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.