Many may find drinking Cognac to be an “acquired” taste, but a fine Cognac makes a great after-dinner drink. Good Cognac is traditionally served in a heated brandy snifter (25 cl), although lately, the word in the industry is that a good tulip-shaped glass is better for Cognac. This change has come about because the shape of the tulip glass is better to capture the scents of the Cognac. Why drink Cognac? It’s delicious and is a nice accompaniment with dessert, espresso, or a freshly brewed cup of coffee. Today, we’ll give you a brief history and outline on Cognac and go through what our staff thinks are the top 10 Cognacs and the top 5 value Cognacs for the money.
What is Cognac?
Cognac is a type of brandy is named after the French town of Cognac where it is produced. The Cognac region is close-knit. There are only about 5,000 grape growers producing the white wine grapes that are used in Cognac making. The rules of Cognac are pretty strict and it’s production process goes back about 300 years.
Cognac Production Rules
Cognac Grape Varietals: The juice used to make up Cognac has to be made up of a minimum of 90% Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard grapes. Ugni Blanc is preferred because it is a strong breed. It is resistant to gray rot (a disease that can be disastrous to a harvest) and has good acidity and low alcohol levels.
Cognac Distillation: These are things that are looked for in making a good Cognac. Once the wine is produced, it must be twice distilled in copper stills and then aged for a minimum of two years in French oak.
Difference Between Cognac & Brandi: While brandy can be made from various fruits, Cognac is only made from high-quality grapes from the Cognac region of France, and along with age, it is the precise part of the Cognac region that determines the best Cognac.
The Cognac Harvest
The 5,000 grape growers plant their vines almost 10 feet apart. Traditionally, these grapes were hand-harvested, but it is a lot more economical to harvest with machines. The harvest takes place usually in October when the grapes are ripe. This may change over time as climate change takes a toll on the region.
How Cognac is Made
As soon as the grapes are harvested, they are pressed. In Cognac adding sugar is forbidden in the Cognac making process. There is even an entire entity called the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac) that is in charge of making sure these laws are followed.
Around a week after fermentation starts, the wine will have a lower alcohol level (around 9%). At this point, the juice is ready for distillation. This process must be done before the next year on March 31st in order for the product to be called Cognac.
After distillation, Cognac must be aged. Cognac is aged in oak barrels. It is the contact with these barrels that gives Cognac its color, flavor, and smell.
A master blender is in charge of creating a beautiful Cognac. It is the master blender who will watch over the eau-de-vie, taste and decide if it needs to be moved from one oak barrel to another. The master blender is also responsible for making sure the alcohol level of the Cognac is at 40%.
How to Understand a Cognac Label
Just like wine, there are certain terms that will help you when purchasing a Cognac label. Cognacs cannot be sold until they have aged in oak for a minimum of two years starting at the end of distillation (since that ends on March 31, this period begins on April 1st after the harvest). These are the aging terms associated with Cognac:
V.S. (Very Special): The youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is two years old.
V.SO.P. (Very Superior Old Pale): The youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is four years old.
Napoleon, X.O (Extra Old), or Hors D’Ã¢ge: The youngest eau-de-vie is six years old.
Vintage Cognac: This means that that Cognac was made with eaux-de-vie from a single harvest (only on the year of production). The year will be stated on the label. These are quite rare.
The longer time the Cognac spends aging, the higher you will pay for the Cognac.
Who are the World’s Largest Cognac Producers?
Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier – the smallest of the big four houses, and bought by U.S.-based Fortune Brands Inc in 2005 in the joint breakup with Pernod Ricard of Britain’s Allied Domecq. Martell is the world’s third-biggest, Remy Martin the second, and Hennessy is number one. You will see some of their spirits make our top 10 Cognac list.
The industry has historically seen growth from two-year-old VS cognacs mainly to the U.S. according to Reuters, but recently growth has come from four-year-old Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP) and six-year-old Extra Old (XO) cognacs, largely in eastern Asia.
Interestingly enough, the growth of Cognac in Asia has greatly impacted the industry. Many of the top end Cognacs are very hard to find in the US because they are in allocation to the Chinese market. It is said that 80% of consumption comes from Asia, although this has recently dropped off after a corruption crackdown in the country led to less gifting of Cognac in business. Sales in the US saw an almost 8% rise in 2014.
Some of the world’s finest cognacs sell for tens of thousands of dollars a bottle. I chose what I believe to be the most reasonably priced for the top five picks (without the influence of Cognac coupons).
Top 5 Best Cognacs For The Money
1. Hennessy XO (Extra Old)
$120 to $200 a bottle – 750ML.
A six-year old cognac.
This cognac was created by Maurice Hennessy in 1870. X.O was at the time a new form of cognac: gutsy, full bodied and elegant. Some of the 100 eaux-de-vie used to make X.O were aged for 30 years, making it bold. Maurice Hennessy named it X.O as in “Extra Old”cognac. Hennessy XO has notes of candied fruit on the tongue and spice on the nose. It is smooth and warm with hints of cacao with a long finish. We recommend you drink it neat, or with a dash of still water.
