Everything about VS, VSOP, XO, Napoléon Cognac. Learn about the different quality grades and the blending
When you start discovering Cognac, one of the first things you notice is that each bottle is graded in different ways – and the most common of these are VS, VSOP and XO. But what does this actually mean? And what about blending – how does that work?
Okay, so let’s start at the beginning, and discover exactly what these (sometimes confusing) terms actually mean:
VS Cognac: This stands for ‘Very Special’
or alternatively, ✯✯✯ (three stars) means exactly the same. Cognacs of this quality are where the youngest brandy in the blend is aged at least two years in oak casks.
VSOP Cognac: This stands for ‘Very Special Old Pale’
or actually, officially according to the BNIC, Very Superior Old Pale. However, in most quarters it’s referred to as Very Special Old Pale. A VSOP Cognac is where the youngest brandy in the blend is aged for at least four years in barrels. However, in general, the average age of Cognacs in a VSOP blend might well be much older than this. But it’s the youngest brandy within that determines the actual quality of the Cognac. So even if most of the Cognacs are much older, the addition of one brandy that’s younger than six years will mean that the blend will officially become a VSOP.
The origins of the expression VSOP dates back to an order from the British Royal House in 1817. They required what was then termed a ‘Cognac Pale.’ In other words, a Cognac that’s not sweetened or coloured by the addition of sugar and/or caramel. At that time it was very common to take advantage of using such additives. So, with this order from Britain was born the term VSOP.
Interestingly, when the Cognac culture first became popular, and before the terminology that we use today came to be, the drink was either referred to as simply, Cognac – or Cognac Eau de Vie.
XO Cognac: This stands for ‘Extra Old’
In an XO Cognac, the youngest of the brandies within is aged for a minimum of six years. However, they might well be much older, with the average brandy in an XO Cognac being upwards of 20 years old.
And it’s important to note that this grading and aging is set to change as from April 10th, 2016, when the minimum age for any brandy within XO Cognacs will change to 10 years.
The expression, XO, was used for the first time in 1870.
Okay, so the above are the basic gradings of Cognac. But there are other expressions used, so let’s take a look at what these are:
- Cognac Napoleon Officially a Cognac that’s described as a Napoleon is equal to XO in terms of minimum age. However, these are normally marketed as an in-between of a VSOP and XO Cognac.
- Extra This is a Cognac that’s at least 6 years aged in barrels. This grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.
- Vieux A Cognac marked as such represents a grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
- Vieille Réserve This is more or less like an Hors d’Age; a grade beyond XO (see below).
- Hors d’âge Officially, the BNIC states this as being equal to an XO. However, in reality it’s actually used to communicate a very high quality product; one that’s beyond the official age scale. The literal translation of Hors d’age is ‘beyond age.’
These specifications are all overseen by the French agricultural ministry.
Because of the close relations between Cognac and the United Kingdom, lots of the words and expressions used have British origins. However, although the above explains the official designation of the various terminology, this doesn’t necessarily make them easy to understand.
The reason for this difficulty in understanding is that, for example, there are producers that offer relatively old VS Cognac, whilst there are others who’re more interested in having the cheapest VS. So, for instance, there are VS Cognacs that could well be marketed as an XO – after all, being aged for six years is not long for a Cognac. Add to this the fact that some Cognac houses don’t use the expressions of VS, VSOP and XO at all, choosing instead to use Napoléon or Hors d’Age, and you can begin to see why understanding the age of a Cognac can become pretty complicated.
in general, and to make it as simple as possible to understand, a VS is anywhere between 2-5 years of age, a VSOP between 5-10 years, a Napoléon is somewhere between a VSOP and an XO (so around 8-20 years), and an XO can be everything… (but older than the others, naturally).
The blending of different cognac ages
Blending different ages of Cognacs is what determines the grade and quality of the finished bottle of Cognac. And it doesn’t matter in what proportions these Cognacs are blended, it’s the youngest one in the blend that determines the grade.
So, for example, you might find that large producers blend some drops of a very, very old and rounded Cognac with a small amount of middle aged Cognac, and then fill the bottle with a relatively young Cognac. They can then market the bottle as an XO (of course, the youngest Cognac must still be older than the required 6 years to be specified an XO). And naturally, the larger houses have an advantage when it comes to their choices of eaux-de-vie, simply due to their contracts with various winegrowers and extensive stocks within their cellars.
Blending Cognac in such a maner provide the producer with various advantages:
1. Money: Using young Cognacs makes the production less cost driven
2. With a wide age range of different eaux-de-vie, the master blender can reproduce the required flavour profile again and again.
Of course, doing this will provide a quality of a Cognac that is mass-produced. in some cases, the flavour profile can be slightly flat, and the finish might be short, spicy or even unpleasant – worst case scenario being like cheap brandy.
But the single vineyard Cognacs (also known as single estate Cognacs) have a completely different approach. For instance, a master blender creating such a product might use 23 to 27 year old Cognacs for blending an XO. And you really can tell the difference.
Using this method, reproducing the flavour profile again and again is difficult, and requires great skill. But the resulting Cognac is worth it, with a rich, complex aroma and usually having a long, wonderfully pleasant finish.
Because of this, it makes it more or less impossible for a mass producer to create a truly great Cognac – simply for the fact that it would be too expensive, and that the quantities are limited so unsuitable for mass production.