When it comes to understanding the bewildering terminology that surrounds Cognac, you’re certainly not alone. That’s because the laws regarding the aging process of Cognac date back many years and have little changed since their inception.
So, please allow Cognac Expert to lend a helping hand.
The following guide demystifies all those confusing terms, allowing you to determine a VS from an XXO and wow your peers with your in-depth understanding of the world’s favorite brandy.
[Updated 03 Feb 2020]
Cognac 101: A few vital first points
First of all, it’s important to understand that no matter whether a Cognac is a blend or a single cru (a “cru” is another word for terroir, or growth area) they mature, or age, in an identical manner.
However… Eau-de-vie from the terroir of Grande Champagne takes much longer to mature than those from the other growth regions. Cognac from the Fins Bois takes the shortest time of all.
What this means in practical terms is that Grande Champagne Cognac takes years (sometimes decades) longer to be honed to perfection. This is one of the factors that’s 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 those from other growth regions. There will, naturally, be anomalies that prove the exception to the rule, but this is generally the case.
So now we’ve understood that, let’s shed some light on the official Cognac categories.
The Different Cognac 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 letters instead. Once you understand what these mean it begins to be much clearer as to how old an individual Cognac really is.
This stands for “Very Special”, or you might see it clarified as *** or “Three Stars”. These are both the same as a VS.
VS quality Cognac is matured in oak barrels for at least two-and-a-half years. This process sees the liquid taking on the color of wood, but as it’s only for a relatively short amount of time the eau-de-vie ends up a light straw yellow/amber color.
These Cognacs boast 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 classification of a Cognac is denoted by the youngest in the blend. So many that are labeled VS also have older Cognacs in the mix as well.
The following are some popular VS Cognacs
The world’s most recognisable Cognac brand, Hennessy, have a VS quality that’s loved by its legions of fans around the globe.
Meukow VS 90
The pouncing panther is the striking emblem for Meukow Cognacs. This great example of a VS not only boasts a wonderful taste experience, but it looks rather fabulous as well…
Discover more about VS Cognac and the wonderful choices that are on offer.
The official term stands for “Very Superior Old Pale”. However, many refer to it as “Very Special Old Pale”. The origin of the expression dates back to an order made by the British Royal Court in 1817. They required what was then termed a “Cognac Pale”. At the time it was very common to use sugar and caramel to sweeten Cognac, and this description alluded to one created without these additives.
It was from this order that the term VSOP was born.
The term is sometimes separated by full stops—as In, V.S.O.P.—or without, VSOP. They both mean the same.
As with that of VS, a VSOP blend often has some eau-de-vie in the mix that’s been aged for much longer than the industry standard.
There are some very good VSOPs on the market, many of which are delicious drunk neat. However, this category has become a favorite with mixologists as a potent element of a Cognac cocktail. This makes Cognacs from this category a really versatile addition to any good liquor collection.
Some VSOPs of note include:
Gautier’s VSOP has won so many industry awards we can barely keep up! A superb addition to any Cognac collection.
AE Dor Rare Fine Champagne VSOP
We love the expertise of A.E. Dor, and this Fine Champagne VSOP is delicious enjoyed neat, and has more than enough character to make a sublime addition to any Cognac cocktail.
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.
Standing for “Extra Old”, this is an age category that’s been subject to a recent (and historic) change. Up until 2018, an eau-de-vie had to have been aged for six years or more qualify as an XO. This has now been extended to 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 a huge number of Cognacs still within liquor cabinets, in bars and restaurants, and—undoubtedly—on shop shelves for many a year to come that are still labeled as XO, even if they don’t officially qualify anymore.
Naturally, it’d be impossible to remove all these from circulation (and pretty pointless). But because all new bottlings will adhere to this new ruling, eventually these older labels will disappear—they may even become collector’s items in years to come, who knows?
Some XOs of note to mention:
A truly classic Cognac that’s stood the test of time, remaining a firm favourite for many around the world.
An award-winning XO from the highly coveted Borderies cru.
This is a brand new category of Cognac that came into being in 2018. It stands for “Extra Extra Old” and came about following a battle spearheaded by Hennessy and other Cognac producers. For a Cognac to hold this status the youngest element in the blend must have been aged for at least 14 years.
Hennessy were pivotal in the creation of the XXO category and were the first to bring an example to market.
Prunier XXO Cognac Family Series No. 1
The first XXO from a small producer.
Discover more about the ever-expanding world of XXO
The color of Cognac
in general, the older a Cognac, the darker it becomes. This is because eau-de-vie takes on the color of the wooden barrels in which it’s aged, so the longer it remains there, the darker it becomes. The diagram below give examples of how the shade changes over the years. However, it’s worth mentioning that there are ways in which cellar masters can artificially influence the color of a Cognac, namely by that addition of caramel or other agents. Discover more in our article, Color of Cognac: When darker doesn’t always mean older.
5 other Cognac ratings
There are additional terms you might come across that are used to describe and market Cognac (just to add to the confusion)
While the terms VS, VSOP, XO, and XXO are the only official ratings of Cognac, there are also a handful of others that are in common use.
- Vieille Réserve
- Hors d’Age
While they’re not, technically, formal classifications, they are still monitored by the French agricultural ministry. So let’s take a look at what they mean.
- Napoleon: Comparable to an XO quality, this term dates back to the relationship between Napoleon Bonaparte and the house of Courvoisier. Sometimes they’re marketed as a quality that fits in-between that of VSOP and XO.
2. Extra: Another Cognac that is, technically, comparable to an XO. However, Extra qualities are usually aged far beyond that of the mandatory 10 years plus. The average age of those that fall into this category is 15-25 years.
3. Vieille Reserve: Or simply, Reserve, has to be aged for a minimum of 10 years (as an XO) but the terms is usually applied to those that’ve matured for far longer.
4. Hors d’Age: Once again, officially the same as an XO, this term is used for Cognacs that are “beyond age”. This is the ultimate in quality, with eau-de-vie aged 40, 50, or even 100 years +. It might also be described as a Très Vieille Réserve.
5. Vintage: This is a Cognac created solely from a harvest from a particular year. It will usually have a name that includes the year. One important thing to understand is that the year—for example, 1972—is the year of the harvest, not that of when it’s bottled. It can also be referred to as a Millésime.
And a quick word about blending…
Blending different ages of eaux-de-vie is what determines the grade and quality of the final product. It doesn’t matter what proportions are used, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is what determines the age category.
For example, a cellar master might blend very old and mature Cognac with a small amount of middle-aged Cognac, and then complete the blend with a younger eau-de-vie. The bottle can be marketed as an XO if the youngest element is aged for 10 years or more, but it will be an XO of superior quality. This is something often found with Cognacs from the larger houses, simply because their contracts with various winegrowers, combined with extensive stocks in their cellars, make this easier to achieve.
Mass produced, low-cost Cognac tends to mainly be made from young eaux-de-vie. In such cases the finished product is often flat, rough, with a short finish, or even downright unpleasant. Artisan houses, as well as larger Cognac Houses with a traditional philosophy, tend to have a completely different approach. Skilled master blenders choose the individual components for their compatibility, often using elements way older than the official designation to create body and character.
The large houses, such as Remy Martin and Martell, such as Hennessy or Martell need to reproduce the flavor profile of their products over and over again with the stock they have. This requires great skill. Read our article about Hennessy craft of production.
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 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.
In some 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. 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