2. Remy Martin XO (Extra Old)
$120 to $200 a bottle – 750ML.
A six-year-old cognac.
Remy Martin’s XO – Extra Old Cognac – is known for its floral and fruity notes. On the mouth, it is velvety and lush. It is a blend of Cognac Fine Champagne, Grande Champagne, and Petite Champagne. As you drink it, you will taste juicy figs, candied tangerines and get aromas of jasmine. There is even a hint of cloves and cinnamon. Enjoy this in a snifter during very (very) special occasions.
3. Remy Martin VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale)
$50 a bottle 750ML.
A four-year-old cognac. Remy is the worlds best-selling VSOP cognac. Remy Martin was founded in 1724. The Remy Martin VSOP is composed of Cognac Fine Champagne, Grande Champagne, and Petite Champagne. It alludes to flavors ripe peaches and smells of violets. This is a great Cognac for cocktails. Try out a VSOP Sazerac.
4. Courvoisier VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale)
$50 a bottle – 750ML.
Courvoisier VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) four-year-old Cognac is made with a blend of cognacs up to 10 years old from two of the finest crus in the Cognac area. The blend consists of 50% Grande Champagne grapes and Petite Champagne grapes, this means it can carry the Fine Champagne’ designation. It is luscious on the mouth and jammy. It has touches of vanilla and a bit of a funk in the end. This is a great every day Cognac.
5. Hennessy VS Cognac (Very Special)
$30 a bottle – 750ML
A two year-old cognac. If you’re going to drink the least aged cognac, why not buy it from the top house. On the nose, Hennessy’s VS is all about fruit and oak. On the mouth, it tastes a bit like marzipan. This bottle is one of the best values out there.
Now, just for fun, let’s look at what StyleCrave’s Joe Wertz claims are the 10 Most Expensive Cognacs Ever Bottled.
10 Most Expensive Cognacs Ever Bottled
10. $5,000 Courvoisier L’Esprit Decanter
Made from a variety of blends, some which date back to Napoleon I, Courvoisier’s L’Esprit is smoky and rich, with fragrances of cinnamon and dried apricot flowers. The flavor is initially powerful but has a mellow aftertaste.
9. $5,500 Jenssen Arcana
Aged 98 years in Oak barrels, Jenssen’s Arcana is powerful, “extraordinarily”concentrated and only bottled, sealed and certified upon request. It is an exceptional cognac and having it would be a truly unique experience.
8. $6,000 Hine Triomphe Talent De Thomas Hine Crystal Decanter
Each bottle of Hine’s high-end Talent de Thomas is bottled in a Baccarat decanter and placed within an actual cigar humidor made from Maccasar ebony and Honduran Mahogany which helps preserve the spirit’s delicate floral bouquet.
7. $6,400 Frapin Cuvee 1888
A rare blend of Cognacs from Frapin’s reserves, the Cuvee is bottled beneath a 24-karat gold stopper in a twisty crystal decanter that looks like a prop from a community Shakespeare staging. Flowery flavors combine with sweet spices, honey and toasted vanilla notes.
6. $7,500 Martell Creation Cognac In Handcarved Baccarat Decanter
Martell’s rare cognac is a “reinterpretation”of a batch first casked at the start of the 19th century. The Grand Extra has a soft flavor that starts as dried fruit and marmalade and fades into notes of walnuts and cedarwood.
5. $7,900 Le Voyage de Delamain
A blend of cognacs from Delamain, Le Voyage was bottled in 500 crystal decanters, most of which were quickly bought or reserved by eager collectors. It’s rumored to have a complex taste that fades from Russian leather to tobacco, coffee and Eastern spices.
4. $12,900 Hardy Perfection 140 years Cognac
Supposedly the “World’s oldest known unblended cognac,”this offering from Hardy was limited to 300 Daum crystal decanters. It’s an exceedingly rare cognac that is said to taste of coffee, chocolate and oak.
3. $55,000 Remy Martin Cognac Black Pearl Louis XIII
When you swish Remy Martin’s deep amber-colored Black Pearl Louis XIII around in your mouth, you’re actually tasting 1,200 40 to 100-year old cognacs blended together. The swill is said to smell of flowers, fruits and spices, it’s flavor a mixture of ginger, cinnamon and Cuban cigars.
2. $200,000 Hennessy Beaute du Siecle Cognac
Insert a bronze key, turn, and Hennessy’s Baccarat crystal-bottled Beaute du Siecle rises up on a tray. Housed in a melted aluminum and mirrored glass case this mixture is blended from Hennessy’s reserves of 47 to 100-year-old cognacs.
1. $2 million Henri IV, Cognac Grande Champagne
An elixir mixed since 1776 by the direct descendants of King Henri IV, each batch of Henri IV Dudognon Heritage is aged in a barrel for more than 100 years and capped inside a 24-karat gold-dipped and 6,500 diamond-bejeweled bottle.