Saturday, October 26, 2013

Deciphering Cognac Labels and How to Tell the Age and Grade of a Cognac. Cognac; the World's Most Famous Brandy. Cognac I.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan Newman 
Can any digestif be better than a Cognac,
after an enjoyable meal?

I think not. 
Cognac in a classic Cognac snifter.
Photograph Courtesy of JonathanCohen.

All French Cognacs are entitled to use the initials AOC and AOP.  For more about  the AOC and AOP initials see the links at the end of this  post
The Cognac labels.
Cognac houses, the Cognac producers, print on the labels their Cognacs'  brand name, often adding  awe-inspiring specifications.  Apart from the labels many Cognacs bottles are themselves works of art; however, their design has no relation to the quality of the Cognac. Among all the extraneous material  look on the label for the following:

The legal age of  the Cognac in the bottle.

The label and or packaging may indicate the ages of the older eau-de-vies, the distilled grape liquors that are blended to make Cognac; however, what   really counts is the legal age of the youngest of those eau-de-vies used in the blend. 

The age is shown with symbols, such as ***,  initials such as VSOP, or somewhat cryptic words such as  Extra.  Five paragraphs further down this post all these symbols and initials, with their meanings are listed.

A Cognac’s grade

 If a Cognac is graded, called the cru in French, the label will show that. Apart from affecting the taste of the Cognac the brand, along with the real age and the cru will also affect your wallet.  Cognac mavens use the labels to narrow their choices, however, knowing the legal markings are only a fraction of a great Cognac’s story.

The Talent Cognac
This (brand name) Cognac was created in 1991 by Bernard and Jaques Hine.
This Cognac commemorates the bi-centenary of their ancestor’s arrival in France, from England.  Included in the price of the Cognac is the uniquely designed Baccarat Crystal decanter shown in the picture.
Photograph by Gilles de Beauchên, courtesy of HINE.
The minimum age of a Cognac.
After two years in oak barrels young eau-de-vies may be blended with other eau-de-vies  and then they may be called Cognac; however, two years in a barrel are the minimum, not the maximum. 

There are said to be old Cognacs made with a single, unblended, vintage;  these, no doubt, extremely expensive Cognacs may be out there, but  I have only heard rumors.

 Cognac blends and age.
A Cognac blend may include four, six,  ten or even thirty-year-old brandies.   However, if a single drop of a two-year-old eau-de-vie is included  in the Cognac all the producer may show for the  legal age of this Cognac is a two-year-old Cognac. 
The legal initials, symbols and names for age on Cognac labels
 V.S., (Very Special), or  ***, three stars – On the label for a Cognac where the youngest liquor in the blend was matured in oak barrels for at least two years.
 V.O, (Very Old); V.S.O.P.(VSOP), (Very Superior Old Pale) and Réserve – The youngest eau-de-vie in these Cognacs will have been matured in oak barrels for at least four years.
 X.O., (XO), (Extra Old); Vielle Réserve, (Ancient Reserve); Extra; (Extra), Hors d'Âge, (Too old to determine), and Napoléon.  – All the eau-de-vies in  these Cognacs will have been aged for at least six years in oak barrels.

X.O. Cognac changes in 2016
X.O. (Extra Old).  X.O. will break away from the pack in 2016.  Then the initials X.O. (XO) on a bottle of Cognac, may only be used when the youngest brandy in the blend is 10 years old.

Differences between the ages in the list above
The Cognac producers’ organization, the BNIC (the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac) accept  that there are differences between each Cognacs’ age grouping.  However, these differences are recommendations that the producers should observe, they are not the law.


A night view of Cognac across the River Charente.
Photograph courtesy of Hellebardius
Cognacs older that six years
To taste a very old Cognac, you will need to be extremely lucky, or be willing to pay an extraordinarily high price. If you are in the town of Cognac and extremely lucky, the maître de chai, the cellar master and master blender of a Cognac house, may invite you to try a real twenty-year-old cognac.  By that, I mean a Cognac none of whose eau-de-vies in the blend are younger than twenty years.  You would, no doubt, enjoy an unparalleled and extremely rare Cognac;  a twenty-year-old blend  with no eau-de-vies younger than 20 years.You may know the  true age of the youngest Cognac in the bottle; however, for sale the label  may only show the same markings as a Cognac with a six-year eau-de-vie in the blend.  There is no legal marking for a twenty-year-old blend.
Checking aging Cognac  in the chai, the cellar.
Photograph Eric Forget courtesy of Cognac HINE.
The crus, the grades, on Cognac labels.
French wine growing areas are divided by appellations, which legally limits the area where a particular wine may be grown. Within appellations, some wines are then separated by crus, grades in English. The cru will be allocated to grapes that produce a wine that show shows unique qualities.  For Cognac, the crus reflect the ratings among vineyards and the quality of the white wine grapes that grow there; that rating may under certain conditions be transferred to the bottled Cognac’s label.
There are six Cognac crus, each cru equaling a grade and a seventh grade set between the first and second crus. These grades may be on the labels. The map below shows  the six Cognac cru’s growing areas.

