Of all the spirits categories, Cognac, with its clearly defined tiers of products of different age specifications, is one of the most varied. From the VS and VSOP categories, used in cocktails everywhere and enjoyed in nightclubs in America, to the older and more luxuriously presented offerings, starting at XO and working upwards, there is a Cognac to suit everyone.
The year 2020 marked the 150th anniversary of the first ever XO – or Extra Old – being made. Created at Hennessy by Maurice Hennessy and cellar master Emile Fillioux in 1870, the ‘extra old’ blend was apparently intended for friends and family, but then it was actually launched in the US, before being taken to Shanghai and Hong Kong in 1872.
What exactly does the XO label mean? In order to understand, we must first look at how Cognac is produced.
Cognac is produced from an area of 78,000ha of vineyards, most of which span the Charente and Charente-Maritime regions of France’s Atlantic west coast, north of Bordeaux. It is made predominantly using the Ugni Blanc grape – which comprises 95% of the grapes grown for the spirit – and fermentation and the double distillation process are completed in separate batches.
The resulting spirit, known as eau-de-vie, is then aged in oak barrels for years, if not decades, until it is sufficiently conditioned to be blended with other eaux-de-vie of varying ages and flavour characteristics to make a final Cognac product.
There are different classifications, or styles, of Cognac: VS, VSOP, Napoleon, XO and XXO; each has a minimum age requirement (two years, four years, six years, 10 years and 14 years, respectively), with regard to the eaux- de-vie that are used in the blend.
Of course, Cognac houses are free to create ever more premium expressions with vanishingly rare, older eaux-de-vie, but these specimens will be bound for a Baccarat crystal decanter, an Hors d’Age (‘beyond age’) classification and an eye-watering price tag.
For most Cognac houses, an XO is the most upscale of their core range, often sitting in the £70-£120 price bracket in the UK – an affordable luxury for enthusiasts wanting to understand the nuances that Cognac expresses as it grows gracefully older.
‘XO is part of the older categories of Cognac, as it requires a minimum of 10 years of ageing in oak casks, [but most] XOs are much older than 10 years,’ explains Raphaël Delpech, director general of the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac). ‘It is therefore the expression of time and patience. During this long ageing process, delicate aromas appear, such as “rancio” – a range of notes of autumn, mushroom and walnut oil – but also fruity, floral and spicy notes.
‘XO blends usually combine eaux-de-vie from different years and different cru regions,’ he continues. ‘[Over time], several generations of master blenders supervise the maturation of an XO, meaning it is the perfect alchemy between terroir, men/women and time.’
Speaking of time, the 10-year minimum age specification for the eaux-de-vie used in an XO is a relatively new requirement. In 2011, the BNIC announced the raising of the age from six years to 10, with the new classification coming into effect in 2018 in order to allow Cognac houses time to give their stocks the required maturation.
‘All decisions regarding the evolution of the Cognac specification are voted on at the BNIC by professionals – brands and producers. This change was a collective decision within the Cognac sector,’ explains Delpech.
‘In practice, there were already many XO Cognacs on the market in which the youngest eau-de-vie exceeded 10 years of age. This measure aimed to align the regulation and the market reality, and also to confirm Cognac’s haut-de-gamme [top-range] positioning in the world of spirits.’
Producers confirm this assertion, appearing particularly unfazed by what could be seen by the outsider as a considerable change.
‘At Courvoisier we have used 10-year-old eaux-de-vie in our XO blend since its creation in 1984, so the changes to XO classification did not have an impact on the way we create this blend,’ explains Courvoisier master blender Patrice Pinet.
For Delamain, one of the last family-owned Cognac houses, its two XOs are the entry products of its range. Charles Braastad, the managing director of the house and ninth generation of the Delamain family to be making its Cognacs, explains why this classification is so special: ‘XO and above is who we are,’ he explains. ‘It is the most interesting, challenging, rewarding and creative place to be in the world of Cognac.
‘What happens across time to old eaux-de- vie is a magical thing. The potential at the upper end of the spectrum is far more varied than at the younger end, and to have the opportunity to listen to what nature and time are telling us… We can wait for Cognacs to reach their individual magic.’
It’s not just Hennessy that celebrated an anniversary for its XO in 2020; Delamain’s Pale & Dry has also reached the grand old age of 100, giving Braastad a chance to pause and reflect. ‘Arriving at Pale & Dry’s centenary has been a deep and personal experience,’ he explains.
‘When I think of Jacques and Robert [Delamain, its creators] coming back from World War I and setting about creating Pale & Dry, when I read about the birdsong – audible even in the trenches – that got them through the war and how it inspired them to immerse themselves in natural beauty and the potential of nature, which is the essence of Pale & Dry, it makes me very proud and very humble. It has been a very important and moving experience to see the world, and Cognac-making, through their eyes.’
The world of Cognac is one in which age certainly comes with beauty – and XO is the perfect place from which enthusiasts can explore this most exquisite of spirits.
Worth the wait: great XO Cognacs
Château de Beaulon 12 Year Old XO Premier
While 95% of the grapes grown in Cognac are Ugni Blanc, there are two other approved varieties – Colombard and Folle Blanche. This XO was made entirely from the latter two. A nose of grapefruit peel, orange segments, ginger, toffee and wood varnish precedes a silky-smooth palate of nectarine, cinnamon, dark chocolate truffles and warming winter spice. Alcohol 40%
A classic Cognac from one of the region’s biggest houses, Courvoisier’s offering is a blend of eaux-de-vie that have been matured for 11-25 years. The nose is an appealing blend of dried orange peel, raisins, leather satchel, juicy blackcurrant and eucalyptus, leading onto a delicate, fruity and floral palate with a smattering of spice. Alc 40%
Delamain Pale & Dry XO
Delamain’s flagship expression, which is celebrating its centenary this year. A beguiling nose of lemon drops, Red Delicious apple skins, marmalade, cinnamon and slate. On the palate, that marmalade is accompanied by white pepper, cinnamon and cocoa, before a glorious rancio character washes in, with a savoury leather finish. Alc 40%
Frapin, Château de Fontpinot XO
A single-estate Cognac from Frapin, this boasts a glorious bouquet of orchard fruit and shortbread that hints at the veritable pâtisserie of a palate, suggestive of fruit custard tarts, canelé and salted caramel, all dusted with cinnamon and a hint of old leather. Alc 41%
The XO to start them all, Hennessy XO turned 150 years old in 2020. A deep nose of dried dates and prunes, sticky toffee pudding, orange peel and black pepper lead on to a pleasing palate of dark dried fruits, cocoa powder, tobacco and cinnamon spice. Alc 40%
Maxime Trijol XO Classic
Six generations of this family have made Cognac, since 1859. A deep and dusky nose of date sponge, figs, liquorice and vanilla. On the palate, dried dates and raisins, chewy toffee, caramel sauce and ginger are overlain with a hint of grapefruit bitterness and a perfumed finish. Alc 40%
Produced from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne area of Cognac, otherwise known as the ‘premier cru’ of the six regions. Approachable aromas of orange blossom, ginger snaps, white pepper and chalk lead on to a beautifully balanced palate, with orange sauce, 70% dark chocolate, varnished sideboard, chopped hazelnut and violets. Alc 40%
Vallein-Tercinier XO 46° Small Batch
A blend of 15- and 25-year-old eaux-de-vie, this XO is all sweetness and light. Light crème brûlée, lemon rind, vanilla pod and straw aromas combine with a creamy palate of peach, vanilla custard and nutmeg. Alc 46%