It is quite interesting to compare across spirit categories focusing on the notion of age, and how it is communicated on the bottle to the buyer. Scotch whisky makes wide use of the age statement, a statement of years aged in barrel which represents the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle.
Rum too makes indications of age, but on the whole they are considered less reliable than with scotch whisky. Rum production occurs the world over and each country has different regulations governing the topic of age indications. Cognac too has age mentions, which on the whole are not misleading but require time and attention to fully comprehend.
This long form article of sorts will explore the ins and outs of the concept of age in Cognac. Let me preface this by saying that I do not intend to lend support for a move away from blends to age statements, nor am I lending support for blends over specific age indications. The goal is to simply inform and present an in-depth exploration of age in Cognac – no more, no less. Let’s jump into the weeds.
The Cahier des Charges
Generally speaking, a cahier des charges (pronounced: kai-yay de charge) is a document that serves as a sort of constitution for a particular type of production process. The document provides a general framework and rules structure for how the involved producers have to act while producing and bringing their products to market. With regards to wine and spirits, common points in a cahier des charges are geographic denominations, guidelines producers must follow in the production of the particular wine or spirit, rules to protect against ambiguity, guidance, and details on how compliance with the rules is controlled.
Every winemaking appellation in France has a cahier des charges. It’s for this reason why we will not see any pinot noir appearing in a fine bottle of Margaux, or any racy riesling making its way into a rich Meursault. There are rules which protect against that and specify precisely how a wine from Margaux or a wine from Meursault should come to be.
In spirits, Scotch whisky, for example, has its own version of a cahier des charges in the form of its Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 document.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Cognac Appellation has a cahier des charges. According to the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac’s (BNIC) excellent website, the cahier des charges is a document which sets out to do the following:
- Establish a link to the origin, the terroir, and the production methods of Cognac
- Define and characterize Cognac the region and the spirit
- Make precise the declarative obligations for the producers
- Highlight the main points of control and regulation
The paragraphs to follow will explore various aspects of Cognac’s cahier des charges – among other things – all on the topic of age and how age is indicated on a label.
Cahier des Charges: Point D – Description of the Production Method
Before digging deeper into the details of the aging system and labeling legal mentions, it is important to understand that the year consists of two “seasons” which define the principal activities of a Cognac producer.
The vineyard campaign runs for a 365 day period starting from August 1 and ending July 31 the following year. This vineyard season consists of all the activities relating to growing the vines and making the wine: pruning, trellising, working the soil, spraying, harvesting, pressing, fermenting, etc.
The distillation campaign, a subset of the vineyard campaign, begins at the time of the harvest and runs until March 31 – so yesterday if you’re reading this on April 1. Its start date depends entirely on the commencement of the harvest and so is not necessarily a fixed date. The end of the distillation period is fixed, however. March 31 marks the day when a producer’s alambics will take their rest, be cleaned, and disassembled for regular maintenance.
What goes on during the distillation season? You guessed it, distillation. A producer’s alambics will sing day and night for weeks and months until that year’s wines have been distilled. Section 8 Distillation, Part a) Distillation Period of the cahier des charges specifically states that in order for an eau-de-vie to be granted Cognac appellation status, it must come from the distillation of wines from the ongoing vineyard campaign. Remember, the ongoing vineyard campaign started back on August 1.
I have often heard the question (typically from more wine-focused folks): Can a producer store his or her wine for a year and then distill during the following distillation season? While maybe it could give interesting results, the answer is no for Cognac. Section 8 Part a) specifically addresses this question.
Aside from a producer shutting down his or her alambics on March 31, another important changeover occurs from March 31 to April 1…
Cahier des Charges: Point D, Section 9 – Aging
As a baseline rule, once dripped from the alambic, the eaux-de-vie must be aged in oak recipients, and to be considered eligible for human consumption, the eaux-de-vie must be aged for at least two years, after which point it officially becomes Cognac. Before the two year point, the liquid must rest patiently in a barrel, and it must be aged in the precisely defined geographic zone for Cognac, as laid out in Point C Section 1 of the cahier des charges.
But this begs an important question? When does the age count start? For example, imagine that a producer has two lots of freshly distilled eaux-de-vie, one finished on December 10 and the other finished on March 10. Does the December 10 lot have a four month aging head start? The answer is no. Explanations are needed.
