Cognac 101

What is Cognac?
Cognac is a brandy!
Ok, so what is brandy??

The “Wine Lover’s Companion” defines brandy as, “liquor distilled from wine and aged in wood, which contributes flavor and color.”

That being said, it is also generally thought that a brandy can be made from fermented fruits other than grapes. Such products are generally qualified by adding the name of the fruit, as with the apple-based Calvados – considered an “apple brandy”.

The name brandy is derived from the Dutch word brandywijn (or brandewijin); meaning “burned (distilled) wine”. Distillation is thought to have been created by the Arabs, sometime around 3500 B.C.. Basically, it entails purifying a liquid by boiling it and condensing its vapors. The distillation of alcohol is based on the fact that alcohol and water boil at different temperatures, water at 100 degrees Celsius and alcohol at about 78.3 degrees Celsius. I will save the details of the whole distillation process for another day – suffice to say, that for our purposes right now, a brandy is made when:

(a) Wine is heated
(b) First vapors released – those containing the alcoholic constituents – are collected and cooled
(c) Vapors are then condensed into an alcoholic liquid.

This is how all brandies are made! The finest brandies are Cognacs!      

Just as it is true to say that “all Champagne is sparkling wine, but all sparkling wine is not Champagne”, we are also equally correct to state that “all Cognac is brandy but not all brandy is Cognac”.

Just as a Champagne MUST come from the Champagne region, a Cognac MUST come from the area of Cognac, located in Western France – about one hundred miles north of Bordeaux. As the world’s top brandy, Cognac has a reputation to protect, and thus strict rules have been put in place and enforced by the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controllee). To protect consumers and prevent fraud and adulteration, the AOC stringently controls such things as the designated growing area, the permissible grape varieties, the whole distillation method and finally the aging process. Some of the important facts pertaining to Cognac include:

• It is the product of primarily three white grapes, Ugni-Blanc (called Trebbiano in Italy, and the main component of most Cognacs), Folle Blanche & Colombard.
• The base wine that these grapes combine to make is a rather light, highly acidic, low alcohol product – not a drinkable table wine, by any means, but perfect for the production of Cognac
• Cognac is double distilled
• There is a legal minimum period of oak aging for a brandy to be considered a Cognac (2.5 years) – this aging must be done in only certain types of French oak.

Cognac makers rarely use vintage years as identification, instead opting to use letter designations to classify their products. It is important to know that a Cognac can only be designated with the classification of the youngest cognac used in the blend. This lettering system works as follows:

*VS   - Very Special - must be aged a minimum of two and a half years in barrel
*VSOP – Very Superior/Special Old Pale – w/ minimum four and a half years in barrel
*XO – Extra Old (a.k.a. Napoleon) - minimum six and a half years in barrel

Some of the best Cognacs are the result of blending 50 or more different cognacs (from different vintages and ages) with the ultimate goal being to create and maintain a uniform standard of taste and quality. Remy Martin’s top offering – Louis XIII – claims to contain no less than 1200 different cognacs, ranging in age from 40-100 years old (see below)!       

Cognac differs from other brandies in that it has a more perfumed nose, deeper flavors and a much longer aftertaste. For these reasons expect to pay more for these delicate and complex brandies. For ultimate pleasure enjoy a Cognac in a tulip shaped glass, called a snifter, as this vessel contains the aromas and releases them softly and progressively throughout the tasting. And please, do not recommend that consumers use anything other than the palm of their hands to warm the cognac, as alternate methods like heating the glass with lighters or boiling water only results in having all the desired aromatic components evaporate!              

Some of the Cognacs that the NLC is presently offering include:
Courvoisier VS Cognac         Sku 2396        $48.99
Remy Martin VSOP Cognac   Sku 1383        $79.98
Hennessy XO                       Sku 11516      $239.01

… and finally, the crème de la crème of COGNACs……

Remy Martin “Louis XIII” Cognac, Sku 10741  $2650.00 - which believe it or not is an excellent deal when you consider that the exact same bottle is $3100.00 at the LCBO in Ontario!

In a past life – my waitering years – we used to affectionately call this product “Louis – treize”, and when found in an establishment (i.e. Christians on George Street) you can expect to pay hundreds of dollars per ounce! I hope that you all get a chance to enjoy one of these luxurious after dinner drinks at some point in the near future – remember to sip and savor, allowing the Cognac to slowly pass over your palate so you can fully enjoy its complex aromas, flavors and texture!

Andrew Facey
Senior Product Knowledge Consultant