[Updated 31 July 2019]

When it comes to understanding about Cognac ages it can be a little complicated to get your head around at first.

That’s because Cognac aging laws date back many years and have little changed over this time. But never fear, because with our simple to follow guide you can easily hone your knowledge and happily be able to tell your VS from your XO, and be able to hold your own in any conversation surrounding the subject of Cognac.

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
How old are old Cognacs? From VS to XXO, it’s a confusing subject

First of all, it’s important to understand that no matter whether a Cognac is a blend or a single cru (from one growth area, or terroir) they age in an identical manner.

But… Eau-de-vie from Grande Champagne ages more slowly than that from the other growth regions. Cognac from the Fins Bois terroir ages the fastest of all. Because this means that Grande Champagne Cognac takes many years longer to age to perfection and be bottled, this is therefore generally reflected in the price of the end product.

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
The chalky soils of Grande Champagne produce eaux-de-vie that takes a long time to age

So it’s safe to say that, usually, a Cognac from Grande Champagne will cost more than one from other growth regions. Of course, there’s always exceptions to the rule, but overall, this holds true.

Now we’ve got the basics in place, let’s take a look at the official Cognac age categories.

Demystifying the Cognac age categories VS, VSOP, XO, and XXO

 Okay… So in contrast to a liquor such as whisky, where the name will denote how old the spirit is (21 year old, 12 year old, etc), Cognac uses certain letters instead. While this can seem confusing at first, it’s actually quite simple to understand.

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
At last, no more wondering what those confusing terms mean: Amaze your peers with your knowledge of VS, VSOP, XO and more

VS Cognac

This stands for “Very Special”. It can also be denoted as *** or just “Three Stars”. Such a Cognac has to be aged for at least two-and-a-half years. Because of being aged in oak barrels the liquid takes on the color of wood, and these young Cognacs will be light in color. They have a youthful fire and are more aggressive on the nose and palate than their older cousins. However, while they’re often used in mixed drinks and cocktails, for those who enjoy the unruly power they can also be enjoyed neat.

One thing that’s really important to understand is that the age of a Cognac is denoted by the youngest one in the blend. So many that are labeled VS also have some older Cognacs contained in there as well.

Some popular choices of VS Cognac are:

  1. Hennessy VS
All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
The world famous Hennessy VS

2. Martell VS

3. ABK6 Pure Single

4. Meukow VS 90

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
The unmistakable bottle of Meukow 90

Camus VS Elegance

Discover more about VS Cognac and the wonderful choices that are on offer.

VSOP Cognac

This stands for “Very Special Old Pale” and mean that the youngest element of the blend is at least four-and-a-half years old. It can also be referred to as “Very Old”, “Reserve”, or “Vieux”. As with that of VS, a VSOP blend often has some eau-de-vie in the mix that’s older than this category.

There are some very good VSOPs on the market, many of which are delicious drunk neat. However, with the growing love of Cognac cocktails, VSOP qualities are a favorite for mixologists around the world.

Some VSOPs of note include:

  1. Bache Gabrielsen VSOP Fine

An artisan Cognac of VSOP age.

2. Gautier VSOP

An award winning Cognac from a fine Cognac house indeed.

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
A deserving winner of many awards, Gautier‘s VSOP

3. AE Dor Rare Fine Champagne VSOP

4. Braastad Organic VSOP

5. Courvoisier VSOP Exclusif

Discover more about VSOP Cognacs.

XO Cognac

Standing for “Extra Old”, this is an age category that’s been subject to a recent change. Up until 2018 an eau-de-vie had to have been aged for six years or more qualify as an XO. But it’s now 10 years, although there’s a short period of grace for Cognacs already bottled.

However… Just to muddy the waters a little. There will be many a-bottle of Cognac still within liquor cabinets, on the shelves of bars, and—undoubtedly—on shop shelves for many a year to come that will still display the quality of XO, even if it doesn’t officially qualify anymore. After all, it’ll be virtually impossible to police this worldwide. But all new bottlings will, of course, adhere to this new ruling.

But actually, these “old” bottles will eventually be enjoyed, and are still very good Cognacs indeed. Just be aware that from now on an XO is one that has a Cognac no younger than 10 years within the blend.

Some XOs of note are:

  1. Martell Cordon Bleu

An iconic Cognac with an interesting history.

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
Martell’s famous Cordon Bleu needs no introduction

2. Camus XO Borderies

An award-winning XO from the highly coveted Borderies cru.

Camus XO Cognac Borderies
A delicious medal-winning Cognac, The Camus XO Borderies XO

3. ABK6 XO Family Reserve

This XO has cinched multiple awards.

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
Rich, powerful, yet perfectly rounded—the ABK6 XO Family Reserve

4. Hennessy XO

A total classic, with a decanter that has been reimagined upon countless occasions by different artists and collaborators.

