eaux-de-vie noted for their power and finesse; Borderies for their fruity, floral notes, and so on. Cognacs made from at least 50% Grande Champagne and the rest from Petite Champagne can also bear the term ‘Fine Champagne’ on the bottle. And it’s worth knowing that ‘Champagne’ in this part of the world has nothing to do with the fizzy stuff – it refers to the chalky soil that is found throughout the region.
Did you know?
- the equivalent of 20 million bottles of Cognac are lost each year due to evaporation (‘The Angel’s Share’)
- just 3% of all Cognac produced is drunk in France
- if you visit the Cognac region, you’ll come across warehouses covered in what looks like black soot. This is actually a fungus, torula compniacensis, that feeds on the evaporating Cognac vapours
Typical Character and Style of Cognac
- Christmas Cake
- Dried tea
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Classification (1 selected)
Hine 1985 CognacGrande Champagne Landed 1987 Bot.2002
(£214.29 per litre)
Hine 1987 CognacGrande Champagne Landed 1990 Bot.2004
(£250 per litre)
Berry Bros 1930 Arthenac CognacPetite Champagne Bot.1976
(£808.82 per litre)
Denis-Mounié 1926Grande Champagne
(£1,333.33 per litre)
Moyet Cognac 1815Napoleon Grande Champagne
(£7,500 per litre)
Frapin 1914 Pale & DryBot.1950s
(£1,714.29 per litre)
Meukow 193747 Year Old Borderies Rarissime Tres Vieux
(£3,214.29 per litre)
Hine 1858Cognac Grande Champagne Bot.1930s
(£4,666.67 per litre)
Hine 1898 CognacGrande Champagne Bot.1930s
(£5,357.14 per litre)
Pinet Castillon Cognac 1920Grande Fine Champagne
(£1,200 per litre)
Harvey's 1904 CognacGrande Fine Champagne Bot.1957
(£1,428.57 per litre)
Meukow Cognac No.7Vintage 1842 Grande Champagne Bot.1940s
(£8,000 per litre)
Otard Dupuy 1878 CognacBot.1930s
(£6,333.33 per litre)
Hennessy 1913 CognacLanded 1914 Bot.1930s David Sandeman
(£3,571.42 per litre)
AE Dor No.11893 Vintage Age d'Or Limited Edition
(£9,285.72 per litre)
Delamain 1893 CognacGrande Champagne Bot.1960s
(£5,000 per litre)
Hine 1914 CognacVieille Grande Champagne Bot.1960s
(£1,714.29 per litre)
Berry Bros 1904 CognacGrande Champagne des Heritiers Bot.1977
(£1,764.71 per litre)
Auger Fils & Cie 1865 CognacBot.1930s
(£7,142.86 per litre)
Courvoisier 1900 CognacBot.1930s
(£5,714.29 per litre)
Denis-Mounié 1884 CognacGrande Champagne Bot.1930s
(£6,000 per litre)
Block,Grey & Block 1884 CognacPetite Champagne Bot.1910s
(£5,714.29 per litre)
Gautier Freres 1868 CognacHarrods Exclusive Bot.1960s
(£5,333.33 per litre)
Hine 1935 CognacLanded 1936 Bot.1964 Wiley & Co.
(£1,617.65 per litre)
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