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Unlike, vodka or bourbon, say, a bottle of Cognac might seem excessively complicated to the uninitiated. There are the random letters on the labels that somehow signify age, followed by a list of regions and departments named for other parts of France, not to mention the grape varieties and oak sources…it’s a lot to take in.
You might say to yourself: What’s the point? There are so many easier things to drink.
And yet, if you talk to someone who loves Cognac, there’s so much affection surrounding this storied and downright delicious spirit.
At its simplest level, Cognac is just brandy with a unique provenance and a handful rules that need to be followed. The reason sophisticates love Cognac, however, is because no other spirit so combines agriculture with history, old-world techniques with modern alchemy. The result is a spirit extremely complex, evoking not just a unique sense of place, but one of the past too.
It’s worth cracking some of the code to gain a little insight into what so many find so beguiling. So take a few minutes to read up on how to decode the label and to understand where this spirit is made; not only will it make Cognac a more approachable spirit, it will make it easier to enjoy as well.
Cognac is Brandy, Brandy is Only Sometimes Cognac
According to French law, (the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC), Cognac is a brandy distilled from wine made from grapes, in the region surrounding the tiny town of Cognac. Similar to Champagne, if it’s not produced within Cognac’s six “crus” (geographic grape-growing areas) in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments of southwestern France, then it may be brandy, and it may still taste good, but it’s certainly not Cognac.
Cognac Predates Whiskey
The creation of Cognac dates back to the 16th century, when Dutch merchants, who’d traveled to southwestern France to purchase salt and other goods, were looking to find a way to preserve the French wine they loved on their journey back to the Netherlands. Distilling it once did the trick. Distilling it a second time, though, created a truly delicious “brandewijn” (burnt wine), or brandy. By the late-17th century, even Londoners would know this product as “Cogniak.”
Only Certain Grapes Need Apply
Only three grape varieties are permitted in the production of Cognac: Ugni Blanc (the most widely used by far), Folle Blanche, and Colombard. Following strict AOC guidelines, the grapes must be harvested in October, fermented for a couple weeks using native wild yeast, and then distilled in the five months between November 1 and March 31. The white base wine is only about 8% alcohol by volume and said to be dry, acidic, and pretty much undrinkable—the magic happens post-distillation.
Rules Rules Rules
Highly-regulated Cognac must be double-distilled in Charentais copper alembic pot stills. Then, the distillate must then be aged for at least two years in oak barrels, but it’s often matured for much, much longer. Even the casks come with stipulations: they must be made from French oak harvested from either the Limousin or Tronçais forests of central and southwest France.
Eau de Vie: The Caterpillar that Will Soon Be a Butterfly
Acknowledging the process that must be followed, Cognac distillers have a name for each step of the way. The first distillation produces what is known as brouillis. The second distillation is where eau de vie (literally, “water of life”) is born. Before going into the barrels, this eau de vie is colorless and has a very faint fruit flavor. The most traditional distillers will still call the spirit eau de vie even after it’s been aged, reserving the name Cognac for after the final blend has been made.
The Blend is Greater than the Sum of its Parts
Whereas whiskey is often blended from a few dozen barrels, Cognac tends to be composed of hundreds of eaux de vie of varying ages. It’s this blending that makes for Cognacs undeniably complex flavor profile and depth of character. Rémy Martin XO, for example, is blended from around 400 eaux de vie. This is why the Cellar Master, the person who does the blending, is such a critical job in the world of Cognac—every bit as important as the Wine Master and Master Distiller. In many cases, a cellar master like Rémy Martin’s Baptiste Loiseau, is working with treasures handed down from many generations of distillers and cellar masters.
Learn the Lingo
Deciphering the acronyms on a bottle of Cognac isn’t as daunting as it seems. The letters on a label are there to indicate the age of the Cognac. A little memorization is all that’s required. V.S. or “Very Special,” means the brandy has been aged at least two years. A bottle labeled V.S.O.P. or “Very Superior Old Pale” contains Cognac that’s cleared the four year mark. XO is “Extra Old” and has achieved ten years. And then there’s “Hors d’age”…which probably means it’s so old you can’t afford it.
Rémy Martin Was a Visionary
Born in Rouillac in southwestern France in 1695, Martin was a winegrower in Cognac when, at the ripe young age of 29 he began selling Cognac under his own name. It quickly became one of the first brands to really establish itself amongst locals. His brandy was so revered that King Louis XV honored Martin by giving him the written rights to plant new vines in the region, a rare honor for the time. By the mid-1800s, Paul-Emile-Rémy Martin brought the brand into the modern day, selling Cognac to the world over—remarkably, today the U.S. buys more Cognac than any other place on planet earth.
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