What makes a brandy a Cognac?
How exactly does Cognac differ from any other brandy, save where it’s bottled? In French eyes at least, to be labelled Cognac is an honour that has to be earned. The rules and regulations applied to Cognac production could fill a novel, but can be broadly summarised as follows:
- Grapes: The “virtually undrinkable” base wine from which Cognac is made must come from very specific grapes. At least 90% must be ugni blanc, folle blanche and/or colombard, while six other grapes are permitted for the remaining 10%.
- Distillation: The crushed grapes must be fermented with wild yeasts native to Cognac for 2-3 weeks, before being twice distilled in copper pots to an alcohol level of around 70%.
- Ageing: Cognac must be aged in Limousin oak for at least two years before it can be sold to the public. During this time “the angels take their share”, (in French, la part des anges) and alcohol levels decrease to around 40%.
- Blending: The master taster of the house blends various brandies of different ages to achieve a deep, rich, and house-specific flavour. The age grading of the Cognac blend is determined by its youngest component. V.S. Cognacs have been aged for a minimum of two years, V.S.O.P. for four, Napoleon for six, and XO for 10.
Encapsulating the Cognac experience
But what is the quintessential Cognac experience? Cradling your snifter of Cognac (the drink’s purpose-built, amusingly named glass) in your hand, your nose will likely be reminded of a single malt scotch, albeit one that has a thin slice of fruitcake swimming in it. This smell translates to the tongue, with flowery, citrusy and oaky notes at the start, and deeply flavourful dried fruits to finish. A sweet burn unique to Cognac follows the liquid down the throat.
There will be obvious differences between the likes of V.S. and XO Cognacs, mostly in the depth, complexity and intensity of flavour. While the label and the age of the Cognac will have the greatest effect on its taste, serious connoisseurs know that the serving temperature shouldn’t be overlooked. Serving Cognac slightly chilled will highlight its barrel flavours and spice notes, while a room temperature Cognac will offer up far more fruit.
- If you see “Fine Champagne” on a restaurant menu in Cognac, don’t expect bubbles – these are actually brandies from the Champagne region of Cognac.
- While there are almost 200 Cognac producers, the four major houses – Martell, Remy Martin, Courvoisier and Hennessy – make up around 90% of the region’s total exports.
- Surprisingly, the French aren’t that enamoured with Cognac. It suffers from an old-fashioned image in its home country, to the degree that one bottle of Cognac is sold for every 80 bottles of whisky.