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?

From VS to XO

From VS to XO

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.

VS, VSOP and XO timeline of ageing

VS, VSOP and XO timeline of ageing

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.

Blending in the cellar

Blending in the cellar

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.

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20 Responses

#1 lee wood on Dec 26, 2010, says:

i have a 1812 jules raucine, napoleon grande old cognac brandy and want to find out what its worth

#2 Jesper Veiby on Jan 30, 2011, says:

In several (older) (and danish) books or encyclopiae on the topic of cognac the following ratings are consistently mentioned:
* (1 star) = 3 years
** = 4 years
*** = 5 years
VS = 10 years
VSO = 15 years
VSOP = 20 years
This is somewhat different from what is mentioned above. Even if the years of maturing might refer to say an average in stead of a minimum.
Can you explain this? Has the ratings changed? Are these older ratings not used anymore?

#3 Bob Dickson on May 1, 2011, says:

In 1964-67 I was given a bottle of Remi Martin VSOP age unknown – 1st served to the Queen and Philip in 1947 (I think this was written on the tag – tag lost) – What would the value of this be now?

#4 greta on Sep 13, 2011, says:

i e mailed your company on the 29th of August, 2011 regarding a bottle of otard55 cognac.
i included photos with my e mail and was wondering on a value.
as to date (13th September, 2011) I have not received a response.
If you could e mail me back regarding this matter (in case my e mail did not get to you ) i would appreciate it.
Thankyou.

#5 E Patten on Oct 21, 2011, says:

what is the signafince of a united nations symbol on a bottle of otard xo cognac packaged in a wooden box with the UN symbol on the box as well?

#6 Cognac Expert on Oct 21, 2011, says:

@3: a United Nations symbol on a Baron Otard XO cognac?
well.. that’s something we would like to see:

can you please use the SUBMIT BOTTLE function at
http://blog.cognac-expert.com/contact/

thanks!

#7 E patten on Oct 31, 2011, says:

photo sent awaiting your comment thank you

#8 E Patten on Nov 7, 2011, says:

in responce to #6 i sent a picture with U.N. symbol on the bottle.What if any is the signafince?

#9 Joe on Dec 24, 2011, says:

I hace a bottle of Courvoisie Grande Fine Champagne ExtraVielle. Bought in 1971.Dark frosted bottle with E stamped in the bottom along with SG in a square box. Can you give me any info..ie when Mfg and value.
Thanks

#10 peter yeung on Feb 27, 2012, says:

My father bought a bottle of Nepolean V.S.O.P Cognac Courvoisier in Dark Green
Bottle with US at the bottom of the bottle in original green box about 45 years
ago in Hong Kong. Can you give me any information how to sell it and how
much will it cost.
Thanks

#11 Jock on Jun 1, 2012, says:

I am trying to find the value of a bottle of Otard VSOP Cognac (old style bottle,slim neck) Original red box.70 cl. Can anyone help PLEASE

#12 Robin on Jul 15, 2012, says:

I am trying to figure out what year my bottle of courvoisier v.s. cognac is. It says le cognac de napoleon 750ml. It is a green bottle with a burgundy collar. It came in a set with two glasses, I could not located a date on the bottle or on the box. . . . any ideas?!

#13 M. Glazebrook on Oct 7, 2012, says:

I was given a whimsical decanter of Cognac some years ago. The label indicates Napoleon Grande Champagne from Elie-Arnaud Denoix. The bottle is in the shape of a Dauchshund. I have had it for about 7 years. Have not been able to find any info on it. From the information above would you be able to tell me how old it might be and its value!

#14 eugene flynn on Oct 15, 2012, says:

I have a years 30 old cognac napoleon brand sealed bottle.84 proof,4/5 quart,produce of france,richard freres-cognac-france,imported by cartier & co beverly hills,calif..cream label with green frame.had over 55 years.what is this worth,thanks.

#15 chris on Mar 4, 2013, says:

Have a bottle of Remy Martin Napoleon champagne cognac green bottle in a Red box no date. How much is this worth?

#16 Abduselam on May 16, 2013, says:

I have VSOP Fine champagne which have at the bottom A .SG E COURVOISIER L1019013,if want this old bottle,please email to me.

#17 Michael on Jun 23, 2013, says:

A bottle VSOP who is 20+ years old will allways be a VOSP bottle. The ageing is made in Barrel. This will never be a XO Cognac like the old flash in refrigereitor will never be procioto, Or the congelait chease vill never be parmezan !

#18 Ole Cigar on Jan 16, 2014, says:

To most of you asking about the value of your old cognacs: There is no development of the cognac on the bottle like in winebottles. What you have is a cognac of a quality I would never drink. Keep the bottle as a memory of something and put the cognac in the coffee.

Re.:
“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.”

I do not consider this to be an advantage!
Just use the Hennesy XO as an example. They tell us “it is a unique blend of 64 eau-de-vie’s”.
I want the best samples of the 64 eau-de-vie’s. Not number 62, 63 or 64!
This is another bullshit story by Hennesy. The truth is Hennesy must use all of these contracted cognacs -the ones of lower quality as well. What better story to tell us than it is “a unique blend of 64 eau-de-vie’s”?
Then add an amount of sugar to camouflage the distallates of lower quality and the marketing department is ready to roll…

Stay with the small and honest producers like Ragnaud-Sabourin, Jean Fillioux, Leopold Gourmel and Normandin-Mercier. You get better cognac than Remy Martin Louis XIII at one tenth of the price.

#19 Rich on Jan 27, 2014, says:

I understand that Kenyan Cognac is as good as any French Cognac. Has anyone tasted Cognac from Kenya pls? I have been offered a bottle in Nairobi.

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