Mac A Andrew’s Cognac Guide
Both blended and single cru cognacs age in an identical manner. What is true, however, is that Grande Champagne eau-de-vie ages slower and Fins Bois ages faster. In other words, an eaux-de-vie from the Grande Champagne terroir will take longer to mature than those from grapes grown in the Fins Bois region.
This difference is reflected in the price of these Cognacs. As you’d expect, those from Grande Champagne command (generally) a higher price.
Young Cognacs – denoted as a VS or *** (three stars) – must be at least two-and-a-half years old. Although these Cognacs already have the typical Cognac color, they tend to be more 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.
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’s simply a case of economy and market tastes.
OK, so let’s move onto the VSOP quality.
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 Francois Voyer products.
And then the XO and older qualities:
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 great quality producers in this very wide category of Cognacs.
And then there’s X.X.O. (extra, extra old). A brand new quality of Cognac added in 2018, following a battle headed by Hennessy and other Cognac producers. The youngest component in an XXO has to have been aged for at least 14 years. For example, the Hennessy XXO Hors d’Age Cognac.
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. For example, 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 of the eaux-de-vie used.
What this means in practical terms is that an XO might have twenty, thirty or forty year-old eaux-de-vie within 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. In general, the higher the price, the better the quality (and age) of the product.
Confusing? Yes it is. But try to bear this in mind. The designations are simply to differentiate products. Because in the end, it’s the consumer who selects the quality that best suits their nose and palate.
And FYI, these notes would not be complete without a comment on the Cognacs of Leopold Gourmel. They use the following designations: Age du Fruit (Pale Gold), Age des Fleurs (Fine Gold), Age des Epices (Old Gold), and Premieres Saveurs (Le P’tit Gourmel). This makes a very strong point about Cognac in general – that it’s all about taste and aromas.
This kind of labeling means the consumer can select what’s right for them. Such as a Cognac that’s strong on the flowery elements, (Age des Fleurs ), or spices (Age des Epices), or fruity (Age du Fruit). It’s a good marketing ploy, and one we believe they’ve managed to nail!
And finally, there are vintage (millésime) Cognacs. All vintage Cognacs, and there are not that many (although they’re certainly becoming more popular), 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 a section of the chais (cellar where Cognacs are left to age) under lock and key where the producer has no access. This administrative process gives the producer the right to put the year of such a product on the label.
It’s worth mentioning that this is very different from Armagnac or Champagne. In these cases the producer designates the vintage based on the unique quality of the product. There are no inspectors or 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 within the industry on this very subject. Should they or should they not be allowed to specify a vintage product? We believe that the quality speaks for itself.
But we digress. So let’s get back to the ageing of Cognac. The eaux-de-vie rests in casks or barrels during the maturation process. These are stored in the chais. The environmental conditions of the chais plays 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 Paul Beau, use their own unique methods of stacking the casks. But the key to ageing is still what goes on inside the cask.
For instance, 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 expert nose and palate of the maitre d’ chai (cellar master) can decide when a Cognac is ready to be used – either within a blend or on it’s own as a single cru.
Please be aware: the texts of this series are from 1999 and have been revised slightly in grammar and spelling.
> Stay tuned for new chapters of Mac A Andrew’s cognac guide! See all articles of the Mac A Andrew Cognac Guide Article Series