The Compte d’Age System
The Compte d’Age system is a counting, or indexing, system which allows for a simpler, more consistent way to monitor and control age. Moreover, a producer’s inventory tracking and other accounting issues are intended to be made simpler under this system. Any potential tediousness that the above December 10-March 10 two lot example could bring are reduced with this compte indexing. And it’s worth mentioning that the BNIC regulates the compte d’age system. So how does everything work?
There are two types of comptes, a distillation compte and aging comptes. As soon as an eau-de-vie finishes its second distillation and is run off into an oak barrel, it gets labeled as compte 00. This is the one and only one distillation compte. In the example above, on December 10 that lot would be classified as compte 00, and on March 10 the other lot would be labeled as compte 00. In short, all eaux-de-vie distilled during the same distillation campaign are labeled compte 00.
On the April 1 which follows the harvest and follows the end of the distillation campaign, the comptes switch. Therefore, both the December 10 distilled lot and the March 10 distilled lot are switched to compte 0 on April 1. It will only be 365 days later, on April 1 the following year, that the comptes will switch again. The two lots in our example would then be compte 1 – in other words, one year old. Yes, technically the two lots are four months apart in terms of time spent in barrel and from two different calendar years, but in the official counting system, both are compte 1.
The compte counting system continues until compte 10 is reached, but of course a Cognac can be bottled before then, at compte 10, or after. Here is the full compte d’age system listed out in detail:
- Compte 00 – the day an eau-de-vie is distilled
- Compte 0 – for eaux-de-vie compte 00 on the April 1 following the harvest
- Compte 1 – for eaux-de-vie with 1 year of aging
- Compte 2 – for eaux-de-vie with 2 years of aging; eaux-de-vie is officially Cognac, VS
- Compte 3 – for eaux-de-vie with 3 years of aging
- Compte 4 – for eaux-de-vie with 4 years of aging; VSOP
- Compte 5 – for eaux-de-vie with 5 years of aging
- Compte 6 – for eaux-de-vie with 6 years of aging
- Compte 7 – for eaux-de-vie with 7 years of aging
- Compte 8 – for eaux-de-vie with 8 years of aging
- Compte 9 – for eaux-de-vie with 9 years of aging
- Compte 10 – for eaux-de-vie with 10 years of aging; XO
Further down in this article, on the topic of labeling and legal mentions, a complete list of naming mentions (Réserve, Vieille Réserve, Très Rare to name a few) will be provided alongside their associated age comptes.
Now what happens beyond compte 10? Surely many readers will have tasted Cognacs that far exceed this count to 10. There are a few options. A producer can choose to simply stop counting the age comptes at compte 10 like the BNIC (recall that there are only 10 age comptes) and bottle the Cognac as an XO or any of the other appropriate Age Designations. A producer can choose to pursue official vintage status for certain barrels of Cognac. Or, a producer can choose to pursue a Cognac with an age statement beyond 10 years, or even an XXO (Extra Extra Old) Cognac.
What are some of the rules that govern these possibilities? Let’s take a look.
Vintage Cognacs, Age Statement Cognacs & XXO Cognacs
For all Cognac, there are some ground rules for age references.
- Any reference to the age of a Cognac must be in reference to the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend.
- The aging must be either under the regulatory control of the BNIC, or the aging must be regulated otherwise in a manner so that all of the necessary guarantees can be provided.
An important point: A producer who wishes to indicate age for a Cognac is responsible for keeping a record system that guarantees the perfect traceability of the Cognac in question. This applies for vintage Cognacs, age statement Cognacs, and the more recent XXO Cognacs (14 year minimum age). In short, if a producer wishes to directly indicate age, he or she can do so but complete and precise documentation must be able to be provided guaranteeing the perfect traceability from distillation to commercialization.
What documentation is referred to here? Monthly, the producer has to submit a Déclaration Récapitulative Mensuelle (DRM) which basically informs the regulatory body of the producer’s stock for the month. The DRM lists stock cru-by-cru and age compte-by-age compte of the month’s stock at the producer’s registered address(es). This happens every month. Additionally, the producer annually submits a global stock declaration. This is not dissimilar to the DRM but it emcompasses the entire year. And finally, each producer will keep a “cahier de chai” (cellar register) which serves as a sort of internal record of incoming, outgoing, and stored stock. The alcohol levels are monitored and the quantities of Cognac at the abv in % volume and in pure alcohol are recorded.
