Cognac: All you need to know

Three Quick Facts About Cognac

  • Cognac is a French brandy made by distilling wine into a colorless liquid called eau-de-vie (literally “water of life”), which is then aged in oak casks.
  • The production of Cognac is overseen by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC).
  • French people drink surprisingly little Cognac. Nearly 98% of all production gets exported, with the US being the main market.

The Home of Cognac

The municipality of Cognac stretches over two departments – Charente and Charente-Maritime. At the center, on the banks of the Charente River, lies its capital – the city of Cognac. It’s this river port that the famous French brandy is named after.

The Origine Controlée Cognac (AOC) appellation is the second-largest in France, with its 790 square kilometers of vineyards. Rows of vines cover coastal plains and gently sloping hills as far as the eye can see. The landscape is dotted with distilleries, estate buildings and small villages, many of which are several centuries old.

How Salt and Wine Became Brandy

 Cognac wird im Mittelalter exportiert.

Back in the 12th century, Cognac was a busy port. Its main export was salt – an essential and sought-after commodity used to preserve food during the medieval period. It was the abundance of salt that first attracted Dutch and British merchants to the south-west coast of France.

Perhaps inevitably, these international traders also began to fill their boats with local wine. The problem was that, by the time it reached its destination, the wine was already spoiled. To prevent this, people started distilling it. A side benefit of boiling down wine into eau-de-vie was that the weight of the new spirit—and the tax duties around it—decreased.

With time, merchants found out that a second distillation made for an even more elegant eau-de-vie, and this is how Cognac was born. The first mention of the word “Cognac” in the meaning of brandy was found in a sales contract from 1617.

What started merely as practicality eventually put France on the world spirits map.

Terroir is King

The more you start to learn about French brandy (and wine, for that matter), the more you’ll be hearing the word terroir. Behind it is the idea that every wine gets its specific character long before harvesting. This is because each vineyard grows in a unique environment shaped by both nature and man. Factors such as the exact composition of the soil and the angle at which the vines face the sun vary from location to location. These, and many other details, ultimately determine the aroma qualities of the grapes.

Sun, Chalk, and Sea Fossils

This part of France stretches across the Aquitaine basin – an area that, back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, was part of the ancient seas. Over the course of 200 million years, the shells of tiny sea creatures formed layers of chalk on the bottom. Once the water retreated, it left behind what is today an extremely porous, crumbly, and chalky soil.

The chalkier - the better

It's safe to say that without chalk in the soil, French brandy wouldn't exist. The reasons are quite simple:

  • Grapes grown in chalk are highly acidic, and so is the wine made from them. The high acidity helps preserve the wine until it's time for distillation since the use of Sulfur Dioxide isn’t allowed.
  • This type of soil acts like a sponge. It soaks up underground water so vineyards can survive during periods of drought.

Chalk isn't distributed evenly throughout the region. As you will see below, this creates a great variety of grape flavors which, in turn, impacts the final product.

Location, location, location

Back in the mid-19th century, a local geologist—Henri Coquand—studied in detail the soil in the region. His findings showed six types of soil with varying levels of chalk, limestone, and clay. This is what determined the borders between the six vineyard growth regions in Cognac, also known as Crus.

A map of the six Cognac crus.

In the table below you can see how the six crus vary in terms of size and soil, and how each specific soil type makes for a unique eau-de-vie.

Cru Sq/km Soil type Eau-de-vie
Grande Champagne,
a.k.a. Premiere
Cru de Cognac
140 Rich in chalk and very porous Famous for its floral aromas and finesse
Petite Champagne 153 Chalky but a bit more compact Very floral, fruity
Fins Bois 312 Heavy, a mix of clay and chalk Smooth with a floral bouquet
Bons Bois 93 Clay, chalk, and sand Fruity aromas
Borderies 40 A mix of chalk and clay dating back to the Jurassic era Nutty and toffee qualities
Bois Ordinaries 10 Mostly sandy With hints of the ocean

The climate in Cognac

Grapes are a fragile fruit. In order for them to mature without getting burnt, they need just the right amount of sun. The south-west of France undoubtedly offers excellent conditions for this delicate balance to happen.

Sadly, climate change has started to cause disruption in the production rhythm. As summers are getting hotter and dryer, grapes are ripening faster than usual and getting too sweet for distillation. Many producers have therefore been pushing forward the harvesting season from October to September.

Cognac Distillation: From Bad Wine To Good Spirit

Cognac is the product of a double-distilled, highly acidic wine made of at least 90% Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard.

Distillation takes place in traditionally shaped copper stills called Charentais Alembic, or simply alembic. Once heated in the pot, wine turns into vapors with high alcohol concentration. These vapors rise until they reach a narrow tube, also known as a swan neck, which leads them to a condenser. The reaction between the hot vapors and the cold water in the condenser is what creates the first distillate. This process is then repeated.

