7 Cognac Bottles You Should Add to Your Bar (Maybe One at a Time, Though)
As you fill out your well-stocked bar, a bottle of good cognac is a must-have. A lot of us may not know too much about the French libation that often comes in the super-fancy bottles, but the good news is that it's a delicious drink you can easily get on board with, so experimenting a bit to discover your favorite shouldn't be too painful. Quite enjoyable, actually.
First, a little background. Like champagne, cognac is named for its home region. If a beverage is called cognac, it has to have come from Cognac, France. There are other, similar spirits, which are known as brandy. Cognac is made from regional grapes that are fermented for a few weeks and then twice distilled in copper stills into what is called an eau-de-vie. This colorless spirit is about 70 percent alcohol before it is put into oak barrels for aging. A cognac must be aged for at least two years before it can be bottled and sold, though most are aged for more. Many distillers will blend their Congacs with eaux-de-vie of multiple years in order to maintain their signature flavors.
Cognacs come from six distinct places, called crus, made different by the growing conditions and grape varietals. In the same way that scotches that come from different regions have distinctly different flavors, cognacs retain the flavors of their crus. Some cognacs could be blends from different crus (ex. a Fine Champagne Cognac is a blend of eaux-de-vie from both Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne crus). But that's a plus, really, because it gives you more room for experimentation.
Here are some select spirits from each cognac cru to get you started on your journey.
Grande Champagne – Cognac Prunier VSOP
The Grande Champagne cru tops the list because it is known to produce the finest cognacs. Of course, “finest” doesn't necessarily mean “tastiest” so you are free to love cognacs from other crus. But if you want to drink cognac with your pinky up (or impress someone with your order), choose a Grande Champagne because they are the most prestigious.
This region is in the middle of all the crus, which means the soil is mostly composed of clay and limestone, making a chalky soil that holds water well and is very fertile, so it grows grape vines well. The grapes of this area produce cognac white wines that are light with a predominantly floral bouquet. Part of the prestige of this cru is that the cognacs have to be aged for a long time in barrels to add nuance to the florals and more flavor to the lightness.
Dip your toe into the Grand Champagne side of the pool with the Cognac Prunier VSOP (Very Special Old Pale). This spirit adds fruity to the floral with apple and orange aromas. The flavor is a delicate blend of oak, vanilla and apple with a caramel finish. A light summer sipper that would go great with a creamy dessert.
Petite Champagne – Domaine Frandon XO Petite Champagne Cognac
The Petite Champagne cru is just to the south of the Grand Champagne and so shares many of the same characteristics. This is how the two usually end up blended together in a Fine Champagne cognac. Some connoisseurs feel that a Petite Champagne doesn't have quite the same nuances or finesse of a Grande Champagne, but the right master distiller can make any spirit brilliant.
It's pricey and might not be easy to find, but if you want to try a pure Petite Champagne cognac, get your hands on a bottle of Domaine Frandon XO Petite Champagne Cognac. The aroma is of almonds and toffee with just a touch of citrus and the flavor has a complex earthiness with hints of plum, vanilla and nuts. If you'd like to try a blend of Grande and Petite Champagne cognacs (and spend a little less to try a Petite), pick up a bottle of Remy Martin's 1738 Accord Royale Fine Champagne Cognac. It's rich and fruity with hints of toffee and spice, heavy enough to enjoy with a chocolate tart.
Borderies – Camus Borderies Cognac VSOP
The next cru, in order of prestige, is the smallest of the cognac regions known as Borderies. Even though it's the smallest, it's not completely uncommon to find a Borderies cognac from many of the highest-quality brands. The soil of this area is also composed of clay, but with less limestone than the Grande and Petite Champagne crus. The cognacs that come from here are likely to have rich, nutty aromas with smooth flavor and hints of violets. They can also reach maturity and full flavor with a shorter aging period than their Champagne neighbors.