For comptes 0 to 10, things are relatively easy since the producer is obliged to perfectly record and submit this documentation anyways. Therefore, indicating ages up to and including ten years is relatively painless. For this reason, it is not uncommon to see 10 year old age statement, or younger, Cognac bottlings.
But after compte 10, the official BNIC count stops. Sure, the producer still has to submit monthly DRMs, an annual global stock declaration, and keep a cahier de chai, but the producer declares the older stock still at compte 10, since that is the last compte which is counted. If he or she wishes to have a vintage Cognac, or an age statement Cognac, or an XXO Cognac, there is nothing to prevent it, but the paper trail of records (DRM, global stock declaration, cahier de chai, etc.) must be complete, sincere, coherent, relevant, and reliable. There can be no discrepancies of any kind – none.
This all sounds reasonable enough, but the reality of this level of record keeping must be quite tedious, time-consuming, and therefore costly for a producer who constantly has ingoing and outgoing stock, and is aging hundreds or thousands of barrels on site. If it were easy, we would see more vintage, age statement, and XXO Cognacs on the market. Rest assured that if you own a bottle of Cognac with a vintage, an age statement, or an XXO, every single drop of that Cognac can be traced from the time of distillation to the moment it’s bottled and sold.
Let’s not forget though that Cognac is generally a blended spirit, so the producers affected will be relatively few in number.
Cahier des Charges: Point I – Specific Rules Concerning Labeling
The above aging system, in addition to the additional demands for vintage, age statement, and XXO Cognacs have been explained. Now it makes sense to explore how producers communicate those ages to the customer via the label.
The compte age system is easy enough to understand, but it occurs behind the scenes between the producers and the BNIC. A customer may never hear of compte 5 or compte 10. Hence, it’s safe to say that the labels bridge the gap and can communicate just how old the Cognac in the glass is.
Can it be justified?
There is one simple principle that governs Cognac labels: A producer must be capable of justifying any indication on a label (front and back). This could range from the abv in % volume, the grape variety, the years aged, the vintage, the statement VSOP, etc. If it’s on a label, it must be justifiable – with the exception of a Commercial Name, I suppose. More on that shortly.
This does not mean that one has to provide this information in order to produce a label. There is no regulated approval process before label production. But, it does mean that if a control were to occur, the producer should be able to produce the proper documentation justifying the label indications.
Definition: Field of Vision
For all intents and purposes a field of vision as it relates to a Cognac label is a front label, or a back label. In other words, if X and Y are said to be in the same field of vision, this means that a viewer can easily see and read X and Y at the same time, with one look. The bottle will not need to be repositioned or turned around to see both items in sequence.
There could be exceptions here and there, but for this article consider the front label as one field of vision and the back label as another field of vision.
Required Label Information
The following five items are required in the same field of vision – most commonly a front label but could also be on a back label (words kept in French, explanations in English).
- Dénomination de Vente – This is simply the word Cognac. It must appear at least once on its own line. The words Appellation Cognac Contrôlée are suitable too.
- Titre Alcoométrique Volumique en % Vol – This is the abv %.
- Contenance Nette en ML, CL, or L – This is the volume of liquid in the bottle in ml, cl, or L.
- Dénomination Géographique Complémentaire (DGC) – This is the cru. If the Cognac in question comes from a single cru and the producer wishes to indicate that on the label, it must come after the Denomination de Vente (Cognac) on a separate line.
- Appellation Statement – If a DGC (cru) has been indicated, it too must be followed by the formal appellation statement on a separate line and after the DGC, and of course still on the same field of vision. For example, Appellation Cognac Petite Champagne Contrôlée.
See the image below (in this case a front label):
Other items can go in this same field of vision (as the above image shows), but the five items above must be there.
The Back Label
What other items are required, but can go on the front or back labels?
- Producer’s (or bottler’s) name and address
- Who the Cognac was bottled for (if applicable).
- Lot identification – From the producer’s record keeping. This is essentially a lot number, and can be placed anywhere on the bottle. It should begin with the letter ‘L’. Sometimes you’ll have to look hard for this one.
