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 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.
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 is used in Cognac making. The rules of Cognac are pretty strict and it’s production process goes back about 300 years. The juice has to be 90% Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche or Colombard grapes. Ugni Blanc is preferred because it is a strong breed. It is resistant to grey rot (a disease that can be disastrous to a harvest) and has good acidity and low alcohol levels. 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.
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%.
Understanding 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 ageing 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.
Napoléon, X.O (Extra Old), or Hors D’âge: 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 year of production). The year will be stated on the label. These are quite rare.
The more ageing, the higher your cost.
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).