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Decanter’s complete guide to Cognac

From how it's made, to classifications and how to drink it, Richard Woodard reveals everything you need to know about France’s most celebrated spirit and recommends top Cognac producers to try

What is Cognac?

Cognac is a type of brandy – a distilled spirit made from grapes – produced exclusively in a region of western France that’s strictly regulated by a GI (geographical indication).

The Cognac-making process involves harvesting white grapes, making wine, distilling that wine twice, then maturing it in oak barrels for at least two years – often for much longer.

Most Cognacs are blends, created by combining the distilled spirits – known as eaux-de-vie – of different ages and from different origins. Classifications range from the youngest (VS) to older expressions such as VSOP and XO.

More than 200 million bottles of Cognac are sold every year, 98% of them outside France. Cognac is a versatile spirit that can be consumed in simple mixed drinks, in an array of cocktails, or sipped on its own.

Who makes Cognac?

  • Winegrowers: Numbering well over 4,000, they mainly sell their wine to distillers, but some bottle their own Cognac.
  • Professional distillers: They buy wines, distil and sell them – or custom-distil them for other producers.
  • Négociants: Some 280 Cognac houses buy wines to distil, unaged eaux-de-vie, or casks of mature Cognac. These include Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier, who together account for about 85% of global Cognac sales.

Where is Cognac made?

There are about 78,000ha of vineyards in Cognac, stretching from just above Bordeaux to as far north as La Rochelle, and eastwards from the Atlantic to beyond Angoulême. The vineyards are split into six zones or crus:

  • Grande Champagne: The most prized, with deep, crumbly chalk soils and located to the south of the Charente river. Produces floral, fine-toned eaux-de-vie that benefit from long ageing.
  • Petite Champagne: Surrounding Grande Champagne, with less-crumbly chalk soils and a more oceanic climate. Produces floral, lightly fruity Cognacs.
  • Borderies: A small enclave north of the Charente. It has less chalk, producing aromatic but faster-ageing Cognacs.
  • Fins Bois: The largest cru, Fins Bois surrounds the first three, and has mostly thin clay/limestone soils. Produces fruity, faster-maturing Cognacs.
  • Bons Bois: A varied cru surrounding Fins Bois, with a number of different soil and climate types.
  • Bois Ordinaires/Bois à Terroirs: Covering the Atlantic coast and the Ile d’Oléron and Ile de Ré. Unsurprisingly, it has a strong oceanic influence.

What grape varieties go into Cognac?

There are six permitted grape varieties in Cognac:

  • Ugni Blanc: Covering 98% of Cognac’s vineyards, and prized for its resistance to disease, its high acidity and low sugar levels. Produces a light, neutral and acidic wine (typically 8%-9% abv), ideally suited to distillation and ageing.
  • Folle Blanche: Historically Cognac’s dominant variety, it has fallen from favour because of its sensitivity to rot when grafted. Now covers less than 1% of the vineyard, producing aromatic and well-balanced Cognacs.
  • Folignan: A new cross of Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche, with an aromatic character. Can only make up 10% of a blend.
  • The other varieties – Colombard, Montils and Sémillon – are insignificant.

How is Cognac made?

Winemaking

The harvest – usually carried out by machine – lasts from about mid-September to mid-October, with conventional vinification giving a highly acidic wine of around 9% abv. No sugar or sulphites can be added.

Distillation

This must be completed by 31 March following the harvest, and comprises a small-batch, double distillation in a Charentais copper pot still. Some producers distil ‘on the lees’, including the dead yeast and pulp from the winemaking process, to give a more complex spirit character.

The process is as follows:

  • The first chauffe or distillation creates the first distillate, the brouillis, with a strength of roughly 28%-32% abv.
  • The second chauffe – sometimes called repasse or bonne chauffe – distils the brouillis, creating an eau-de-vie of around 70%-72% abv, once the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ from the start and end of the spirit run are eliminated. These can be redistilled with the next batch.

Maturation

Cognac must be matured in oak barrels for at least two years prior to release, but is often aged for much longer. Many factors influence the character of the maturing eau-de-vie, including:

  • oak origin (usually Tronçais or Limousin forests)
  • grain width
  • age of barrel (younger casks give more flavour, but decades-old barrels have little or no influence beyond the processes of evaporation and micro-oxygenation)
  • warehouse and barrel location. Cognac cellar masters use a variety of cellar types – some drier, some more humid, some cooler and some warmer. Eaux-de-vie maturing in humid cellars lose more alcohol than water, while those ageing in drier cellars lose more water than alcohol. This influences spirit strength and style.

Blending

The vast majority of Cognacs are blends, composed by the cellar master from eaux-de-vie of various ages and origins to create a Cognac that is balanced, complex and consistent. Distilled water is added to dilute to the desired strength, which is usually 40% abv.

Cognac classifications

Cognac must be matured for at least two years before bottling, and must have a strength of at least 40% abv. Classifications include:

  • VS: At least two years old. More than half the Cognac sold in the world is VS.
  • VSOP: At least four years old. Just over one-third of global Cognac sales are VSOP.
  • XO: At least 10 years old.
  • XXO: At least 14 years old.

Other classifications are as follows:

  • Aged for at least three years: Supérieur, Cuvée Supérieure or Qualité Supérieure.
  • Aged for at least five years: Vieille Réserve, Réserve Rare or Réserve Royale.
  • Aged for at least six years: Napoléon, Très Vieille Réserve, Très Vieux, Héritage, Très Rare, Excellence or Suprême.

If a cru is named on the label – Grande Champagne, for example – then the Cognac must be 100% from that cru. ‘Fine Champagne’ designates a Cognac blended from Grande and Petite Champagne, with at least 50% from Grande Champagne.

Vintage Cognacs – bottled by specialists such as Hine, Frapin and Delamain – must be 100% from the year named.

How to drink Cognac

Most Cognac in the world is drunk mixed – with water, over ice, or with mixers including soda, lemonade and cola.

Cognac also has a long heritage in cocktails, with classics including the Sidecar, Vieux Carré and Horse’s Neck.

The finer Cognacs – XO and above, plus vintages – are usually consumed neat to fully appreciate their complexity and character. A stemmed tulip-shaped glass is the best vessel from which to savour Cognac’s aromas and flavours.

Cognac bottles

Top Cognacs: eight names to know

Hennessy

The largest producer by far. It has a rich, sometimes woody style, ascending from VS through VSOP and XO to high-end expressions such as Paradis and Richard Hennessy.

Martell

Tending towards purity and fruit expression, thanks to Martell’s insistence on distilling clear wines only. Traditionally a user of the small Borderies cru.

Rémy Martin

Exclusively sources from Grande and Petite Champagne, specialising in VSOP and above. Also makes the high-end Louis XIII expressions.

Courvoisier

A maker of Cognacs of finesse and balance. Headquartered in Jarnac, with an historic association with Napoleon.

Hine

Prized for its elegant, fine style. A vintage specialist – look out for Jarnac-matured and ‘early-landed’ (aged in the UK) bottlings from the same year.

Frapin

Makes and ages all its Cognacs from its own vineyards. Another bottler of vintages, and single-estate Cognacs from Château de Fontpinot.

Camus

Has a broad range of expressions, including provenance-rich bottlings from the Ile de Ré off the Atlantic coast.

Delamain

Has a stellar reputation for high-end blends and single vintages, with a supple, complex style that allows the distillate to shine through.


See also: 

Rare, ‘oldest’ Cognac from 1762 fetches nearly $150,000 at auction

The grapes spirits quiz 

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