- Pregnancy symbol – This must be on the same field of vision as the abv in % volume. Suppose the abv is included on the front label but the pregnancy symbol is not. No problem. In this case, the abv in % volume needs to be repeated on the back label along with the pregnancy symbol. Wherever those two elements are, they must be in the same field of vision.
Optional Label Information
There are three other pieces of information that can be included if the producer desires (optional):
- Age Designation – This can be VS, VSOP, XO, etc. (see table below for other Age Designations which imply specific ages), or it can be the age comptes themselves (2 through 10), or it can be a vintage (Millésime). Recall that whatever age designation is specified on a label, it must be able to be justified with the proper documentation.
- Nutritional Information Logo – Apparently this protocol was signed in 2019, but I personally have yet to see it feature on many labels. Basically the kilocalorie (kcal) information is to be provided for 100ml and for a single dose of 30ml.
- Commercial Name – This is just the name a producer has for a particular Cognac. For example, if a producer wanted to give a Cognac the name “Crazy Yak” the producer could do so. “Crazy Yak” would be the Commercial Name. More on this later.
Comptes d’Ages and Age Designations
This information can be found in the cahier des charges, Point I, Item b). These so-called Age Designations can be included on the label so long as the Cognac inside the bottle corresponds to the appropriate age comptes. Think of these additional Age Designations as synonyms to the classic VS, VSOP, and XO designations we are typically accustomed to.
VS, 3 Étoiles, Sélection, De Luxe, Very Special, Millésime
Supérieur, Cuvée Supérieur, Qualité Supérieur
VSOP, Réserve, Vieux, Rare, Royal, Very Superior Old Pale
Vieille Réserve, Réserve Rare, Réserve Royale
Napoléon, Très Vieille Réserve, Très Vieux, Héritage, Très Rare, Excellence, Suprême
XO, Hors d’Age, Extra, Ancestral, Ancetre, Or, Gold, Imperial, Extra Old, XXO, Extra Extra Old
Please note that XXO and Extra Extra Old are included in the compte 10 list since there is no official compte 14. To be sure, in order to make use of such Age Designations, the Cognacs must be justifiably aged a minimum of 14 years – a compte 14 if it were to exist.
Also note that Millésime is only associated with compte 2. Therefore, theoretically a producer could bottle a vintage Cognac that is only a few years old. In practice this does not happen.
Mixed Designations: Three Points
Point I, Item b) goes on to highlight three subtle but important points with regards to age indications on a label.
- It is possible to use multiple age mentions that belong to the same age compte. For example, it is theoretically possible to state “Sélection de Luxe” for a Cognac with an age compte 2. Both “Sélection” and “De Luxe” belong to the same age compte, so there is no issue here.
However, there are always little exceptions. Take for instance “Réserve Rare”. This age mention belongs to age compte 5, but taken separately the words “Réserve” and “Rare” both belong to the age compte 4 list. Sneaky.
2. The use of multiple age mentions from different age comptes on the same label is allowed. However, only the older age mention is taken into consideration for the official age compte of the Cognac (see image below).
3. Any age mention(s) that appear on a label must in no way create confusion in the eyes of the consumer or buyer with regards to the Cognac’s age or other specific qualities.
Let’s suppose a producer has a wonderful barrel of Cognac that was distilled in 1990. Assume that this lot of Cognac has been in the same cellar since 1990 but switched barrels once from a new oak barrel to an old barrel after the first 6 months of aging. It has been in that old barrel ever since. The producer is 100% certain of the traceability of the Cognac, but he or she does not have all of the internal justification and other documentation needed to adequately prove it.
Now in 2022 the Cognac is in its sweet spot and is ready to be bottled. The producer wishes to somehow indicate age but cannot formally state 1990 or 32 Years due to lack of precise consistent documentation. What can this producer do and still technically be within the rules?
To my knowledge, the producer can play with the following:
- Lot identification number, so lot number
- Commercial Name (remember the “Crazy Yak”)
If the producer wants to play around with the lot number, he or she could simply state L90, L 90, L.90, Lot 90, or even Lot N.90 on the label. It will be up to the customer to figure out what exactly that coding means, but it is fairly easy to infer that the digits refer to a year of distillation.
