Cognac’s most sought-after vineyards are found in the Grande Champagne zone south of the Charente river, where the spongy chalk soils allow the vine roots to delve as deeply as nine metres in search of water and nutrients.
These vineyards are the source of the region’s most age-worthy eaux-de-vie, which can take decades to reach their peak. A precious few, aged for a lifetime or more, are transferred out of cask and into glass Dame-Jeannes (demi-johns) to prevent further influence from the oak.
Prolonged ageing lends these eaux-de-vie a complexity and distinctively savoury character called rancio – an elusive, funky, umami-like quality only found after decades of maturation. It’s the common thread that unites all of these Cognacs, whether their gift-giving qualities derive from their vintage year or the quality of the blending. Sometimes even the packaging is a work of art.
Cognacs to buy as a gift
This classically elegant bottle is a retort to the fussy rococo creations of some Cognac houses, while the velvet-smooth liquid inside shows the ageing potential of aromatic Borderies eaux-de-vie, alongside Grande and Petite Champagne. Pot-pourri, cigar box, ancient leather and a superlatively seamless quality in the mouth. Alc 40%
Frapin Millésime 1992 26 Year Old
After more than a quarter of a century in the dry Marie Frapin cave, this has all the classic Frapin qualities: explosively fragrant, floral and delicately fruity, but with real backbone and even a little tannin from its long time in cask. If 1992 is a landmark year for anyone close to you, you know what to do. Alc 40.5%
Hennessy XO Frank Gehry Edition
It’s 150 years since Maurice Hennessy and Emile Fillioux created the first Hennessy XO, and to mark the occasion Cognac’s biggest name has joined forces with architect Frank Gehry to create special commemorative packaging in Gehry’s signature style. The Cognac inside remains, as ever, richly hedonistic and one for those who love plenty of complexity from the cask. Alc 40%
Hine Antique XO 100th Anniversary
For all Hine’s prowess with vintage Cognacs (see below), this blend of around 40 eaux-de-vie remains arguably its finest achievement. There’s not much better than its tightrope walk between perfumed elegance and broad-shouldered, rancio-rich indulgence – unless it’s a special edition unveiled for this expression’s centenary, and containing eaux-de-vie from 1920. Alc 40%
Hine 1978 Early Landed
Aged vintage Cognacs aren’t cheap – and it gets pricier still if you have to buy two. But if your budget allows, buy both Hine 1978 Early Landed and Hine 1978 Jarnac Matured. Comparing an early landed Cognac (one shipped to England for extended maturation) with its Jarnac-matured sibling is endlessly fascinating. In brief: early landed = elegance, delicacy, youthfulness; Jarnac = richness, complexity, depth. Both are stunning. Alc 40%
Remarkably, Martell only launched its XO Cognac as recently as 2005, but it was worth the wait. True to the house style, it combines Borderies and Grande Champagne fruit in a sumptuously rich combination of mouth-filling fruit – baked apples, but also darker notes of date and sultana – and spicy, peppered oak. The bottle looks pretty decent too. Alc 40%
Pierre Ferrand Sélection des Anges
Pure drinking pleasure from this innovative Grande Champagne house. Never mind the angels’ share, this is the angels’ selection: the concentrated, complex Cognac left in the cask after years of evaporation and oxidation. Gorgeous ripe fruit, dried rose petals and walnuts in a drizzle of dark honey. Alc 41.8%
Tesseron Lot 76 XO Tradition
XO specialist Tesseron has a number of delightful bottlings, but this is perhaps the most expressive, offering layers of richly stewed fruits, dark honey and the kind of lifted, nutty notes you find in old amontillado sherry. Just when you think it’s going to tip over into blowsiness, a beguiling floral character steps in. Glorious. Alc 40%