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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 
Updated October 2017
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.  
The Cognac labels.
Cognac houses, the Cognac producers, print on the labels their Cognacs'  brand name. Included, along with legally required specifications, they often add awe-inspiring detail. Apart from their labels many Cognacs bottles are themselves works of art.Despite that, their design has no connection 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 labels and or packaging may indicate the ages of the older eau-de-vies.Cognacs begin as wines. When they have been distilled they become eau-de Vies; distilled grape liquors. They only become a Cognac when they have been blended.  Never mind the age of the oldest eau-de-vies on the label. The legal age of the Cognac is the age of youngest eau-de-vie used in the blend. 
The age is shown cryptically with symbols such as ***,   or initials such as VSOP. Words such as  Extra or Napoleon may also be used.  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 by using the French word "Cru," the label will show that. Apart from affecting the taste of a Cognac, 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 Talent (brand name) Cognac was created in 1991 by Bernard and Jaques Hine.
It commemorates the bi-centenary of their ancestor’s arrival in France, from England.  Included in the price of this Cognac is the exclusively designed Baccarat Crystal decanter shown in the picture.
Photograph by Gilles de Beauchên, courtesy of HINE.
The minimum age of a Cognac.

After at least two years in oak barrels, young eau-de-vies may be blended with other eau-de-vies.  Then they may be called a Cognac.
There are said to be old Cognacs made with a single, unblended, vintage. These, would be extremely expensive Cognacs. They 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 2018
X.O. (Extra Old).  X.O. will break away from the pack on April 1 2018.  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 the producers' provenance, they are not the law.
A night view of Cognac across the River Charente.
Photograph courtesy of Hellebardius
Cognacs older than 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 used for Cognac may be grown. Within appellations, some wines are then separated by crus, grades in English. The crus were allocated to areas whose grapes produced superior wines.  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. However, there are seven grades. That grade was 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.
The Cognac growing areas with the Cognac Crus.
Map courtesy of  BilzOr.
Based on the original by Alain Peaudeau, membre du club Rando-photo.
The Crus
The first is 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. The wines come 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 the second level in Cognac grades. It is 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 despite their great 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. 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 an excellent Cognac.

Cognac crus were established 150 years ago on the basis of soil and other tests. They have been part of French law since 1909.  No cru has ever 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  Bordeaux wines, Port, Sherry, Rum, Madeira, Marsala wine 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 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. Noen the less, both markings, until 2016 when XO changes, have exactly the same legal meaning. Six years of age.
Napoleon Cognacs.
Legal permission to use 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 use the name Napoleon for their six-year-old Cognacs.  

Where does Cognac come from?
Cognac comes from grapes grown in the beautiful departments of Charente, Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres and Vienne.  These departments were part of Poitou-Charentes in southwestern France. Since 1-1-2016 they are included in the new super region of Nouvelle Aquitaine. The area is 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 department of the Dordogne in Aquitaine, itself a magnificent center for other wines, Cuisine a la Périgordien, black truffles and more.
The Cognac producing departments.
Below, and to the left, is the region of the Gironde with the city of  Bordeaux. 

 © Google Maps.
Who produces Cognac?
In the center of this truly distinctive region is the town of Cognac that gave its name to this 40% alcohol grape brandy.  The Cognac region is vast and includes the islands Ré and Oléron, off France’s Atlantic coast.   Within the growing area of Cognac, there are over 5,000 vignerons, owners of vineyards. Nevertheless, less than 300 of these vignerons sell a Cognac with their name, their own 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 with 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. 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; the result was a magical 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 momentous decision. In the first case, it saved the Dutch shipping costs. In the second case, this allowed the French to see that brandy distillation was a growing business.  The French copied the Dutch and opened their own distilleries.  Then the French 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 called Cognac. Following on their second distillation, the French distillers discovered that allowing the brandy to spend more time in oak barrels improved the taste and color. The English quickly became the largest buyers of brandy.  As quickly as they could age the brandy and that was at least two years they had customers standing 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 made from a wine that has been distilled twice.  In other areas of France, an eau-de-vie may mean 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.

 What else did the Romans bring?
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 (with an e) 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.   They also taught the French how to grow snails for food and how to make foie gras, fattened goose liver The Romans also brought apricot, cherry, peach and many  other fruits and trees into France. The Romans also knew how to make good wine, and they added to the types of grapes grown in France. 
I digress as I write as this is a blog on French cuisine so I cannot cover even a shortened story of Cognac in one post.   As I write I pass along my own impressions together with what I have seen, tasted, been told, shown or read. To cover the world of Cognac there are four 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 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 and the aperitif of the Cognac region, Pineau de Charentes, Cognac III.

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).
Behind the French Menu’s links include hundreds of words, names, and phrases that are seen on French menus. There are over 400 articles that include over 2,500 French dishes with English translations and explanations.  Just add the word, words or phrase that you are searching for to the words "Behind the French Menu" and search with Google or Bing.

Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2013, 2014,2017.

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman

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