Still one should be sure to inquire with the producer since ‘L’ followed by a number does not always indicate year of distillation. It could simply be age, or it could actually just be a random number and not have anything to do with distillation year or age.
A producer could also unofficially indicate age via the Commercial Name. In our example above, instead of naming the Cognac “Crazy Yak” the Cognac could simply be called D90, N.90, A32, MA32, D90A32, Rue 90 amongst many others (all of these I’ve seen before).
I will hold off on posting images of specific examples, but I assure you that if you look around you’ll see these naming designations on more than a handful of bottles. I find it somewhat clever and even fun to decipher new labels that employ this name coding and have just hit the market.
I’m making a generalization here, but the producers that use such naming codes tend to be very serious quality-conscious producers. I personally have zero doubt as to the traceability and provenance of the Cognacs bottled under their labels, and I would not hesitate one second to get one of these bottles. The producer has to include L90 on the label out of necessity as provided by the current rules, not sheer desire. Often they bought the barrel themselves and so do not have perfect records from the years before purchase. Something about it all feels a bit silly and ultimately avoidable, if there was a little more souplesse in the rules.
Feel free to glance over the Cognac list at the end of this article. You should be able to decipher all of the different labeling mentions now.
The goal of this article was to provide a broad sweep of age in Cognac. This required a dive into specific sections of the Cognac’s cahier des charges, and what is required of the producers in terms of compliance with the BNIC and how age is communicated to the customer via a front and back label. These two components go hand in hand: one cannot comment on label requirements unless the official regulations for compliance are understood, and vice versa.
Another goal was to help the customer navigate a front and back label. Hopefully the thin veil of fog has been lifted regarding the difference between Cognacs with labels that state XO, 20 Years, 1995 Millésime, and L.90/L90/A25/N.90/D90/Lot 25/Rue 25/etc. to name a few.
Additionally, I must add that the BNIC’s quest to guarantee Cognac’s integrity and perfect traceability of Cognacs of all ages is valuable and should be considered an asset to the spirit and the region. That being said, I would posit that the current age compte system and accepted Age Designations (VS, VSOP, XO, etc.) work perfectly fine but are a little outdated.
Spend just a few minutes reading any book, website, or other source of information about Cognac production and you’ll quickly gather that aging is a vital factor in the development and evolution of a Cognac. The BNIC’s own website states, “It is the time of aging, a work of maturation that can last decades.” And also, “Ici encore, le temps fait bien des choses.” “Here again, time does good things.” No one can disagree with the importance, and the stunning results, yielded from a Cognac’s time in a barrel.
But then why only count to compte 10? Why not facilitate a process which allows for a simpler, and still perfectly traceable, specific mention of age beyond 10 years? Sure, there are vintage Cognacs and age statement Cognacs, but from what I can gather, their regulation is cumbersome and costly, and therefore that path is not too often pursued by producers.
Producers who are set on unofficially communicating some indication of vintage or age have to resort to clever tricks. They do so within the rules of course, but they do this out of necessity rather than out of desire. What’s more confusing, a Cognac label that says L90, for example, or one that says Distilled in 1990, or just the year 1990, or just 32 years old? So I fear that what the cahier des charges endeavors to avoid could actually become the reality: confusion.
The vast majority of consumers will not know what L90, N.90, A25, or Lot 90 means, for example. Therefore, a potentially unfortunate situation occurs. The consumer does not know what those clever codes mean, and the consumer therefore does not really have an exact idea of what’s in the bottle. Out of confusion, he or she may be turned off by this type of bottling and will look away from Cognac bottlings with these kinds of mentions of age.
The Cognac geek understands this and may enjoy the cryptic nature of everything, but I tend to categorize this as confusion that could be avoided. Confusing all this, really.
I realize I’m not offering solutions here; I’m simply stating some regulations and noting a few observations. The BNIC should not do away with the compte age system, quite the contrary in fact. There could be some middle ground where the traceability and control of age can be carried out in a more streamlined way than just stopping the count at 10 – and therefore imposing a producer to carry on with official Millésime or age statement documentation. There must be an easier way. If not, we’ll continue to see cryptic codes on Cognac labels, and we’ll continue to see producers make good efforts to let their clients know anyways how old their XO Cognac is (even though they’re not supposed to), and we’ll continue to see some confused consumers.