The Camus house was one of the first to develop the cognacs of this region, so the Camus Borderies Cognac VSOP is a great introduction. This spirit has a mix of apples, honey and cinnamon with just a note of peach. The flavor is not too heavy and not too light with spicy vanilla tones and more fruit -- a truly complex offering.
Fins Bois – Giboin Fins Bois Cognac
Another region with some soil similarities to the Champagne crus is Fins Bois. The soils are mostly clay with some chalk and less limestone, as well as a distinctive red color. Fins Bois cognacs are richer and heavier and age fairly quickly. They have fruity flavors, are well-rounded and offer a mixture of fresh grapes.
Since they age quickly, the eaux-de-vie of Fins Bois are often used as a base for cognac blends. But if you want to get to know this cru with a pure offering, track down a bottle of Giboin Fins Bois. They usually produce Borderies Cognac, but you can still find some Fins Bois if you search. This spirit is more robust than your Fine Champagne cognacs, but it's also richer and more interesting. It's a good cru to know if you're going to be a cognac expert.
Bon Bois – Louis Royer Distillerie Chantal Bon Bois
The Bon Bois region boasts both sandy and limestone-rich soil, bringing together the best of both cognac worlds due to its nearness to the coast. Here are not just pastoral fields of grape vines, but also pine and chestnut forests. Again, as they are further from the center of cognac production, these crus at the end of the list are considered less prestigious. The flavors aren't as demonstrative and the cognacs age more quickly.
This makes eaux-de-vie of the Bon Bois cru perfect for blends and mass production. But that doesn't mean you can't get a great Bon Bois cognac. The Louis Royer master distillers decided that each cru should have its own special release, so they created their Distilleries Collection. The gentle climate and aerated soil produce delicate grapes that give the Louis Royer Distillerie Chantal Bon Bois Cognac a fruity bouquet and lightly complex flavor. It's an easy intro to the region and it's not too hard on your budget.
Bois Ordinaires – Jean Grosperrin Cognac Bois Ordinaires
As its name indicates, cognacs from the cru Bois Ordinaires are considered the least prestigious. The eaux-de-vie of this region are the most likely to be found in blends and as a part of mass production. Its coastal proximity and island locales make the soil more sandy, with far less chalk and clay than the more central crus, so the grapes don't have a reputation for producing nuanced spirits. Bois Ordinaires Cognacs also age quickly, making them more conducive to blending.
The good news is you can find cognacs dedicated to the Bois Ordinaires. Jean Grosperrin is a broker who collects cognacs from all crus. For an excellent sample from Bois Ordinaires, you should try the Jean Grosperrin 1991 Cognac Bois Ordinaires. This is a cognac with character. It's got the full fruit flavor you'd expect with notes of vanilla and caramel at the finish. You may have to hand over $100 for a bottle, but experts say it's worth it.
Extra Credit – Quality Grades
Beyond just knowing what crus you like best, knowing the official quality grades of cognacs will help you hone your tastes. When you're shopping for a bottle, you'll find them labeled VS, VSOP or XO. These designations signify the ages of the cognacs. VS is the indication for Very Special. These are the youngest spirits, but have been stored for at least two years. A VSOP is a Very Special Old Pale and has been aged for at least four years in wood that has been aging much longer. Finally, the XO, or Extra Old, is the finest aged cognac you can get. These Extra Olds are blends to keep the signature flavors, but the youngest brandy in the blend has been aged at least six years, while the oldest has had upwards of 20 years to age. The XOs are usually sold at a premium, but their flavors are intricate and refined, true works of art by the master distillers.
If you want to dip your toe into the XO market, try the Kelt XO. The grapes are 100 percent Grand Champagne and the Kelt claim to fame is that they have kept the tradition of having their barrels travel the ocean as they would have in the old days of trade, so each barrel has been at sea for 90 days before bottling, adding unique nuances to the cognac. You'll sacrifice a bit for a bottle of Kelt XO, but the story alone will earn you massive cool points when you serve it.
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