Brandy dates back to the 12th century, and comes in many forms from all over the world, but the most prestigious members of this class of drink trace their roots to two fairly limited regions of France: the Cognac region on the southwestern coast of France, and its cousin from Gascony on the far-south French coast, known as Armagnac.
Brandy––a spirit produced by distilling wine––dates back to the 12th century, and comes in many forms from all over the world, but the most prestigious members of this class of drink trace their roots to two fairly limited regions of France: the Cognac region on the southwestern coast of France, and its cousin from Gascony on the far-south French coast, known as Armagnac.
Though many countries produce various distilled brandies, to be called “Cognac” the spirit must be produced around the town bearing that name, roughly in the French Départements of Charente and Charente-Maritime. Note that though the word “Champagne” is used in two of the six growing zones covered by this region (Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne), it is unrelated the sparkling-wine-growing area in the north of France. In addition Cognac must be made from a blend of at least 90% Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard grapes. Ungi Blanc (aka Saint-Emilion) is the most commonly-used grape for this purpose.
Cognac is made when the thin, dry white wine produced from these grapes is distilled twice in a pot still to a content of approx. 70% alcohol. When distillation is complete the resulting spirit is aged at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais. The final Cognac is then diluted with distilled water to a final strength of 40% (80 proof).
The listed age of the Cognac is based on the youngest spirit (also known as eau-de-vie) used to produce the final blend. This blending (known as marriage) is usually from different ages and areas (though there are some single-year “vintage” Cognacs), and is as important to the final complexity of Cognac as it is to fine Champagnes or Scotch whiskeys.
Once the Cognac has been aged, blended and bottled, it is sold according to the following official grades from the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac):
VS – Very Special (aka “Three Stars”) indicates the youngest brandy in a blend has been barreled for at least two years.
VSOP – Very Special (occasionally called “Superior”) Old Pale indicates the youngest brandy in a blend has been barreled for at least four years. The average age of the barrel itself is usually much older.
XO – EXtra Old indicates the youngest brandy in a blend has been barreled for at least six years, but the average for XO typically approaches 20 years. In 2016 the minimum storage age for an XO blend will increase to ten years.
There are also additional terms that can be applied to Cognac:
Napoleon – According to the BNIC this grade is equal to XO in terms of minimum age, but producers usually market it between VSOP and XO in their product ranges.
Extra – Though this indicates the youngest brandy in a blend has been barreled for at least six years, this grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.
Vieux (“Old”) – Another grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
Hors d'âge (i.e. “Beyond Age”) – According to the BNIC this grade is also equal to XO, but in practice the term is used by producers to market a high-quality product that goes beyond the official age scale.
Vieille Réserve – Like Hors d´Âge, this is a grade beyond XO.
Similar to Cognac, (though produced first, historically), Armagnac is also specific to three districts within a limited region––roughly Bordeaux on the coast southeast to the Spanish border––and is largely made from the wine produced by Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Folle Blanche, and Baco 22A grapes.
Though it is produced from similar grapes, Armagnac differs from Cognac in its production. Armagnac is only distilled once, using a column still, similar to those used to make certain whiskeys. The resulting spirit is somewhat less refined and more "fiery" than its double-distilled cousin, but long aging in oak barrels mellows and deepens its flavor, body and color.
Armagnac also differs in its profile and scale of production. While Cognac production is dominated by several large houses (Rémy Martin, Hennessy, Courvoisier, et al), Armagnac production is less and its producers smaller.
According to the Bureau National Interprofessionel de l'Armagnac (BNIA) Armagnac is generally graded along the same lines as Cognac (VS, VSOP and XO) with “Hors d´Âge” indicating that the youngest brandy in a blend has been barreled ten years or more. Single-vintage batches are more common with Armagnac than with Cognac, where they are relatively rare.