Map of the Cognac growing areas for Cognac Crus.
Map courtesy of  BilzOr.
Based on the original by Alain Peaudeau, membre du club Rando-photo.
The Crus
Grande Champagne:
Grande Champagne, also called Grande Fine Champagne. This is the area with the highest rated vineyards.
NB. The word Champagne in Cognac labels has nothing to do with the wines called Champagne including the famous sparkling Champagne wines from the area that begins just one hour north of Paris.  The origin of the word champagne is related to the Roman word for a type of soil.
Fine Champagne:
Fine Champagne is not a separate cru as there are no Fine Champagne vineyards.  Fine Champagne represents a second level in Cognac grades made with grapes from the first and second crus. At least 50% of the eau-de-vies used in this blend must come from first cru Grand Champagne vineyards.
NB. The name Fine Champagne is not to be confused with the name of the first cru noted above.  That first cru may be called Grande Fine Champagne.  Don’t blame me for any confusion that results; I did not allocate the names!  Fine Champagne and Grande Fine Champagne Cognacs are from different grades.
Petite Champagne:
Petite Champagne also called Petite Fine Champagne; the second highest cru and the third grade.
Then comes four more crus:
Borderies; the third cru vineyards.
Fins Bois:
Fins Bois; the fourth cru vineyards.
Bons Bois:
Bons Bois; the fifth cru vineyards.
Bois Ordinaires and Bois Communes.
Bois Ordinaires and Bois Communes:  the sixth cru vineyards.  Bois Ordinaires and Bois Communs may be the sixth cru, but they are certainly not the least.
Ungraded Cognacs
However well-aged and blended, and however noteworthy their taste and aroma, and however magnificent their packaging, Cognacs  made from two or more  crus may not mention any cru. The singular exception  to that rule is the blend made with the first and second crus  Grande Champagne and  Fine Champagne noted above.
The areas divided into crus were laid out long ago and none of the modern changes in agriculture, blending techniques or the actual taste are represented on the label. The lack of a cru on the label does not mean a very poor Cognac.  The lack of a cru on the label is only one among the many rules that affect the final taste, aroma and that je ne sais quoi, of a great Cognac. 
Cognac crus were established 150 years ago on the basis of soil and other tests and they have been part of French law since 1909.  No cru has been even been changed. With tremendous prestige behind the best crus, not to mention enormous financial investments, it may be another 150 years until  Cognac crus  and their growing areas are revisited. 
French Cognac with English names on the labels.

Nearly all of the initials and names used to describe a Cognac’s age are in English. That should not be surprising as the English were also behind the popularity of the Bordeaux wines, Port, Sherry, Rum, Madeira and Marsala wines and, of course,  gin.   In the 17th century, the Cognac houses largest customers were the English and the English, being English, only placed their orders in English. Additionally two of the most famous Cognac houses had English founders and a third was Irish.

English names on the labels.
 Before Cognac was just called Cognac, all these brandies were sold as Eau-de-Vies de Cognac or Eau-de-Vies de Charentes.  From those early days, the usage of English for these brandies’ age was the accepted standard. When France set legal standards for Cognac labels, the English names and initials remained

French names on Cognac labels
French names do appear on the labels of  some Cognacs  that are at least six-years-old; Hors d’Age is one example, it means too old to determine. Hors d’Age was added by French Cognac Houses, who claimed older brandies than those using the X.0. marking;  however, both markings, until 2016 when XO changes, have exactly  the same legal meaning.

Napoleon Cognacs.

Legal permission to use of the name Napoléon for Cognacs at least six-years-old was given in 1936; by then there were no Napoleons around to claim the copyright.   The name is said to relate to the preference of Napoléon I  for this brandy.  However, while Napoléon I and his nephew Napoléon III  lived no brandy from the area of Cognac carried  either of the Emperors' names. Napoléon III did give a Royal Warrant to the Cognac house Courvoisier in 1869 and today Courvoisier calls itself Le Cognac de Napoléon.   Other Cognac houses just use the name Napoleon for their six-year-old Cognacs.  For more about Napoléon I and III, see the links at the end of this post.

Where does Cognac come from?
Cognac  comes from grapes grown in the beautiful région of Poitou-Charentes in southwestern France. The area  is also well known for its magnificent shellfish, goats’ cheeses, AOC butters, AOC new potatoes, melons, truffles and much much more. Some of the grapes for Cognacs come from vineyards in the département of the Dordogne in Aquitaine, itself a magnificent center of  other wines, Cuisine Périgordien, black truffles and more.

The région of Poitou-Charentes and part of Aquitaine including the Dordogne.
Below,  and to the left, is the region of the Gironde with the city of  Bordeaux.  Bordeaux is France’s most famous wine producing enclave.
© Google Maps.
Who produces Cognac?
In the center of this truly distinctive area is the town of Cognac that gave its name to this 40% alcohol grape brandy.  The Cognac producing region  is vast and even includes the islands called Ré and Oléron, off France’s Atlantic coast.   Within the growing area of Cognac, there are over 5,000 vignerons, owners of vineyards; however less than 300 of these vignerons sell a Cognac with their name, their brand, on the label. Less than  50 Cognac producers with their own brands are known outside of France. 
A number of famous Cognac houses, in fact, own no vineyards at all. These Cognac houses buy their grapes or young eau-de vies from growers. A Cognac house’s knowledge and art, in aging and blending Cognacs, and merchandising the final product makes them famous, not growing the grapes.

