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In France, a spirit distilled from wine is known as eau-de-vie, or “water of life.” At the top of the large and diverse eau-de-vie category stands cognac, the king of brandies.

Cognac takes its name from the town of Cognac, on the Charente River, north of Bordeaux and about 250 miles southwest of Paris. Cognac, and its sister brandy Armagnac, have always been a hard sell in the United States, making up a tiny percentage of the overall wine market. For the past three years, though, cognac sales have shown consecutive gains, especially in the U.S., the traditional market leader, with China closing in fast.

According to statistics from the beverage tracking organization, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), sales of all brandy in the United States were up 5.4 percent in 2016, with cognac accounting for 39 percent of that gain by volume and 71 percent by value. High-end cognac sales were up even higher at 16 percent, a surprising number considering that many of these cognacs sell for hundreds of dollars. Domestic brandy sales are also showing new life, spurred in part by Gallo’s recent purchase of Germain-Robin, the premium California brandy distiller.

What separates cognac from other French eau-de-vie, such as Armagnac and Calvados, are important indicators like geography, soils, grapes, distillation methods and the source of the oak used in the aging barrels.

The Cognac region lies near the Atlantic Ocean, allowing for a moderating maritime influence. The six producing areas, known locally as crus, are in irregular concentric circles, centered around the town of Cognac, from the most highly rated Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne to the lowest rated Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. Soils vary from limestone and chalk in Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, flint and heavy clay in Borderies and Fins Bois, to porous sand and clay in Bois Ordinaires. The name champagne comes from the French word for chalky soil, but in the Champagne region, northeast of Paris, the name translates as Campagna, or open plain.

Ugni blanc (called trebbiano in Italy) accounts for 90 percent of the grapes used in the production of cognac, with folle blanche, colombard and semillon used by some houses in their blends. The base is a thin, dry white wine, of about 8 percent alcohol, with good acidity but not high in varietal character. A double distillation is required by law in Charentais copper alembic stills or pot stills. After distillation, the colorless eau-de-vie is about 70 percent alcohol and ready to be aged in oak barrels.

Aging is mostly in Limousin oak barrels, although some houses also use Troncais oak. The minimum aging is two years, which applies to Very Special (VS of 3 Stars). Moving up the aging scale, Very Special Old Pale (VSOP) or Reserve is aged for a minimum of four years; Extra Old (XO) and Napoleon for six years. Hors d’Age (Beyond Age) is an odd category that must legally be aged the same as XO, or six years, although many cognac houses oak-age their high-end cognacs much longer. In fact, most houses exceed the required minimums. The Bureau National Interprofessionnel de Cognac (BNIC) has decreed that in April 2018, the minimum aging for XO increases to 10 years and Napoleon Cognac stays at six years.

Years and years of aging high-alcohol spirits has had a noticeable impact on the town of Cognac, a phenomenon common to all places where spirits are matured. As newly distilled eau-de-vie slowly ages in oak casks, water and alcohol evaporate at the rate of about 3 percent each year. Aided by humidity and temperature, the evaporating alcohol causes an unsightly fungus, known as Torula compniacensis, to form on the walls of buildings near the aging cellars. The unsightly black façade is the visible downside of making wine spirits, but it also a badge of pride for the town of Cognac. The evaporation, poetically called “the angels’ share” accounts for the loss of about 20 million bottles a year.

From the aging cellars, the various ages and areas are blended for quality and a consistent house style. A notable example of this practice is Fine Champagne, a blend of the two champagnes, with at least half being from Grande Champagne. Blending is the common practice in Cognac, although some small artisanal single-vineyard cognacs and a handful of smaller houses do not blend.

Describing the taste of cognac is difficult since the stylistic range is wide and varies. In general, lighter cognacs are fruitier with less obvious wood tones and caramel flavors. Darker cognacs sometimes have spent more time in wood, so wood tones are more noticeable and heavily caramelized. The extended aging of spirits in wood, usually 15 years and more, develops a characteristic called rancio, variously described as cheesy and metallic. Despite the negative name, rancio in older spirits is a desirable thing. For some people, though, a little rancio goes a long way.

With the holidays approaching, wine shops throughout Sonoma County will be stocking up on all levels of cognac. Expect to pay under $30 for VS, $44 to $50 for VSOP and over $100 for XO. The more special the cognac, the more expensive it is. Ultra Premium Hors d’Age, such as Hennessy Paradis, sold in a crystal decanter, sells at Bottle Barn for $660. Other high-end cognacs seen in the local market include Delamain 1966, $570; Frapin XO, $125; and Remy-Martin XO, $175. A snifter of cognac is a pleasurable way to end a meal. And if you are looking for a different holiday gift this year, quality cognacs at affordable prices are available from larger houses like Courvoisier, Hennessy, A. Hardy, Remy-Martin, Otard and Martell.

Gerald D. Boyd is a Santa Rosa-based wine and spirits writer. Reach him at boydvin@sbcglobal.net.

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