For a brandy to be entitled to the name Cognac (pronounced Con-yak) it must meet a number of conditions laid down in appellation regulations that cover the grape varieties used, the method used to make brandy, how long it is aged and how it is labelled.
The grape varieties used to make this prized and often expensive drink are surprising ordinary, and none of them are used to make ordinary table wine of any great quality. Few of their names would be recognised by wine drinkers.
Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Folle Blanche, Jurançon blanc, Meslier Saint-François, Montils, Sémillon, Folignan, and Sélect are the permitted varietie. Ugni Blanc (known elsewhere as Trebianno), Colombard, Folle Blanche are the varieties most used to make the sharp dry white wine that is the basis of Cognac.
The wines are heated in an alembic still, the steam is taken down a pipe which is chilled and the condensed vapour is the brandy. This is then distilled again, and the resulting brandy, which has an alcoholic strength of around 70% abv and has no colour, is aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of two years. During aging the liquid gets flavours and colour from the wood. And much of the alcohol evaporates through the wood. When I walked through aging cellars in Cognac I saw ceilings and walls covered with thick grey woolly growth which is species of mould that lives on the fumes. The locals call this loss ‘the Angel’s share’ and estimate that the Angels enjoy the equivalent of twenty million bottles every year.
The real skill in making Cognac is blending the barrels of brandies to make consistent tasting blends year after year, using brandies made in older vintages. The finished brandy then has distilled water added to bring its alcohol level down to a minimum of 40% abv (= 80˚ US Proof, 70˚ UK Proof) While Cognac rarely has a vintage year on the label, the age of the youngest brandy in the blend is indicated as follows:
V.S. (Very Special) or *** (3 star)— youngest brandy is at least two years old.
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) or Reserve— youngest brandy is at least four years old.
X.O. (Extra Old), or Napoléon— youngest brandy is at least six years old.
The use of English phrases is a result of the historic importance of Britain as a export market.
One thing that always puzzled me was the designation ‘Fine, Petite or Grande Champagne’ on labels of some the finest brandies. It’s nothing to do with the sparkling wine but derives its name in the same way from the Roman word “Campania” meaning ‘plain’ and refer certain Cognac vineyards growing on chalky soils, thought to be superior.
The best way to enjoy the world’s most famous brandy is neat in a wide based narrow necked glass so one can appreciate the aroma as well as taste, but the Cognac companies are happy for you to use drink it in cocktails and with mixers just as long as you keep drinking Cognac.
What is your favourite Cognac or brandy? Tell us on our forum.
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle, Nook and iPad.