Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Understanding Cognac: A Primer

A couple of months ago I received a bottle of Cognac. As the box was opened I felt a surge of excitment, the box and bottle were beautiful, the juice inside mahogany brown and inticing. I placed the bottle proudly at the front of my liquor cabinet, making sure that it hid from view that embarassing bottle of coconut-flavored rum behind it, and promised to take it out for a swirl soon enough. Only a few hours later did I realize that I had no knowledge or context for what I had received. As if the bottle was staring me down from its perch in the cupboard, I began to feel uncomfortable.

"You got all excited, but you don't know what I really am or have a clue what to do with me," it seemed to be challenging me from the kitchen. I realized quickly that the gift may be more than a nicely foiled box and ornate glasswork. Indeed, this gift may be a chance to learn about an entirely unique and delicious beverage. What follows is simply what I learned, which in turn allowed me to enjoy my Cognac both in context and in experience.

Cognac is called Cognac simply because it hails from the region around the town of Cognac in Western France (yes, I started simple.) It is a brandy, meaning it is a distilled spirit produced from fruit. In the case of Cognac it is entirely produced from grapes, namely Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. Like all AOC regulated products in France the requirements for a beverage to be legally called a Cognac are quite complex, but this is how France has consistently provided consistency in their wines and spirits (and consistently been considered at the top of the wine and spirit production pyramid)!

The grapes are pressed and vinified into a white wine, and only grapes from one of the certified regions of Cognac can be included. The resulting wine is probably not something you would want to drink at this point - Ugni Blanc is rarely seen as a white table wine on its own, and the region of Cognac does not necessarily produce enough body and ripeness to make a palateable wine. What is produced however lends itself beautifully to the next stages of Cognac production.

The wine is then double distilled in a copper still (years, and I mean many years, of practice have indicated that copper imparts no taste influence on this process), and even the stills that can be used are regulated. The double distillation results in a spirit that is then put into oak barrels for aging. This aging process is important as flavors from the oak are imparted into the spirit overtime. I'm sure you are as surprised as me to know that the type of wood used to make these aging barrels is, you guessed it, prescribed. Eventually the spirit is transferred to glass containers and awaits the blending process.

The blending process, although not required, is usually done in a manner that allows the specific house to release a consistent tasting product year after year. It is during this process that the tasters attempt to produce a complex taste profile that will result in a distinct style for their specific house. It is the age of the youngest brandy in the blend that will set the quality grade that you may recognize from your strolls down the Cognac aisle:

V.S. - indicates a Cognac in which the youngest spirit was aged in barrel for at least two years

V.S.O.P - indicates that the youngest spirits was aged for at least four years

X.O. - indicates at least six years of aging for the youngest spirit in the blend

You must keep in mind that the designation is based on the youngest spirit in the blend, not the average. Many X.O. designated Cognacs average nearly 20 years of aging (and you will find that this extra time in storage will cost you a bit more money, but the complexity certainly tends to follow).

So I now had a bit of understanding about what it was staring me down from the cabinet, but I still wasn't sure what to do with it. The beauty of Cognac is in the myriad of flavors that it can present. While each house or brand attempts to produce a similar taste profile year to year, the variety within the category is what ultimately may drag you wine geeks into a prolonged exploration.

I realized that coming at Cognac from a more traditional table wine background that I would best enjoy this drink as intended, simply in a snifter, with no distractions, observing and enjoying the aromas and tastes that this Cognac presents. While the 40% abv offers some distinction in how this is enjoyed, it is best enjoyed on it's own. I simply poured a small amount into my glass, swirled the liquid to release some aromas and took a tentative sniff. I found this was all that was needed. Too far into the glass and the alcohol was overpowering (and a bit astringent). But the typical nose plunge of wine tasting was not needed or warranted. Instead I found that the aromas of nuts and caramel, sometimes flowers or vanilla are fascinatingly present well above the glass. Every bit as intriguing and complex (in many cases more so) than a great glass of wine I have come to love picking out the aromas of a slowly warming glass of Cognac.

The alcohol content of Cognac presents a different tasting technique as well. Best for me is to make sure I am a bit warmed up - a big initial slurp will not be pleasant. Instead several smaller sips over time allow the full complexities of the spirit to come through. And the variations you will find when exploring Cognac are certainly what will keep you coming back. Some are warm and leathery, others brighter and flowery. The distinctions, and yet the regions ability to maintain a consistency through their tight production standards, are astounding.

Armed with a bit of knowledge and context I went forth and thoroughly enjoyed the Cognac I received. The gift kept giving, beautiful packaging for initial excitement, a new head full of knowledge for continued thought, and a new habit for pleasurable sipping - I am thankful that I am coming to know Cognac.



  1. Cognac is one of my favorite drinks. I used to be a wine addict but I noticed that my teeth are getting yellowish with too much wine. My Las Vegas dentist did a teeth whitening treatment then and I decided to drink wine only on occasions.

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