Lastly, I have to recognize that a counter argument could say, “The age of the Cognac is not important here. It’s the liquid that counts, and Cognac is all about the mastery of blending. Blends will vary from year to year, and I, the producer, want the freedom to include young and old eaux-de-vie in the blends.” To them I say, you’re absolutely right and no one should change the way you do things and how you communicate age, or not, on a label. I only would like to see a system where a producer can more easily communicate age if desired, while still guaranteeing the integrity of the spirit and a sound traceability. Mind you this topic concerns a very niche segment of Cognacs.
Anyways, there are perhaps bigger more pressing issues facing the region, but hopefully some light has been shed on the idea of age in Cognac, from the perspective of the producer and us the consumers who appreciate and hold dear this wonderful spirit. Santé !
1. Conte et Filles 10 Year
There’s no mystery as to how old this beautiful 10 Year Old Cognac is from our neighbors, Conte et Filles.
Click here to taste elegance and refinement in a bottle.
2. VT Bons Bois 1990
A fine 31 year old Bons Bois, and official vintage Cognac from the masters at Vallein Tercinier. There’s remarkable balance for this single cask Cognac and pronounced smells and flavors of praline, canelé, and caramelized fruits.
Click here to read more.
3. Tesseron Lot N.76
While it’s tricky to say what the Lot 76 corresponds to here, it’s for sure that Tesseron is among the best at creating wonderfully mature and complex blends. This Lot N.76 is loaded with beautiful florals, fruit compote, and tones of earthy leather.
Check it out here.
4. Guy Pinard Napoleon 10 Year
A fresh and fruit compte 10 Cognac from Guy Pinard.
To taste the pure flavors of golden raisins in syrup, greengage plums, and a hint of anise, head over to the product page.
5. Chainier 1989 Grande Champagne
No hidden age here. This 1989 gem from Chainier (30 years old) has a lovely alliance between stewed fruit and spice. There is a lovely waft of fragrant cedar too.
Explore more here to see the great work this little house is doing.
6. Pasquet Cognac de Claude L.84
Can you figure out the age of this stunner? Domaine Pasquet has bottled a true beauty here, with pure chiseled fruits, quince paste, and a full mouth coating texture.
See more about this stunner here.
7. Grosperrin Bons Bois 50 Year
A 50 year old from the Bons Bois! Now that is not something we see every day. Guilhem Grosperrin has bottled a Cognac that is a witness of time, from an exclusive cru with a firm personality.
Check out this rare bottling here.
8. Vaudon 1996 Fins Bois
A Fins Bois beauty from 1996. Vaudon has bottled a treasure here, with complex notes of exotic wood, candied fruit, and baking spice mix.
Visit the product page here to learn more.
9. Vallein Tercinier Rue 34
Now what could Rue 34 possibly mean? Any guesses? What’s not a guess is the haunting maturity and complexity on display with this Cognac.
For a unique treat for your drinks cabinet, click here.
10. Prunier 20 Year
Rich and dessert-like, with beautiful notes of gingerbread, fragrant wood, and tingly spices. An absolute classic of the highest quality from the masters at Prunier.
Check it out here.
11. Marancheville Lot N.14/45
A recent favorite here at Cognac Expert. But what does that Lot N.14/45 mean? Yes, your intuition is right. It’s a mature Cognac seemingly from another planet.
Click here for more on this hot new release.
12. Pasquet Organic 10
A perfect organic 10 year old from Domaine Pasquet. The Grande Champagne terroir, as well as the skill of the Pasquets in the vines and in the cellar is on full display here.
Learn more about this drinks cabinet staple here.
13. Mauxion Bons Bois Multi-Millésime
As if one vintage wasn’t enough, this Cognac from Mauxion Selection comes from a blend of three official vintage Cognacs, all from the 1970s. The Bons Bois character is on top form here and the particular barrel this was aged in leaves its mark too.
Click here to check out this fascinating Mauxion Cognac.
14. Grosperrin N.61 Fins Bois:
This one’s easy. What does the N.61 suggest? The liquid inside is anything but ordinary. Soft and rich with a perfect marriage of fruit, spice and earth.
A special treat. Explore more here.