Hennessy XO Cognac Extra Old
Unmistakable and loved around the globe: Hennessy XO

The multiple medal winning Meukow XO Grande Champagne

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
The panther pounces once more, bringing the delights of Meukow’s XO Grande Champagne

Delve into the luxury world of XO Cognac.

XXO Cognac

This is a brand new category that was added in 2018. It stands for “Extra Extra Old” and cam about following a battle headed by Hennessy and other Cognac producers. For a Cognac to hold this status the youngest element in the blend must’ve been aged for at least 14 years.

Hennessy’s XXO is one of the only examples of this currently on the market

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
A world changer: The Hennessy XXO Cognac

And a word from the wise

We particularly like the 1999 book, Mac. A. Andrew’s Cognac Guide, that gives some expert insider insights from the world of Cognac.

The following are excerpts from the guide about various aging terminology (revised slightly in grammar and spelling) that will prove of real interest for anyone looking to increase their knowledge of 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-Mercie and, 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.

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
Whatever quality the label declares is alluding to the very youngest eau-de-vie within the blend. So in the case of this Courvoisier XO it doesn’t matter how old the rest are, if the youngest is between 10-14 years, it has to be described as an XO

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!”

Vintage Cognacs

“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.

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
Frapin’s Multimillesime Grande Champagne Cognac

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 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 aging 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 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 Paul Beau, use their own unique methods of stacking the casks.  But the key to aging is still what goes on inside the cask.

All About Age: A Guide to Cognac Terminology
Stacking and storing barrels of Cognac is part of the Cellar Master’s unique skillset

For instance, how does the eau-de-vie interact with the wood and with the tannins? How often is the eau-de-vie moved from 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 its own as a single cru.”

> Stay tuned for new chapters of Mac A Andrew’s cognac guide! See all articles of the Mac A Andrew Cognac Guide Article Series

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Author

Max is a spirits expert and speaker, into marketing, technology, startups, and business development. He’s also a farmer. He likes tools and machines, Game of Thrones, and Better Call Saul. Included in his Top 10 Cognacs are the Audry XO and Bache Gabrielsen 1973.Max founded Cognac Expert in 2010 at his family’s estate in Poullignac, in the Cognac region, France. Started as a blog, today Cognac Expert is the world’s largest website about all things Cognac, a blog, and a specialized online shop featuring 800+ different Cognac bottles.

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    This is fantastic work, both Mr Andrew’s dedication to the Cognac community when he was still with us as well as for Cognac Expert to have found a way to include Mac’s reviews and comments found in the book. It would be great if there were someone with the same dedication and knowledge to bring the book up to date and republish it. Is there anyone out there?

  2. Avatar
    Mrs Bobbi Jo van Raalte

    Dear Cognac Expert,

    I have been given 3 bottles of Cognac. Salignac VSOP, Chabanneau Grande Fine Cognac VSOP, and Camus Grand VSOP Cognac all are 750mL, all state product of France but there is no indication of age. However, I do know that my Mother has had them for at least 20 years…. All three bottles are unique and lovely. The Cognac is not cloudy in any way and all three bottles are sealed and have never been opened. Would these bottles be worth anything, and my Husband wants to know if he can open one? Best regards. Bobbi Jo

  3. Avatar

    I have many old cognacs like ROUYER SALIGNAC since 1977 Larsen fine Champagne
    Remy Martin Louis XIII Cognac and so on. mostly what I have I bought least
    40 years ago. How much can I sale them o r ask for and to know where buys
    this cognac from me.
    Thanks Helmut

  4. Avatar

    Hi I have a few bottles of Martell Cordon Bleu ( 1 L) kept in the storeroom for the past 30 years.
    Do they worth anything now ?
    How much will these cost in the market ?

  5. Avatar
    Alberto A Gonzalez

    I have a bottle of cognac domestically produced by university agriculture students about 30 years ago. Two questions:
    1) Is safe to use this product and
    2) Does it has an value this product.

    Thank you for the help!

  6. Avatar
    Max (Cognac-Expert.com)

    Hey Alberto, how is the bottle called?

  7. Avatar
    Michael L. Mravich

    I have a bottle of Napoleon cognac that I bought back in the sixties while I was stationed in Japan. It has a stamp seal with the number GL 3921. Could you please tell me the age of the bottle? The bottle is unopened. I have the original carton and tissue paper that the bottle was wrapped in. Any help would be greatly appreciated. I am curious since the bottle has been stored all these years.

    Thank you
    Mike

  8. Avatar
    Katja (Cognac-Expert.com)

    Hey Mike,

    If you want to sell your Cognac you can have a look at our auction section. The process would include an estimation of your bottle´s value by our experts. For further questions, please have a look at our auction FAQ.

    Thank you!

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