What is Cognac? – with Tasting Notes

I’m currently enroled in the WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) diploma program and am studying for the Spirits unit exam.  During the last couple of weeks I’ve learned a great deal about the different brandies of the world and it has really opened my eyes to the very differernt styles of each.  In this post I will talk about Cognac.

What is Cognac?

All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac.  This is because Cognac is  a brandy that comes from a specific place – the Cognac region immediately north of the famous French wine-growing region of Bordeaux.  Just as sparkling wine that comes from Champagne is the only sparkling wine allowed to call itself Champagne, only brandy from the Cognac region can be called Cognac.

The grapes used for the production of Cognac are mainly Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano in Italy), with Colombard and Folle Blanche playing supporting roles.  These grapes are suitable for distillation because they produce low alcohol, high acid base wines.

The Crus of Cognac:

There are 6 crus, or specific areas, where the grapes are grown for the production of Cognac.  These areas have been differentiated by the amount of chalk in their soils.  It has been known for some time that grapes grown in very chalky soils produce the best base wines for distillation into Cognac.

Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne (not to be confused with the sparkling wine region which is completely different).  These areas have the highest chalk content in their soils and are the most distinguished of all.  They produce long ageing Cognacs full of finesse and complexity with hints of jasmine and lime blossom.

Borderies has more clay in its chalk and produces smooth, aromatic Cognacs that are faster ageing with hints of violets.

Fins Bois is even faster ageing, but is accessible and pleasant with a grapey fruitiness.

Bons Bois has diverse soils and is less distinguished.  The grapes grown here are often used to make liqueurs.

Bois Ordinaires has gravelly soils and they mainly focus on making dry white wines instead of Cognac.

Distillation:

Distillation takes place in small pot stills made of copper and the eaux-de-vie is always distilled twice.  The first run produces a product called brouillis which is about 26-29% abv.  The second run, called the bonne chauffe,  is when the heads (the volatile and sometimes toxic compounds) and the tails (the heavy compounds) are drawn off, leaving only the hearts in the finished distillate. The bonne chauffe is about 70-72% abv. The timing of when the tails begins is up to the distiller.  Sometimes the tails are run a bit in order to include some of the heavier, aromatic compounds into the eaux-de-vie to add some complexity and richness.

By law, distillation must be finished before midnight on March 31 following the harvest.  When an eaux-de-vie is first distilled it is given an age designation of compte 00.  On April 1 following the harvest it will become compte 0.  The following April 1, it will become compte 1, and the following April 1, it will become compte 2, and so on.  Think of April 1 as its birthday.

Maturation:

The eaux-de-vie (the finished distillate) will then be matured in oak where it will gain further richness and complexity.  Two types of French oak barrels with a 350-400 litre capacity are generally used.  Limousin oak with its coarse grain and higher phenolic compounds adds tannin and structure, while Troncais oak has tighter grain and adds lots of aromatic essences such as vanillin.

The young Cognac is typically first placed in new (1-4 year old) barrels for a short period of time; about 6 months to a year.  It is then transferred to older oak barrels for slow oxidation to occur and complexities to emerge.

Bottling Strength:

The Cognac must be brought down to 40% abv in order to be bottled.  This is done with de-ionized or demineralized water.  Care must be taken when reducing the alcohol strength of Cognac because if it is done too quickly the spirit will split, the flavours will be flattened, and an unpleasant soapy character will emerge.

Cognac Terminology:

VS (Very Special) – the youngest Cognac in the blend will be compte 2, meaning it will have been aged for at least 2 years.

VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) – the youngest Cognac in the blend will be no younger than compte 4, meaning it is at least 4 years old.

XO (Extra Old)/Napoleon – the youngest Cognac in the blend will be no younger than compte 6, meaning it is at least 6 years old.

Tasting Notes:

Courvoisier VS Cognac:  The colour is a bright amber, with a copper hue.  There are aromas of bosc pear, bruised apple, apricot, caramel, and vanilla.  A very smooth texture coats the mouth, with warming alcohol and similar flavours of pear, apricot, caramel, and vanilla are evident on the palate.  It has a long length and is very balanced and pleasant to drink.

Courvoisier VSOP:  A bright amber colour with intense aromas of butterscotch, caramel, orange marmelade, jasmine and flowers.  It has a smooth texture with a full-body and warming, yet balanced alcohol.  There are rich flavours of butterscotch, vanilla, flowers, and citrus with a long, concentrated finish.  It’s a very enjoyable drink.  A bit more rich and concentrated than the VS mentioned above.

Remy Martin VSOP:  A bright amber colour.  There are intense and complex aromas of almond, orange peel, peach, vanilla, and brown sugar.  There is a silky smooth texture with well-integrated alcohol and good concentration of flavour.  Fruity flavours of orange peel, peach, and apricot dominate the palate and are supported by brown sugar and caramel on the long finish.

Hine Rare and Delicate Fine Champagne:  Fine Champagne is a designation given to Cognac that is a blend of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne.  This Cognac is a bright amber colour with intense floral and spice aromas supported by rich caramel and toffee notes.  Fruity aromas of pear and apricot are also evident.  It has a very rich texture with warming alcohol and concentrated flavours of spice, apricot, violets and jasmine.  The long finish is clean and balanced.  I really like this Cognac.

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