While grapes have been growing in the French region of Cognac since the 3rd century, Cognac was first created in the 16th century when Dutch settlers came to the region to purchase wood, salt and wine. However, the quality of the wines and the weak alcohol content meant it was almost impossible to transport via long sea voyages. To combat this the Dutch began to distil the wine into ‘brandewjn’ which translates to burnt wine and is where today’s term of Brandy is derived from.
In the 17th century, double distillation was discovered, and wines were transformed into eau-de-vie which, due to its concentration was much cheaper and easier to transport than wine. Eau-de-vie was a finer, more elegant drink and the Dutch quickly realized it got better the longer it was in the oak casks. The distillation process is called the Charentais method.
Brandy or Cognac – What’s the difference?
Like champagne and sparkling, in order to be considered Cognac it must be produced in the Cognac region of France and adhere to strict rules. Anything produced outside of this region is simply labelled Brandy.
The Cognac region covers Charente-Maritime and Charente with six growth areas for producing cognac. These are Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. Each region has been classified as an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) since the 1936 and 1938 decrees describing the Cognac growing areas and grape varieties that must be used.
The Making of Cognac
Other than being from the region of Cognac, there are a range of other key rules that must be adhered to. This starts from the grapes that are used (majority is the Ugni Blanc grape with small portions of Colombard and Folle Blanche allowed). Cognac must be created using the specific and traditional method: The Charentaise Distillation. This means the wine is distilled twice in a traditional copper Charentais pot still to a minimum of 40% ABV. The first still is referred to as the Brouillis and the second, the Repasse.
Once this is complete, the cognac must be placed in oak casks from Tronçais or Limousin for a minimum of 24 months. If the Cognac fails to meet any of these principles from the Bureau of National Interprofessional du Cognac (BNIC) it is simply classed as Brandy.
VS, VSOP and XO – What does it mean?
VS, VSOP, XO, Napoleon are all common designations on Cognac’s labels but what do they stand for? Each of these classifications stand for the ageing grade. Cognac can age for decades inside its original oak barrel but depending on how long it has been aged depends on the grade it is given.
VS (Very Special) indicates the Cognac has been aged for at least two years, VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) at least four years and XO (Extra Old) must be aged for a minimum of ten years following an increase from the previously required six years before 2018. VSOP was originally created at the beginning of the 19th century when the British Royal Family requested a ‘pale’ cognac: one with no additives, sugar or caramel.