Oh Cognac - what a fine spirit you are. Such an elegant fragrance and flavour, made from grape, French, super classy and at the same time G. Cognac simply has it all. Wouldn’t you agree?
Ok let me guide you through how this grape distillate is produced, the history of it - yeah what kind of booze cognac really is. Then I’ll go on talking about regions and letters. I’ll tell you a bit about whats up with like Petit Champagne, Fins Bois, XO, VSOP and all that. I’ll also talk a bit about Grönstedts - the Swedish cognac, and I’ll mention some other houses too.
I’ll try to be clear for your sake, so you’ll easily archive this valuable information in your system well enough to be able to pick it up at some point in the future and show off in a random conversation about cognac with someone you wanna impress. Because, if you know your spirits people will automatically look up to you. See how I look out for you!
Let's dive into it!
Cognac is basically brandy - the name derives from Dutch brandeuwijn (burnt wine) and refers to the heating of the wine through distillation. In the 16th Century the Dutch, English and Norse salesmen imported French wine from the regions of Cognac and Armagnac, but noticed an unwanted oxidation whilst shipping, and so they realised the sufficiency of distilling the wine before shipping it and had in mind to dilute it with water again when arrived at destination, to reach it’s original state. However, the brandy was shipped in barrels and the Dutch found the product tasting well enough not to dilute it with water and instead they started experiment with ageing and blending of brandy.
The main grape in Cognac - Ugni Blanc (localy known as Saint-Emilion) is high in acidity and through growing in chalky earth specific to the regions vegetation the brandy of Cognac gained a unique flavour profile and the production of Cognac prospered. Reaching the 19th Century the legal requirements regarding Cognac was established to ensure all parts of the production to take place in the region. This applied to everything from grape cultivation, harvesting and fermentation to distillation. Even the first 30 months of ageing - on French oak - must take place within the borders of Cognac.
The Cognac house of Grönstedts blends their product within a building owed by Larsen - another cognac house with Norwegian roots, and is located on the border ….. Renault’s cognac production also take place here. These houses buy cognac from other producers (houses/farmers) and they blend it at their HQ to regulate the quality and taste. Each year the grape harvest look different and cognac is supposed to taste the same every year so the blenders have to experiment heavily to reach the perfect flavour. This is the quest of the Master Blender of each Cognac House.
Each quality ***VS, VSOP, VO, XO age in barrels, but they variate in how long. They also variate in how big amount of the ‘spirits’ soul’ is blended in - more known as “Paradise” or the old reserve. It’s a batch with cognac which’s constant in flavour, like a ‘base spice’ that the houses keep identical year after year. So basically; the more of the old reserve, and the longer it’s aged, the more precious (and expensive) the cognac.
The different quality grades of cognac are quite misleading due to different understandings within and between houses throughout the history production. For example the regulations indicate that a XO has to be aged at least 6,5 years on oak cask but in reality it’s 15 years. Some houses made their own grades that you’ll only find within their range and so on…
But here, let me take you through the different qualities of Grönstedts:
VS *** - Very Superior or three star cognac is the same thing and aged minimum 4 years. It’s flavour profile doesn't variate much between the houses and it has a clear raisin note with a push of alcohol which makes it perfect to mix in cocktails or sauces where the taste of grape destillat, that is the characteristic of the flavour of cognac, should still be evident when mixed with other ingredients. VS is a good cognac to enjoy with coffee and/or cigarr - both with their own strong flavour profiles which make it an even game between them an the cognac. They don’t kill each other. VSOP - Very Superior Old Pale cognac is aged at least 8 years. It contains more blends than the VS and has got a smoother flavour profile that variates more between different houses. The Master Blender has more work to do here to create a unique taste for the VSOP and to sustain it year after year. Still it’s a quite simple cognac blend in comparison with it’s older relatives.