Stacked and aging Cognac barrels in a cellar.
Photograph courtesy of Pictr One X.
A clarification of two of the words used in this post:
Brandy, today, is the name given to many strong alcoholic liquors.  Brandies may be made from distilled grape juice or other distilled fruit juices; brandies may even  be made from the leftover grape skins, leaves and twigs used for making Cognac.  All Cognacs and Armagnacs are grape brandies, and France has other excellent brandies; that includes Calvados AOC and its three glorious apple brandies. 
  The Dutch, Brandy and Cognac.
The Dutch were not the first to distill wines into liquors; the distillation of liquors goes back over 800 years. However, when the Dutch distilled wines from the region of Cognac they gave the world the name brandy and they made the area of Cognac internationally famous.
The origin of the word brandy.
The Dutch were among the most influential traders in the Old and New Worlds, and they were the first serious buyers of the wines from the area now called Cognac. When the Dutch bought the wines from the area that would become  Cognac, they transported them, in barrels, to Holland.  Unfortunately, back in Holland they found these wines did not travel well and would not sell as wine. To safeguard their investment the Dutch distilled these not so brilliant wines into liquor; the result was an excellent liquor.  The Dutch called this liquor brandewijn, meaning burnt wine. Brandewijn was the word that would become brandy.
Ten liters of wine makes one liter of brandy and the Dutch realized that distilling the wines where they were made would save a great deal of space on their ships.  Distilling the liquor in the area around the town of Cognac was a crucial decision. In the first case it saved the Dutch shipping costs, and in the second case this allowed the French  to see that this was a growing business.  The French copied the Dutch and opened their own distilleries; then they came up with a second distillation that is still used today; that second distillation allows for a smoother liquor. 
Then came the English
The English were the largest buyers of wines in nearby Bordeaux;  they traveled a few miles north and crossed to the other side of the River Gironde to see what was being sold near the town on Cognac. The English quickly became the largest buyers of brandy.  The  French distillers  then discovered that allowing the brandy to spend more time in oak barrels improved the taste and color.  Then, as quickly as they could age more brandy the customers began to stand in line. Aging and blending the eau-de-vies from different years produced many excellent and different brandies and among them Cognac became the most famous.
The meaning of Eau-de-vie.
For the area of Cognac, an eau-de-vie means a grape alcohol that has been distilled twice.  In other areas of France, an eau-de-vie means a distilled fruit brandy, and the French have many notable fruit brandies.  On a carte des digestifs, a list of recommended after-dinner drinks, Cognacs, Armagnacs, Calvadoses, and eau-de-vies   will be separated.  The eau-de vies on the list will be fruit brandies.
The words eau-de-vie are the French translation of the Latin words aqua vitae; in English the water of life.   Aqua vitae were the words used for certain alcoholic products produced by the Romans; when the Romans occupied France and Britain and elsewhere the translations of the words aqua vitae were taken into the local languages. Despite the Roman’s knowledge of wine-making,  the distillation of wines into liquors came hundreds of years later.

The words aqua vitae were also taken into Scottish and Irish Gaelic.  According to and the World English Dictionary the Gaelic words for the water of life would eventually become whisky in Scotland and whiskey in Ireland.

We blame the Romans for many unnecessary things; they spent a lot of  time introducing the French and English to good roads, aqueducts and  baths, etc.   However, on the plus side, they did teach the French how to grow snails for food and  how to make fattened goose liver,  as well as importing cherry,  apricot  and many  other trees into France. The Romans also knew how to make many good wines, and they added to the types of grapes grown in France. 
A blog on French cuisine cannot cover even a shortened story of Cognac in one post.  I write on French cuisine and for Cognac I pass along my own impressions together with what I have seen, tasted, been told, shown or read. To cover that my short introduction to the world of Cognac will require, at least, three separate posts.
My annual visits to France,  for work and pleasure, allowed me to try and enjoy a number of Cognacs.  Over many years and many tests I have found a Cognac that suits my taste. That Cognac is a well-known brand  and it is usually  available wherever I travel and so I search no more.  For those who are still looking for their preferred Cognac, read about the changes that occur in Cognac when they are stored and aged in oak barrels in the post  Cognac II.

More Cognac posts:
The British and the Irish who created great Cognac houses: HINE, Martell and Hennessey.
Cognac from the Atlantic Islands of Île de Ré and  Île d'Oléron
Cognac in other languages: 
(Chinese - 科涅克白 - kē niè kè báilándì), (Greek – κονιάκ –koniák), (Hebrew – konyak - קוניאק ), (Korean –코냑 - konyag)  (Russian - kоньяк  - kon'yak), (Tagalog – konyak).
Connected posts:


Bryan G Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2013, 2014
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman