When Tastings and Events Co-ordinator Emma Briffett made her debut visit to the region, she learned everything a novice Cognac drinker needs to know about this delicious drink: here she's put together her top tips for buying Cognac.
1. Cognac is brandy named after the town of Cognac in France which must be made from specified grapes, of which ugni blanc is the one most widely used.
2.Ugni blanc is favoured for its ability to produce a wine which has both high acidity and low alcohol – not great for the production of still table wines, but vital for the production of good cognac. Ugni blanc accounts for about 98% of the production of Cognac.
3. When first produced in the early 1600s, Cognac was an unaged distilled wine from grapes grown in the region. It was over the next century that the Cognac houses started to experiment with ageing their eaux-de-vie in oak barrels. At this point unaged Cognac was called 'Young' and Cognac aged in oak was designated as 'Old' Cognac.
4. The first VSOP Cognac to appear on the market was made by Hennessy in 1818 at the request of The Prince of Wales (who was to become King George IV of Great Britain in 1820)
How to make Cognac
5. Nowadays, to be called Cognac it must come from one of the six designated growing areas or 'crus' located in the Cognac region, and it also needs to have been distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged for at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais. This double-distillation is what sets Cognac apart from the other well-known French brandy, Armagnac, as well as the fact that Armagnac uses the column still instead of the copper pot still.
6. The six appellations or vineyard areas each produce a Cognac with its own distinct style. These are then blended to create a 'House' style. The six regions are:
Grande Champagne: This area produces fine, light Cognacs with a predominantly floral bouquet.
Petite Champagne: The Cognacs from this area are similar in style to those from Grande Champagne but without quite the finesse of their neighbour.
Borderies: The smallest of the six crus, this area produces smooth, rounded Cognacs, which tend to have an aroma of violets.
Fins Bois: This area produces smooth, rounded Cognacs that age fairly quickly, with a distinct fresh grape bouquet.
Bons Bois: This is a large area with predominantly sandy soils, and the origin of much of the most basic Cognacs.
Bois à Terroir or Bois Ordinaire: Another area with predominantly sandy soils which lie along the coast or on the islands of Ré or Oléron. This area produces fast-ageing eaux-de-vie with a characteristic maritime flavour.
7. The designations of Cognac are determined by the youngest eaux-de-vie blended in the Cognac, not the oldest.
8. To be considered for the designation 'Fine Champagne Cognac', the Cognac must be produced from a blend of Grande and Petite Champagne eaux-de-vie, with at least 50% coming from the Grande Champagne cru. However, to be considered 'Grande Champagne Cognac', 100% of the eaux-de-vie must come from Grande Champagne.
9. There are three Cognac Designations which each refer to the age and quality of the cognac. Each corresponds to how long the brandy has been aged in oak barrels:
VS (Very Special): Cognac whose youngest eau-de-vie is at least two years old. These Cognacs can also be referred to as '3*' or 'Luxury'
VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale): Cognacs whose youngest eaux-de-vie is at least four years old. They can also be referred to as 'Old' or 'Reserve'.
XO (Extra Old) or Napoléon: Cognacs whose youngest eaux-de-vie is at least six years old. Cognacs such as 'Napoleon' or 'Old Reserve' are equivalent to XO Cognac.
10. The eaux-de-vie rests in casks or barrels during the maturation process, stored in the chais or cellars. The environmental conditions of the chais, such as the humidity, amount of natural light, and airflow all play an important role in this process, even down to how the casks are stacked.