Just as it is with fine wine, to understand fine Cognacs one must understand the geography of the region. Since it starts out as a wine,
the location in which the grapes are grown has an effect on the final product and those growing regions have a very definite hierarchy in
Cognac. Arranged much like a series of concentric circles, the very best growing area is surrounded by increasingly larger areas which produce
grapes of progressively lower quality. The "heart" is called Grande Champagne and it has no relationship with the sparkling wine other than a
similarity in soil types. The earth in both regions is very high in calcium content and it nurtures grapevines very reluctantly. The resulting wine
is high in acid, low in alcohol and shows very little fruit flavor; the perfect beginning to a fine brandy (and, surprisingly, for a fine Champagne!).
The region located around the heart is called Petite Champagne and its grapes rival that of Grande Champagne. Some fine Co!gnacs carry a
designation of "Fine Champagne" on their labels; that is permitted only if all the brandies therein were made from grapes grown in either
of the two best areas and at least 50% came from Grande Champagne. The next area on the hierarchy of quality is the Borderies which
can produce Cognacs of considerable intensity; less subtle and delicate than the two Champagnes, but very useful in the blending process.
Then come the Fin Bois, Bon Bois and the Bois Communes, areas which produce a lot of Cognac, but little finds its way to our shores.
In Cognac, the wine is distilled twice; the first time to a "low spirit" of about 30% alcohol by volume and to a minimum of 60% on the second
distillation. All this is done in pot stills, batch by batch, rather than in a continuous column-type still which is used to make many American whiskies.
In a fine Cognac, only the middle of a distillation run will be used in the final product; both the beginning and the end are sold off and used to make
fruit or mixing brandies. This raw, new brandy is called an "eau de vie" (water of life), and it requires a lot of time to mature into the smooth, mellow
spirit we've come to expect.
Time spent in oak barrels while distilled water is added in steps to cut the concentration is a key tool in determining just what kind of Cognac is
finally bottled. It is also one of the least understood aspects to selecting a product for purchase. All of us have heard claims of this Cognac being "a
hundred years old", or that one being "one of the great prewar Cognacs", and so forth. The reality is that the laws governing the production of
Cognac only regulate the aging brandies for their first six years of maturity. Beyond that, a consumer must rely upon the reputation of the maker and
their own palate to determine if the quality/price ratio is fair. Terminology regarding the maturity of a Cognac is also confusing since, here again,
French law has little to say on the subject: a VS/ Three Star Cognac need only be 2 years old; a VSOP just 4 years old and an XO/Napoleon
has a minimum age requirement of just 6 years. In practice, most fine Cognacs with those designations are much older, but don't believe the hype
regarding ancient Cognacs; they are blends and spirits of many different maturities have likely found their way into the bottle.
By the way, Cognac may not be sold as a vintage-dated product, except under special circumstances which were "grandfathered" under the laws.
And don't forget: time spent in oak barrels is the only way a Cognac ages; once it's put into glass, the maturing process ceases.
A Cognac bottled in 1946 will taste today the same way it tasted back then; it won't go bad, but neither will it improve.
I believe that the key to selecting fine Cognacs is to recognize that each producer tries to create a "house" style which appeals to their perceived
market. Cognacs can range from delicate and ethereal to hearty and rustic, so you'll need to sample some to find which type suits you best.
I love lists, so I'll attempt to classify the most popular and widely-available Cognacs into categories which will assist you. I'll also make some
recommendations regarding specific Cognacs which I believe best represent their category.
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By aging their Cognacs in well-used oak, a producer can achieve a lightness and delicacy which is very appealing to many consumers,
particularly those who are trying Cognac for the first time. Here are some recommendations of that type:
Delamain Pale & Dry (Grande Champagne): This is an excellent starting point for anyone; the Cognac is soft from long maturation
(average is over 20 years old), and it's pale in color and very smooth and elegant.
Hine Antique (Fine Champagne): The age of this Cognac contributes to its lightness; it's well over 20 years old, and while some oak does
show, the suppleness is obvious.
