When you start discovering Cognac, one of the first things you notice is that each bottle has a different age-specific rating. The most common ratings are VS Cognac, VSOP Cognac, and XO Cognac. But what does this actually mean? And what about blending – how does that work?
Get an overview of every Cognac age category in our online shop.
Let’s start at the beginning by discovering exactly what these terms actually mean:
VS Cognac: This stands for ‘Very Special’
Alternatively, ✯✯✯ (three stars), means exactly the same as VS. So if you see a bottle with three stars on it, you know it’s a VS Cognac. A blend qualifies as a VS Cognac if it consists of eaux-de-vie aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 2 years.
V.S.O.P. Cognac: Meaning ‘Very Special Old Pale’
Officially, according to the BNIC, V.S.O.P. stands for Very Superior Old Pale. However, it’s often referred to as Very Special Old Pale. A VSOP Cognac is where the youngest brandy in the blend is aged for at least four years in barrels. However, the average age of Cognacs in the VSOP category may well be older than this. It’s the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend that determines the actual quality of the Cognac. Meaning the moment a four-year-old eau-de-vie is incorporated in the blend it automatically becomes a V.S.O.P. Cognac – even if every other component is much older.
The origin of the expression V.S.O.P. dates back to an order from the British Royal Court in 1817. They required what was then termed a ‘Cognac Pale.’ In other words, a Cognac that is not sweetened or colored by the addition of sugar and caramel. At that time it was very common to take advantage of using such additives. This is how the term was born.
Other designations for VSOP are “Reserve” or simply “Old”. Interestingly, when the Cognac culture first became popular, and before the terminology that we use today came to be, the spirit was either referred to as simply Cognac – or Cognac Eau de Vie.
XO Cognac: ‘Extra Old’
XO stands for Extra Old, and it describes a Cognac consisting of eaux-de-vie that have been aged in oak barrels for a minimum of six years. However, XOs often have a much older average age, with many XO Cognacs being 20 years old and older. There has been much talk that the minimum age for a component in an XO Cognac is to be raised to 10 years. And this is now due to change from 01 April 2018. However, there is a period of adjustment, during which Cognacs aged six-nine years can still be called an XO until March 31, 2019, as long as they follow some predesignated BNIC rules concerning packaging.
The expression XO was used for the first time in 1870. An XO Cognac can also be called “Napoleon” or “Old Reserve.”
Other Cognac ratings
(Just to add to the confusion…)
– Cognac Napoléon A Cognac described as Napoléon is equal to an XO in terms of age. However, a Napoleon Cognac is usually marketed as an in-between category of VSOP and XO.
– Extra This is a Cognac that is at least 6 years old, in theory, the same as an XO. The rating is often used to label a blend that is more superior to an XO.
– Vieux A Cognac marked as such represents a grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
– Vieille Réserve This means more or less the same as Hors d’Age, a grade beyond XO (see below).
– Hors d’Age Officially, the BNIC states this as being equal to XO. In the industry, it’s used to communicate a very high-quality product, one that is beyond an official age rating. The literal translation of Hors d’Age is ‘beyond age.’
– Vintage A Vintage Cognac means that the Cognac is a single blend from one particular year. It’s a single year’s harvest that’s aged for a certain period of time in oak barrels and then bottled. There is no age limitation. What’s important to know is that a Vintage Cognac from 1983, for instance, was harvested in 1983 but maybe bottled in 2013. What’s important is the year of the harvest.
All these specifications are closely monitored by the French agricultural ministry.
Because of the close relations between Cognac and the United Kingdom back in the day, lots of the words and expressions used have British origins. However, although the above explains the official designation of the various terms, this doesn’t necessarily make them easy to understand.
The blending of different Cognac ages
Blending different ages of eaux-de-vie is what determines the grade and quality of the final product. Never mind in what proportion, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is what determines the age category.
For example, you might find that large producers blend some drops of a very old and mature Cognac with a small amount of middle-aged Cognac, and then complete the blend with a younger Cognac. They can market the bottle as an XO if the youngest eau-de-vie is of 6 years of age or more, but it will be an XO of superior quality. And naturally, the larger houses have an advantage when it comes to their choices of eaux-de-vie because they have contracts with various winegrowers and extensive stock in their cellars.
When Cognac is mass-produced at low cost, it features mainly very young eaux-de-vie. There’s the danger of being flat, and the finish being short, a little rough, or even unpleasant. However, single vineyard Cognacs (also known as single estate Cognacs) and larger Cognac houses with a traditional philosophy tend to have a completely different approach. For instance, a master blender may use 23 to 27-year-old eaux-de-vie for blending an XO in order to create a full body with character. And in such an instance, you really can taste the difference!
Large brands 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.
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