VO - Very Old cognac is aged 15 years. This is the perfect choice to accompany any other indulgence with whether it’s coffee, chocolate, cigarr, or what have you. It’s the perfect partner since it doesn’t have anything outstanding that needs to shine alone. VO is classy and reliable. The recipe is over 100 years and it’s a simply a very fine taste experience.
XO - Extra Old is a cognac thats been aged for at least 20 years. It’s a blend of many different destillats from regions within the border of Cognac, with soil that produces grapes with high acidity and expresses itself as rather sweet and fruity in the finished product. Here the blender has carefully balanced the fruitiness with vanilla and caramel. This cognac stands her ground, alone.
EXTRA - OMG. 25 years. Don’t eat or drink or smoke anything to this one. It’s a truly great cognac with smooth yet complex flavours that just grow and grow. The flavour stays on your papilles (French for taste buds hehe) and there they develop and calls your attention. Again we find caramel and fruit. It’s round. EXTRA is joyful to sip on. The recipe is from 1923.
LIMITED EDITION - Jeeze I apologise, but I don’t remember how this one tasted.. I tried it when I’d already had quite a few, you see. Oopsie.
The Old Reserve is blended in each quality but as you could guess there’s more of it in the XO than in VS
In early the 2000’s there were 175 Cognac firms around, that range in size from small farmer to the multinational shipper. Here are a few houses you might have heard of:
Grönstedts - in 1846 Johan Daniel Grönstedt, a prominent restaurant owner in Stockholm, started blending his own cognac. is the only cognac in the world who were aloud to age and blend their products outside of Cognac, but since 2008 the law changed and they moved their production, including the 60 year old 18000 liters cask, to Larsens HQ in Cognac. Larsen - Larsen Cognac is born in 1926 by Norwegian sailor Jens Reidar who on a trip with America as final destination got held up in Bordeaux, fell in love and settled in Cognac where he grew a passion for the country and spirit.
Renault - Jean Antonin Renault, a 25-year-old Charentais businessman created Renault Cognac in the town of Cognac in 1835. The blending nowadays, like Grönstedts, takes place in Larsens HQ.
Couversier - In 1843, Felix Courvoisier established the Cognac house of Courvoisier in Jarnac. Courvoisier belongs to the spirits company Jim Beam today and the distillates are acquired from 1000 independent wine farmers within the areas of Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois. Then they are blended by the Courvisier masters.
Hennessy - is the most successful Cognac house in the world – in terms of sales. It’s one of the worlds most renowned cognac brands, especially in the US. Richard Hennessy came from Ireland to Charente and founded the merchant house in 1765; he mainly traded with wine and his son, James Hennessy, started with distilling later on.
Martell - Founded in 1715, Martell is one of the biggest Cognac houses. Today, Martell is part of Pernod Ricard.
Remy Martin - he House of Rémy Martin will forever be intertwined with the lands of Charente where it was founded in 1724.
Ok, so within Cognac there are different regions - cru - and they have different types of soil. The crus are:
Grande Champagne - quite some hills, a chalk soil
Petite Champagne - chalky but more compact than the Grande Champagne
Borderies - a plateau with clay and flint stones
Fins Bois - mixed soil: red, clay and limestone
Bons Bois - including islands Ile de Ré and Ile d’Oléron: mainly sand soils
The different soil of course cultivate different flavour characteristics of the grapes and this component combined with the producers destillation techniques provides a certain flavour profile to the cognac. Then the cognac houses’s master blender mix and blend destillats from different crus that’s been aged different long and then they add some of the “old reserve”, let it age a bit longer and then finally you have a finished product.
Wow what a job, to be a master blender at a cognac house! Like an alchemist…
Thanks to Niklas and Niclas at Altia who I met at Destillat in Stockholm a few weeks back, and their informative tastings. Hope you learned something, if you have any questions just ask :)
The craft of the cocktail - Dale DeGroff
Steffos spritbibel - Steffo Törnquist
Niklas and Niclas at Altia