David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 3/30/2016:
A Quick Lesson on Cognac
The most planted grape in all of France is ugni blanc, and no one drinks its wine. This is because ugni blanc is the base wine for Cognac production, and while ungi blanc makes a fairly unpalatable wine, it makes a fantastic brandy.
In very simplistic terms, to make a hard alcohol spirit like vodka, whiskey or gin, distillers start with a base material that is either beer or wine. Some spirits are made from cane sugar (rum), some from a plant materials (tequila), but the majority are made from barley which is fermented into beer or grapes, which is fermented into wine. If a spirit is made from a fruit base — grapes, apples, pears — we call that spirit brandy. There are many different brandies worldwide, but if it comes from the French region of Cognac, we call it cognac.
While the exact date is lost to history, some time around the late-1600s, Dutch and English merchants started to transport spirits produced in Cognac to their local markets. The Dutch traders called this liquid brandewijn or “burnt wine.” The English called it brandy.
Drinkers worldwide owe a lot to the English because while the English can produce a fine warm beer they have a long history of seeking out stiffer drinks. French wine merchants have always benefited, as did the Spanish and Portuguese when English merchants purchased boatloads of their products. Upon return to London with the ship’s hold full of barrels of spirits, they needed a way to categorize it. For cognac, the terms merchants used were VS (very special), VSOP (very special old pale) and XO (extra old).
These terms are still applied to bottles of cognac and nowadays, they are even enshrined in French production laws. VS means that the brandy was aged for at least two years; VSOP is aged for four years; and XO means aged at least six years.
All aging is done in French oak barrels, and the final brandy is always a blend of different vintages with the average age being either equal to or greater than that noted on the bottle.
While VS, VSOP and XO are the most noticeable classifiers on the bottle, they also note their area of production and if they were blended from two different areas.
Think of the Cognac region as the container for all cognac. In that container, there are six different regions. Confusingly, the best quality regions in Cognac are called Grande and Petite Champagne. In this instance, it helps to know a little French. In French, champagne means countryside. So the best cognac-growing areas are “best countryside” and “little countryside.” The other four regions are Borderies (the edges); Fin Bois (edge of the woods); Bon Bois (good woods); and Bois Ordinaires (ordinary woods). And finally to complicate it just a little more, the word “fine” on the label means the spirit from two neighboring regions were blended together in the final product.
Put this all together and we can interpret a bottle of cognac labeled as a VSOP from Fine Grande Champagne as a brandy that was aged for at least four years and is a blend of mostly spirit from the best countryside.
Cognac is almost as strong as whisky, about 40 percent alcohol, but it is fruitier and slightly sweet. Younger cognacs will have citrus and floral aromas while older cognacs will smell and taste like caramel and toffee. They are traditionally consumed after a meal and served without ice in a brandy snifter.
Cognacs are not cheap, and quality VS will cost about $35, while an XO will start at about $70 and can go all the way to $2 million for a 100-year-old brandy in a crystal bottle that is dipped in 24k gold and platinum and covered with 6,500 diamonds.
David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.