Cognac is the most recognized and valued grape distillate in the world today. Its quality comes from long aging periods in oak barrels made only with the trees from the Limousin forest, which surrounds the Cognac region of France.
Cognac, which is made from white grapes, range from ugni blanc, Folle Blanche and colombard, and generally requires two distillations until the alcohol content is robust enough to endure the aging process inside the wooden barrels. All the wine regions of Cognac fall within the department of Charente, and are divided into 6 areas (Grande Champagne, Petit Champagne, Fine Champagne, Borderies, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaries). Join us as we explore this denomination of origin and discover some of its best labels, including Frapin V.O.S.P., Camus Cuvée 2105, Hennessy Privé, L’Essence de Courvoisier and Remy Martin Premier Cru.
Usually, the denomination is registered on each bottle, which indicates the exact place of origin of the grapes used to distill the Cognac. Charente has a great number of large reservoirs for aging the spirit. In many cases the liquid remains over 50 years in the barrels, thus becoming a very selective and quite expensive liquor. The porous nature of the wood allows the liquid to absorb the barrel’s soluble flavor nuances, as well as oxygen from the air. The rate of evaporation is so high that the French like to say that “the angels of paradise” drink most of the cognac.
French law monitors every step of the process and regulates what goes on each label. Depending on the time the spirit is aged, it could have one of the following classifications:
- VS. Very Special, also called Three Stars. This cognac has been aged for two and a half years.
- VSOP. Very Special Old Pale, also called “Reserve”. It has been aged between 4 and 6 years.
- XO. Extra Old, aged for more than 6 years.
- NAPOLEON. These are the distillates preserved in barrels from the time of the Emperor. As it gets bottled, the eaux de vie is replaced by a younger cognac of excellent quality, which in turn will begin its own aging process. These rare cognacs can command extraordinary prices. A bottle from 1802 was recently auctioned in London for $52,000.
The master Cognac distillers are zealous artists who pass on the secrets behind their blends from generation to generation. This very important tradition is called mélange (blending). Each chateau produces a characteristic spirit of unalterable quality. Some of these wineries were built more than two hundred years ago, and their production methods have not changed much since then. The best producers ascribe to the understanding that making a fine Cognac goes beyond the needs and demands of the market. Here are five I can recommend, among a long list of others.
Matured a minimum of 10 years in oak barrels, it is made with grapes from the Grande Champagne Premier Cru of Cognac. It has a golden-amber color, and its aroma is fine and delicate, with light floral and toasted vanilla notes. Its flavor is soft, sensuous and elegant.
A blend of a 65 and a 40-year old Cognac, its aroma is rich with sweet scents of orange and spices, as well as the more floral notes of honeysuckle and jasmine. On the palate, one can perceive hints of hazelnut, chocolate, dried plums and cedar wood. It has a spicy fruit aftertaste.
After the first dominant punch of the oak, you’ll begin to recognize a light hazelnut aroma. It feels floral and a bit unctuous on the palate, with several characteristic flavors, in particular, that of red fruits and notes of vanilla on the aftertaste.
The specific process of cognac distillation takes place in traditional Chanterais red copper stills. The aromas begin with an exquisite touch of sandalwood and tabac, followed by marzipan and caramel. Full bodied, this Cognac tastes of licorice, dried plums, and apricots.
This Cognac has a brilliant mahogany color, dried fruity aromas with a predominance of figs, as well as penetrating notes of hawthorn, and in particular elegant hints of hazelnut. Its texture is smooth and intense with lingering flavors on the palate. A perfectly harmonious and well-balanced Cognac. ■