Like most other spirits, Cognac, and other brandies have been through a few boom-and-busts. Located just north and seaward of Bordeaux, its history as a wine-producing region dates back to the third century. But it was around the 1700s that its fortune was set as a producer of spirits. As the Dutch developed a taste for French brandewijn (burnt wine), France’s Cognac region emerged as the place to get brandy. A few ups and downs later, it is still regarded as a premium spirit, though one that fights to find a balance between its slightly stodgy reputation of old and its newer reputation as a club drink.
The process of making brandy starts with a still wine. Typically made from ugni blanc or other grapes that have good acidity, the base wine is typically lower in alcohol, and generally not appealing to most wine drinkers’ palates. The wine is then distilled several times (or “burnt”) in unique stills before aging in barrels. Cognac (and Armagnac) are typically sold with an age classification. VS, the most youthful aged Cognac, has a minimum of two years in the barrel for the youngest Cognac in the blend. VSOP, or Very Special Old Pale, sees a minimum of four years of aging and XO (Extra Old) a minimum of six. In practice, many producers actually age their Cognac for much longer.
The Cognac region
The Cognac region is broken up into six different “crus,” or geographic denominations. Starting at the top is “Grande Champagne” (no relation to the sparkling wine region), followed by Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires down at the bottom. There are good (and less good) sites to make the base wine in each cru and most Cognacs will source theirs from several crus. Generally, the very best Cognacs will source from Grande or Petite Champagne and will say so on the bottle.
Armagnac comes from the south side of Bordeaux and is known for producing a deeper, smokier, overall more robust spirit than Cognac. It uses a wider selection of grape varieties and has a slightly different distillation process than that of Cognac. Armagnac’s aging tiers are a little different, but comparable, though Armagnac often puts a vintage date on the bottle allowing for extensive age statements, making it the choice of gift seekers looking for a nice bottle with a certain year on it.
As with any other appellation of origin, a bottle with “Cognac” on the label must come from the Cognac region of France. To come from any other place, the spirit should be called brandy or another regionally appropriate name. Put another way, Cognac is a brandy, but all brandy is not Cognac. (I remember once coming across a bottle of South American “Coac” on an Alberta liquor store shelf – hats off for originality, but a bit of a stretch.) That said, brandy, and not just those from France, is a wonderful spirit and fine examples can be found the world over.
Pairing with Cognac
Cognac (and brandy) pairs nicely with pts, terrines and foie gras, as well as robust meats, cheeses, stronger seafoods and desserts. Traditionally, brandy was served in the eponymous snifter, the short stem and wide bowl permitting the warmth of a cupped hand to open up and divulge the aromas of the spirit. In these more modern times, our homes are warmer, so virtually any tulip-shaped glass can be used to enjoy brandy, though a wider bowl is better. Brandy is typically enjoyed “neat,” without a mixer or water, though there are a number of cocktails that utilize brandy or Cognac. A one-ounce pour is standard, so try not to over-pour. Cognac is a sipping drink, meant to be enjoyed, discussed and shared among friends.
3 perfect pairings
Belvedere: Chateaubriand and VSOP
By all means, have wine with your dinner, but close off a special meal (with a special someone) like the Chateaubriand for two with a VSOP like Hennessy ($10 for a one-ounce pour). Mellow and smooth with spice and a slightly fiery finish, it’s the perfect finale for a great dinner.
107 8 Ave. S.W., 403-265-9595, thebelvedere.ca
Buchanan’s: Sticky toffee pudding and Armagnac
A good sticky-toffee pudding can be a delightful match with a little Cognac, like the Saint-Vivant VSOP Armagnac ($8). Wonderfully perfumed and a little smoky, its heat should also play into the richness of the dessert.
738 3 Ave. S.W., 403-261-4646, buchanans.ca
Royale Brasserie: Franaise Apple tart and Armagnac
Make the dessert course the most memorable of the evening by pairing the Darroze 20-year-old Armagnac ($12) with the tarte fine aux pommes. The salted caramel and apple draw out all the citrus and dried fruit of this earthy and smoky spirit.
730 17 Ave. S.W., 403-475-9457, royaleyyc.ca
6 brandy picks
Chateau de Montifaud VS Fine Petite Champagne Cognac
Warming spice and alcohol headiness lead off in the glass with lemon rind, toffee and salted caramel. Perhaps a little more delicate than other Cognacs, its long and almost-creamy finish seems to suit a more casual enjoyment. Great for someone just getting interested in Cognac. $51.
Chateau de Pellehaut 1982 Armagnac
Slightly smoky with leather, citrus and a marked salinity on the nose – to say it is powerful on the palate would be an understatement. But all those spice, fire and earthy caramel characteristics are finely balanced, which may have something to do with those 30-plus years in the cask. $71.
Torres Jaime 30 year Old Brandy
Not a Cognac, but a well-aged premium brandy, the Jaime shows a mildly herbal aroma surrounded by toffee, chalk, old leather and sandalwood. Seemingly sweetish on the palate, a hint of berry fruit adds freshness to all these lovely toffee and woody tones. $130.
Pierre de Segonzac VSOP Grande Champagne Cognac
With abundant toffee and sherry-cask sweet aromas and intense citrus notes, this Cognac is remarkably smooth, finishing with a little anise and black licorice towards the back palate. One of only a handful of family-run Cognac producers, it is perfect for Scotch fans or newcomers. $74.
Rmy Martin XO Champagne Cognac
Rmy Martin is a global brand, one of the benchmarks of Cognac and widely available. The XO is quite floral and spicy, with harvest notes that emerge from under a subtle caramel nose. The silky texture almost forces you to roll it around in your mouth, while beckoning a second (and third) sip. $200.
Withington Voorkamer Pot Still Brandy, South Africa
Baked-apple and citrus aromas ride underneath a prominent alcohol heat. Palate-wise, the heat is somewhat subdued allowing spice-box and caramel-type flavours to bolster those apple fruits. A mild smoky and sea-salt character rounds out the masculine but elegant finish. $65.