All Cognacs are brandies but not all brandies are Cognacs! Only those made in the region of Cognac in France can be labelled as such under AOC laws.
Cognac is created by distilling a low alcohol wine made predominantly from the Ugni Blanc grape. The distillation process takes place in a unique copper pot called a Charentais still, and by law, the wine must be twice distilled before March 31st following the harvest at a level of no more than 72.4% ABV (alcohol by volume).
Six white varieties are allowed in Cognac, but Ugni Blanc rules with 98% of vineyard plantings. It is highly prized as the ideal brandy wine because of its high acidity, low sugar, and its resistance to disease which comes in handy since the use of Sulfur Dioxide (a preservative that most winemakers use to keep their wines free of bacteria and oxidation) is forbidden. Ugni Blanc originates from Italy where it is known as Trebbiano. The other varieties allowed are Folle Blanche, Colombard, Semillion, Folignan and Montis.
Despite the dominance of Ugni Blanc, Cognac is a blend. Master blenders craft it by blending brandies from various vintages, varieties and even vineyards.
The vineyards are planted around the town of Cognac in legally defined areas named "Crus". There are 6 crus in the region: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fin Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire. Although a subject of debate, the best grapes for Cognac are said to emanate from the two Champagne areas and from Borderies.
It is mandatory for Cognac to be aged in oak barrels for at least two years prior to its release. Producers prefer 2 oak species, Q. Sessiflora from the Tronçais Forest and Q. Robur from the Limousin Forest. Each contributes different elements to the final product and most producers will use of combination of both for the ageing process.
When purchasing Cognac, if the label states VS (Very Special) or 3-star, it means the youngest spirit of the blend is at least 2 years old. VSOP (Very Special Pale Reserve) or Reserve, the youngest spirit is at least 4 years old. Napoléon, XO (Extra Old) or Hors d’Âge, the youngest spirit is at least 6 years old but the law is due to change in 2016 to bring that number up to 10 years.
As Cognac (and other alcoholic beverages) ages in barrels, a portion of the spirit naturally evaporates and that is called the Angel’s Share. If you have ever wondered why angels always seem so happy, it might be because every year, approximately 20 million bottles of Cognac vaporize into the heavens…
Although some Rap Artists adore their mature Cognacs, 80% of worldwide sales are of VS & VSOP. To this day, the majority of the market is ruled by 4 houses that were established centuries ago, Martell (1715), Rémy Martin (1724), Hennessy (1765) and Courvoisier (1843).
Unlike wine, Cognac (and other spirits) stops ageing once bottled in glass so there is no sense in keeping it around forever...!
During a recent studio session, someone poured me a little Hennessy VS with a few drops of water prior to recording. The silky nectar coated my vocal chords beautifully... Maybe those rappers are onto something after all!
While sipping on your favorite Cognac, let Francis Cabrel's "Je l'aime à mourir" lull you...