At the end of the second distillation, the eau-de-vie gets separated. The first part is the heads (78% to 82% alc/vol), the second one the hearts (60 to 78% alc/vol), and finally come the tails (60% alc/vol and below). The heads and tails are either discarded or distilled again, while the hearts end up in oak casks for maturation.

Below is a video provided by the BNIC that gives us a clear idea of the distillation process.

Cognac distillation has followed the same process for centuries except for one small but important change – the heat source used to bring wine to the boil is no longer wood, but gas. This helps the distiller to control the temperature more easily.

How to Read the Cognac Labels

Cognac labels can be confusing. The random combinations of letters aren’t exactly self-explanatory, and words like deluxe and superior can leave you scratching your head. Below is your cheat sheet for reading cognac labels like a pro.

  • Fine – Cognac that contains a blend of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne eau-de-vie, with at least 50% coming from Grande Champagne
  • Vintage – Cognac made of eau-de-vie coming from a single year, harvest, and estate. In other words, the opposite of a blend
  • VS – Very special; Cognac that is at least two years old. Also known as a 3-star cognac, Deluxe or Millésime
  • Superior – The eau-de-vie for this Cognac has been aged for at least 3 years in an oak cask
  • VSOP – Very Special Old Pale; Cognac that has aged at least 4 years. Also called Rare or Réserve 
  • Napoléon – Cognac that has aged at least 6 years, also known as Very Rare or Suprême
  • XO – Extra Old; Cognac that is at least 10 years old
  • XXO – Extra Extra Old; Cognac that has been aged for at least 14 years
  • Hors d’ Age – Beyond Age; Cognacs with an average age of 30 years and above. 

A 4-step Guide To Drinking Cognac the Right Way

There are many ways to enjoy Cognac and our goal isn't to convince you that one is better than the other. However, this being a connoisseurs' territory, we're all about neat. If mixing is your thing, you can jump straight to this list of timeless Cognac cocktail recipes.

1. Setting the scene

"We like the good things in life."

This is a sentence you’ll hear over and over again if you decide to visit the city of Cognac and its surroundings. Choosing quality over quantity is part of the life philosophy in this corner of the world. No wonder, then, that Cognac has come to be associated with luxury and decadence. If you're about to pour yourself a glass of this iconic spirit, a good dose of Bon vivant-attitude is where you should start.

Cognac is the product of true craftsmanship and there isn't a single drop in the bottle that is there by accident. Make sure you take the time to appreciate this fact. Stop everything else that you're doing, put on your nicest clothes, and, most importantly, do it in a pleasant company.

2. Pairing cognac with food

Try to push aside the leather-chair-and-cigar image you may have in your head. Cognac is more versatile than that. It pairs surprisingly well—and quite easily—with food. One simple rule of thumb is to serve young Cognacs with light food and older ones with more intense flavors. Chocolate, cheese, charcuterie, and seafood are among your many options.

A younger VS Cognac with its light, fruity flavor pairs well with creamy cheeses like Camembert, Brie, and Roqeuefort. Even a slice of cheesecake would be an option. A well-aged brandy, such as VSOP or XO, typically has a spicier, more robust flavor. It does a great job accompanying rich and fatty food such as cured meats, sautéed wild mushrooms, or medium rare beef.

3. Picking the glassware

When it comes to choosing a Cognac glass, the two most common alternatives are the snifter and the tulip glass. There have been some disputes as to which one is better, but for us the tulip glass, which is similar to the Glencairn whisky glass, is the clear winner.

The tulip glass, just like the flower it's named after, flares out slightly at the top. This allows the aromas to open up and spread more gradually, so you can recognize each of the different floral, fruity, or nutty notes. In contrast, the snifter concentrates the nose and the rich variety of nuances gets replaced with a strong smell of alcohol.


4. It's time for the first sip

The first thing you want to do is let your Cognac breathe for a bit. The older the Cognac, the more time it needs to "open up". Some even follow the formula of 30 seconds for each year of the Cognac's age. If you hold the glass in your palm while waiting, it will intensify the aromas even more.

Next, gently swirl the glass and bring it close to your nose. As you breathe in, try to notice floral or fruity aromas. If you're holding an older Cognac in your hand, you may even sense a hint of jam.

The Cognac aroma wheel
This aroma wheel is a good starting point for beginners looking for the right words.

Remember, Cognac is meant to be savored, not gulped down. Take a small sip and let the liquid stay on your tongue for a few seconds. Can you taste the same notes that you just smelled? Do you detect sweetness, saltiness, or even some acidity? It's all of these elements that make each Cognac a unique experience.