Sunday, December 16, 2007


Cognac is brandy made in the Cognac region of France. The name 'brandy' is short for 'brandywine,' which comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning 'burnt wine.' If you ferment grape juice, you get wine. If you distill wine, you get brandy. Although brandy can be made from the fermented juice of any fruit, the best brandies (e.g., cognac) are made from grape juice.

After recently attending parties at the homes of Sandy Goldberg and Randy Dipert and enjoying some tasty spirits there, I was motivated to revisit my own spirit collection. Last night I drank Courvoisier X.O. Imperial Cognac, which was voted "Best Cognac in the World" at the 1994 International Wine and Spirits competition. This spirit, which sells for around $140 a bottle, has aromas of toffee, caramel and roasted nuts. Its smooth, refined flavor made for a very enjoyable end to my evening.

Tonight I drank Rémy Martin's V.S.O.P. Fine Champagne Cognac, which sells for around $40. This seemingly fruitier cognac is a is a blend of brandies from the Grande Champange and Petite Champagne subregions of Cognac. Despite the big difference in price between the two, there was not a huge difference in my enjoyment of them.

The three most common types of of brandy or cognac are V.S., V.S.O.P. and X.O. 'V.S.' stands for "Very Special" but since this is the lowest quality level of brandy one will likely encounter, there is nothing special about it at all. The youngest brandies in a V.S. blend must be aged at least three years in wood casks. Avoid V.S. brandies. The youngest brandies in 'V.S.O.P.' ("Very Special Old Pale") blends must be aged at least 5 years. Those in X.O. must be aged at least six years. The average brandy in an X.O. blend is over 20 years.

The primary grapes used in making cognac are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard, which make lousy table wines. Most cognacs are blends of brandies from different vintages and different growing regions. Cognac is distilled twice in pot stills like those used in making Scotch. The rich caramel and amber color of cognac is usually the result of artificial coloring additives.

Do not heat cognac by holding your brandy sniffer over a candle. I don't know where this practice first started, but it will have deleterious effects on your enjoyment of any brandy. Because of the way it speeds up the rate at which aroma particles in the cognac are released into the air, the unique aromatic blend of the brandy will be broken. Certain kinds of aromas will be speedily released ahead of other aromas with which they usually interweave. The brandy will not have the aroma it was meant to have. Heating brandy also makes the nose too pungent for most people to enjoy.

Cognac is a wonderful spirit. The only frustrating thing about it is the tremendous rate at which cognac prices increase with each increase in quality level. Cognac that sell for $200 a bottle is considered to be modestly priced.


Anonymous said...

Oh brother.:) Avoid VS cognacs you say? I challenge you to try Marquise De Gensac VS or VSOP if you could find it. Heaven!
One more word of advice that you don't have to take:) Avoid any spirit that you saw advertised on TV by doing that you will pay more for taste and less for marketing campaign. Works the same way for Champagne.

James Beebe said...

Thanks for the tips. I intended the "Avoid VS Cognac" advice simply to be a rough rule of thumb. I'll look for Marquise de Gensac VS.