The producers in this category are attempting to achieve a roundness coupled with a lot of good fruit flavors and aromas.
Cheaper brands do this with the addition of sugar, (8 grams/liter is permitted), but the ones listed below gain their balance through high-quality
grapes and careful aging.
Martell Cordon Bleu : Drawing on a judicious use of brandies from the Borderies, this is an aromatic, yet very mellow and smooth Cognac
with an average age of 25 years.
Courvoisier VSOP (Fine Champagne): Definitely the bargain in this category; it is almost full-bodied (the Courvoisier "house" style), yet
retains a lightness which makes it very versatile. The average age is over 10 years.
Hennessy XO: They invented the term "XO", so it's not a surprise that they make such a good one. Relatively young, (about 10 years old), but
deeply complex and very satisfying.
At first, it may seen that every Cognac is full-bodied, but putting them side-by-side can quickly demonstrate that's not the case. This category does,
however, represent most of the Cognacs on the market. Hopefully these recommendations will help separate some of the "wheat from the chaff":
Bisquit Napoleon: It's not so much the "weight" of this which makes it full-bodied, but more the intense fruitiness and full flavor
which makes it so hearty. The average age is about 22 years.
Marcel Ragnaud Reserve Speciale (Grande Champagne): A true "estate" Cognac with an average age of 20 years, this is an
exceptional value. Full and fruity with a bit of creamy vanilla oak coming through, it's thoroughly enjoyable.
The Luxury Cognacs
This is the stuff of legends; some true and some not. Can a bottle of anything be worth a thousand dollars? Well, yes and no.
If you've got the money, these are great, but if you don't, most of the thrills can still be found in a hundred-dollar bottle from the
Remy Martin Louis XIII (Grande Champagne): Yes, it's a blend of very old Cognacs - in fact the youngest is over fifty - and yes, it's as
smooth as they come. If price is no object, this will fill the bill.
Courvoiser Initiale (Grande Champagne): It's not just the fabulous bottles they put this in (a set of 8 Erte bottles has sold for over $15,000
at auction) , but the quality of the Cognac itself. Round and supple with soft fruit overtones, it can hold its own against all comers.
Delamain Tres Venerables (Grande Champagne): Retaining its signature lightness, yet reflecting its 75+ years of aging, this is
a Cognac for special occasions at a (relative) bargain price.
Hine Triomphe (Grande Champagne): Another "bargain", this is made from Cognacs which are hand-selected from stocks at least
45 years old. Smooth and deeply complex with little wood showing through.
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Located south of Cognac in the Gascony region of France, Armagnac is home to a more fiery, rustic brandy which is gaining a lot of
popularity because those qualities. The primary difference between Cognac and Armagnac is the distillation process.
Armagnac is usually distilled just once to a lower alcohol strength (about 50%) which leaves in a lot more flavors from the
grapes which carry with them the "taste" of the soil in which they were grown. This earthiness is particularly appealing when an
Armagnac is matched with dessert, such as a plum souffle.
Much like Cognac, Armagnac has specific growing regions: Haut Armagnac, Bas Armagnac and Tenerze, but most would agree that
the Bas Armagnac produces the finest brandies. Vintage-dated Armagnacs are produced, but the blends seem to be the most readily
available and the most consistent, so be wary of paying a big premium just because the bottle carries an old date on it.
Here are some recommendations:
Chateau de Tariquet XO (Bas Armagnac): For my money, this is far and away the best Armagnac I've ever tasted. Smooth and
mellow, yet with the underlying "country" flavors of the region, it's a true bargain.
Larressingle VSOP: Made in a middle-of-the-road style, this is the "crowd-pleaser" of the group. Good fruit flavors come through in a
medium- to full-bodied style. It averages about 8 years of age.
Samalens XO (Bas Armagnac): Produced in a continuous-column still, this is a fiery, earthy, yet elegant brandy which amply
demonstrates the skill with which it was made. Hard to find, but worth the effort.