Cognac–A French Original

Cognac Glass

CHEESE CONNOISSEUR:  Is Cognac considered a type of brandy? And what are the different types and production techniques?

RON KAPON: Cognac is both a spirit and a place. It is produced only in the Cognac region, which sits on the banks of the Charente River about 200 miles southwest of Paris and north of Bordeaux, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. This spirit must be made of a blend of specific grapes, most notably Ugni Blanc, also known as Saint-Emilion. It must be double distilled in copper pot stills, and then, by law, aged in French oak barrels at least two years, although most Cognac are far older. Some types are cured up to 40 or 50 years in oak. What’s unique is that all Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac.

CC: Besides Cognac, are there other brandies produced in France and other areas?

Cognac Grapes
Armagnac is made from a blend of grapes

RK:  There are a number of brandies, most originating from France. These include:

Armagnac, a grape brandy made in the wine-growing regions of Armagnac in the southwest of France. The wine is made of a blend of grapes, including Colombard and Ugni Blanc. Unlike Cognac, Armagnac is usually distilled once, as opposed to twice, in column stills rather than pot stills. This creates a more rustic brandy compared with Cognac. It’s aged for at least two years in French oak, and then blended to produce a consistent product. Armagnac will sometimes display an age on the label. If the label says it’s 15 years old or 25 years old, that means the youngest brandy in the bottle is that age. If you have the money to spend, you can find vintage Armagnac’s. The label will display the year of harvest; vintage Armagnac’s by law are at least 10 years old.

American Brandy is made from anything other than grape wine and the label must say what it’s made from, such as peach brandy, apple brandy, pomace brandy, etc. American brandies generally make no distinction between pot and column distillation or between single and double distillation. There are no legal requirements to specify what distillation techniques must be followed. Grades such as VS, VSOP and XO don’t carry legal standing in the United States as they do in France. It’s generally true that VS brandy is the youngest, VSOP a little older and XO older still.

Apple Brandy is known for its versatility in cocktails. The two main players are American Applejack and French Calvados. The New World version is brash, bright and fruity, whereas its French counterpart is more subtle, nuanced and layered in flavor. This brandy is made from apples rather than the traditional grapes.

Eaux de Vie, typically unaged brandies, are made from fruits other than grapes. Examples include brandies made from raspberries, pears, plums, cherries and orchards of other fruits. Because these are not aged, the color is typically clear.

CC: Can you tell our readers a bit about the history of Cognac?

Brandy and cheese
Brandy has a rich history as one of the earliest distilled products.

RK: One of the earliest distilled products, brandy production dates to the 12th century. This spirit was originally used as a medicine, or aqua vitae (water of life), in part because laws restricted anyone but apothecaries and doctors from making it. By the 16th century, though, French laws allowed winemakers to begin distillation. The French brandy industry grew slowly at first, until the Dutch got involved. The Netherlands imported brandy for domestic consumption as well as for re-export to other European countries. At this point, the Dutch mercantile fleet was the largest in the world, so sailors would add brandy to keep their water supplies fresher on long ocean voyages.

Brandy is more efficient to ship than wine, has about eight times the alcohol content and offers great economic advantages. Rather than shipping French wine to Dutch distilleries, it made far more sense to invest capital in the very areas that were producing the wines in the first place. Farmers in that region began to cultivate grapes strictly for distilling, producing wines that tasted acidic and thin on their own but that had qualities perfect for distillation. One town in the Charente region eventually grew to define a specific style of French brandy — Cognac. The Dutch influence on the trade of distilled wine was so great that it even lent the product its name, which is derived from the Dutch brandewijn or ‘burnt wine.’

CC:  What do the VS, VSOP and Napoleon designations on the bottles mean?

RK:  (3-Star) or VS (Very Special): The youngest brandy in the blend must be aged at least two years in oak.

VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale): The youngest brandy must be aged at least four years, although in practice, most brandies at this class are usually much older.

Napoleon, XO (Extra Old), Extra or Hors d’age: The youngest brandy has six years on oak, but on average, are 20 years old or more.

CC: Does Grande Champagne have anything to do with the bubbly Champagne?

RK: Grande Champagne has no relation to the sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France. In terms of the vineyard designation in Cognac, Grande Champagne is at the top followed by Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bons Ordinaires. If the label says Fine Champagne, at least 50 percent must be made from the Grande Champagne area, while the rest is Petite Champagne.

CC: What are the largest-selling brands of Cognac?

RK:  The most popular brands are Hennessy, Remy Martin, Courvoisier and Martell, which comprise 90 percent of the Cognac market.

CC:  Can you share one of your favorite Cognac recipes?

Citrus Satisfaction
Duet Restaurant

RK:  Citrus Satisfaction — Duet Restaurant, 37 Barrow St. Greenwich Village, NYC,

1 oz Cognac
1 oz Sherry
1 egg yolk

Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail or martini glass. Garnish with fresh-grated nutmeg on top. Add lime for garnish.

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