All about age – Cognac Guide: VS, VSOP, XO, Vintages & Co
Mac A Andrew’s Cognac Guide
Blends and single cru cognacs age in an identical manner. It is true, however, that Grande Champagne eau-de-vie ages slower and Fins Bois ages faster. This difference is reflected in the price of these Cognacs.
The young Cognacs like VS or *** must be at least two-and-a-half years old. Although these Cognacs already have the typical Cognac colour, they are aggressive to the nose and on the palate, but they still can be good to drink straight, with ice or with mixers. As with everything young, these Cognacs are a bit unruly and need to be tamed. Larsen VS, Remi Landier VS, Francois Voyer and the very popular Hennessy VS are just some examples of quality VS products. It should be understood that, under the somewhat archaic roles of Cognac labeling, a VS or *** designation simply tells us the age of the youngest eau-de-vie in the product. This in no way prevents a Cognac producer from using older products in the blend. It is a simple case of economy and market tastes. The VSOP (Very Special Old Pale), VO (Very Old) and Reserve designations indicate a Cognac of at least four-and-a-half years old as the youngest element of the blend. Standing above the crowd in these designations are Ragnaud-Sabourin, Andre Petit and Fran90is Voyer products. The X.O (eXtra Old), Vieille Reserve, Extra, Hors d’ Age and Napoleon Cognacs have to be six-and-a half years, or older. Cabel, Jacques Leteux, A. E. Dor, Bernard Boutinet, Michael Forgeron, Courvoisier, Hennessy, Remy Martin, Paul Beau, Jean Balluet, Delpech, A. de Fussigny, Andre Petit, Laurent Merlin, Guy Gombert, Jean Dubiny, Francois Voyer and Paul Giraud are just some quality products in Ibis very wide category of Cognacs.
Certain producers, such as A. E. Dor and Ragnaud Sabourin, use numbers to indicate the age and quality of their Cognac. And some, especially those selling single cru products just put the name of the cru on the label, e.g. J. Normandin-Mercier, Les Antiquaires du Cognac. The key to understanding the age and quality of Cognac is to know that law requires the label to indicate the minimum, but not the maximum, age cf the eaux-de-vie used. This simply means that an XO may have twenty, thirty or forty year-old eaux-de-vie in the blend. Selling an XO made of, let’s say forty year old eaux-de-vie, presents a marketing challenge under the current rules of the Cognac industry.
Thus, the next best indicator of the age and quality of a Cognac is its price. We believe that, in most cases, the higher the price, the better the quality of the product. Confusing? Yes, but keep this in mind. Those designations are simply to differentiate products, one from another, because in the end, consumers will select the quality that best suits their nose and palate. These notes would not be complete without a comment on the Cognacs of Leopold Gourmel. They use the following designations: Age du Fmit (Pale Gold), Age des Fleurs (Fine Gold) Age des Epices (Old Gold) and Premieres Saveurs (Le P’tit Gourmel) making a very strong point about Cognac in general – it is all about taste and aromas. So, you can select more flowery (Age des Fleurs ) or more spicy (Age des Epices) or more fruity (Age du Fruit) Cognac at Leopold Gourmel. We believe that they have got it right!
And finally, there are vintage (millésime) Cognacs. All vintage Cognacs, and there are not many, are strictly controlled by the BNIC.
When the Cognac producer (e.g. Frapin 1979 and 1982, Boutinet 1988) decides to set aside some casks for vintage designation, an inspector literally seals the cask or places it in apart of the chais that is under lock and key where the producer has no access. This administrative process gives the producer the right to put the year of this product on the label. It is worth mentioning that an Armagnac or Champagne producer designates the vintage based on the unique quality of the product. There are no inspectors, Da administrative processes. Simply, the quality and the pride of the producer are enough to designate the vintage label on the product. Cognac is different and a debate currently rages on the subject in the industry. Should they or should they not have a vintage product? We believe that the quality speaks for itself.
Let’s get back to Cognac ageing. The eaux-de-vie rests in casks. Casks are stored in the chais. The environmental conditions of the chais play an important role in this process: humidity, light, airflow and how the casks are stacked (on top of each other, side by side etc.). Some chais, like the ones at Courvoisier and at Paul Beau, use their own unique methods of stacking the casks. But the key to ageing is still what goes on inside the cask.
How does the eau-de-vie interact with the wood and with the tannins? How often is the eau-de-vie moved frorn one cask to another, or even from one location to another? Only the nose and the palate of the maltre d’ chai can decide when to begin blending.
Please remember: the texts of this series are from 1999.
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