Brandy is to wine as whiskey is to beer. Where whisk(e)y is distilled from fermented grains — whether they be wheat, corn, or rye — brandy is distilled from fermented fruit, most typically grapes; however, apples, cherries, pears, plums, and raspberries are also used. Typically, the fruit is crushed to remove its juice, which is then fermented to make fruit wine. The wine is then distilled to make brandy. The word “brandy” originates from the Dutch term for “burned wine”, brandewijn, which refers to the process of heating the wine in a still to produce alcohol vapours. Once distilled, depending on the type of brandy, it can be transferred to casks for maturation.
The old adage goes that all Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac. So what makes Cognac, Cognac? Terroir, of course — that unique set of circumstances and conditions present in the region in which it is made. Further to this is the ancient, artisanal process by which the stuff is made and aged. And price. Cognacs are a might more expensive than your run-of-the-mill brandies, including Armagnac. The cheapest Cognac that’s worth bringing to your lips is north of $60 at the LCBO, and — trust me — you can spend a lot more (save your pennies for a gorgeous bottle of Hennessy’s “Richard Hennessy Extra Cognac”… it’s an eye watering $5916.)
Cognac is named after a town in le département de la Charente, which is situated to the north of Bordeaux and inland from the Atlantic coast of France. The region of Cognac technically falls into two départements — Charente-Martine and Charente. The Cognac region is tucked in between the ocean and the mountains and plateaus of Massif Central, thus benefiting from both oceanic and continental climates. Here Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes are grown in the chalky, loam and clay soils that contribute to Cognac’s distinctive qualities. The fermented juice from these grapes is double distilled in special Alembic Charentais pot stills, then transferred to Limousin or Tronçais oak casks and aged for a minimum of two years.
By law, Very Special (VS) Cognac is aged for at least 2½ years; Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP) for at least 4½; and Extra Old (XO) for a minimum of 6½ years. TAEOSS, or Turbo Awesome Extra Old and Super Special, is aged a minimum of 50½ years in casks that once contained the blood of Jeanne d’Arc and/or Charles VII.
Nearly all Cognac is a blend of brandies of varying ages from one or more of the six Cognac crus, the top ones being: Grande Champagne, Petit Champagne and Borderies. Some say that no truly awesome Cognac can be produced without including a proportion of very old brandy (generally 25 to 60 years), which adds a pungent, earthy character. If a Cognac claims to be aged a specific number of years, that number is the average age of all the brandies that went into the blend, whereas the VS/VSOP/XO designations refer to the youngest brandy in the blend.
Currently Cognac is not well represented in my liquor cabinet, as you can see below.
The Liquor Cabinet:
- Pierre Ferrand 1840 1er Cru de Cognac Grande Champagne Cognac
My wishlist, on the other hand, is better stocked.
- Hine Rare VSOP Fine Champagne Cognac
- De Luze XO Fine Champagne Cognac
- Baron Otard VSOP Cognac
Armagnac, apple brandy, and eau-de-vie to be included shortly…