[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.
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.
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.
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:
Discover more about VS Cognac and the wonderful choices that are on offer.
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:
An artisan Cognac of VSOP age.
An award winning Cognac from a fine Cognac house indeed.
Discover more about VSOP Cognacs.
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:
An iconic Cognac with an interesting history.
An award-winning XO from the highly coveted Borderies cru.
This XO has cinched multiple awards.
4. Hennessy XO
A total classic, with a decanter that has been reimagined upon countless occasions by different artists and collaborators.
The multiple medal winning Meukow XO Grande Champagne
Delve into the luxury world of XO 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
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.
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 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.
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