Cognac is widely acknowledged to be the world’s greatest brandy and, like a fine wine, it owes that status to the land it calls home, the legally protected Cognac region of western France.
This large and diverse area has 78,000ha of vineyards, most of them planted with Ugni Blanc (or Trebbiano) , a white grape that produces light, acidic wines perfectly suited to distillation. The finest and longest-aged Cognacs are sourced from the spongy chalk soils of the Grande Champagne zone just south of the Charente river, as well as quality locations in nearby Petite Champagne and Borderies.
Distillation turns wine into a fruity spirit that’s ready for maturation in French oak barrels. The amount of time spent in barrels defines the style of the Cognac: at least two years for VS, four for VSOP, 10 for XO – and many decades for the finest blends and vintages.
All of these factors conspire to create a spirit of great versatility, whether your taste is for a refreshing mixed drink with ice and soda or a classic cocktail such as the Sidecar. Or maybe you’re looking for a complex brandy to sip and savour.
Here’s a selection to launch you on your Cognac voyage of discovery…
Best Cognacs for beginners
A left-field Cognac sourced from a single harvest on the Atlantic Ile d’Oléron, this has a relatively youthful, lightly floral character with zesty grapefruit notes – and its intriguing maritime edge might endear it to Cognac-phobic whisky lovers. The Augier name has a long history in Cognac, and was revived several years ago by the owner of Martell. Alcohol 40.1%
Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2008
Hine is one of several specialists in vintage Cognacs – produced, as the name suggests, from a single harvest. This is an unusually light example sourced from the company’s own Grande Champagne vineyards and bottled in 2018. Expressive and delicately vinous, with lots of floral character, red fruit and honeyed oak. Alc 42.7%
VS Cognacs are the starting-point, and they’re best consumed mixed and in cocktails like the Sidecar or the Vieux Carré. A rare example from Grande Champagne, this is unusually aromatic and supple, thanks to distillation on the lees and a gentle touch in the cellar. Why 1270? That’s the year when the Frapin family started growing grapes in the region. Alc 40%
Guillon-Painturaud Réserve Single Estate
Cognac is dominated by four big companies (Courvoisier, Hennessy, Rémy Martin and Martell) but you have to delve deeper to fully appreciate the region’s diversity. This superb example from an excellent family producer in Grande Champagne has spent 10 years in cask, accumulating a nicely balanced mix of floral notes, soft vanilla and light ginger, with citrus emerging on the finish. Alc 40%
Hermitage Cognac Marie Louise Crystal Decanter
David Baker of Hermitage Cognacs has spent decades unearthing hidden Cognac gems, and this is one of his greatest finds. Now about 70 years old, it has an astonishingly velvety texture, and you could write a book about the complex, lingering flavours on show here. Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely (and it is a one-litre decanter). Alc 43%
Jean Fillioux Réserve Familiale
The Fillioux family has historic links to the dynasty of Hennessy master blenders, but there the similarities end. A classic Grande Champagne Cognac of great age sourced from the family domaine, this has all the hallmarks of jasmine, orange blossom and tangerine peel, silkily leading into walnut, mocha and cigar leaf. Alc 40%
Aged for a minimum of four years, VSOP Cognacs are great all-rounders – perfect for mixing and cocktails, but smooth enough to sip neat as well. Martell is known for its linear, fruit-forward style, and this example combines a basket of tropical fruits with spice and tannin from quite forward oak. Alc 40%
Rémy Martin XO
Another of the four big houses, Rémy Martin specialises in producing Cognacs at VSOP level and above, sourcing its grapes from Grande and Petite Champagne. This XO epitomises its signature style of supple smoothness – rich with aromas of date, cinnamon and nutmeg, reinforced by tannin from the oak and lifted by just the merest pinch of anise. A benchmark XO. Alc 40%