I am often asked whether Cognac specifically, or brandy in general, are wines or spirits. While the answer is a bit murky it is one worth exploring.
Both wines and spirits begin as a product of fermentation. Wines are fermented from fresh grapes or another fruit (such as blackberry wine) while spirits are fermented from a variety of grains or grapes, but then go through a distillation process to separate the resultant alcohol from water. This process raises the ABV (alcoholic content) to levels of 20 to 90 %.
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Cognac is often referred to as the "king" of brandies with a glorious history dating back centuries. It is produced under stringent regulations of the Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac (BNIC) and the Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) under its Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system in France and must always demonstrate its sense of place representing the highest level of quality.
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The Cognac appellation is located in the western region of central France surrounding its namesake village and after Bordeaux, is the country's second largest appellation. Two of its six official Crus (growing areas) – Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne – are noteworthy for their excellence and most top-level Cognacs contain a majority of fruit from these sub-appellations.
In this case, "Champagne" should not be confused with the famed sparkling wine appellation to the north, although both derive their name from the French term for chalky soils. "Fine Champagne" is the term used to denote a blend of Grande and Petite Champagne Cognacs with at least half coming from Grande Champagne. While soils of the other four Crus may exhibit some chalk they are predominately clay, flinty stone and limestone contributing differing characteristics to the final blends.
Given its unique growing area and specific permitted white grape varieties there is no question that Cognac can be considered a wine. However, after the still wine is produced by fermentation on wild yeast, Cognac must go through a distillation process as does whiskey or other spirits. But for Cognac, this is a double distillation process in copper alambic pot stills to ensure a smoother more complex result.
So is it a wine or spirit? Actually, it is a bit of both which adds to the romance of Cognac and complexity of its character.
Cognac's primary and most highly regarded grapes Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano in Italy and the most planted white variety in France), Colombard and Follie Blanche do not make very enjoyable still wines from the soils and climatic conditions in the region. But they are perfectly suited to the distillation process and the ultimate production of Cognac.
After fermentation is complete the resulting wine is about 7 to 8% alcohol and after distillation into the eaux-du-vie (water of life), this number raises to 70%. Then, with time spent in French oak (restricted to the forests of Tronçais and Limousin by BNIC) the alcohol drops to about 40% through evaporation.
In the 16th century it was observed that still wines from various growing areas of Europe did not travel well to distant markets and lost much of their appeal. To overcome this difficulty, distillation was tried by some producers to gain stability and gave rise to the Dutch term "brandewijn" or burnt wine. Brandy was born and wines from the Cognac region were considered superior to others.
Traditionally Cognac defines the art of blending – varieties, growing areas and vintages – and is rarely seen from a single vineyard or vintage as may be found with other brandies such as Armagnac from Gascony further to the south. There are several official categories defining the blend depending on the minimum age of the youngest wine component. There is no limit on percentage of older additions that can be included for increased levels of quality.
The youngest component of V.S. (Very Special) is no less than two years old. V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale, aka Very Superior Old Pale) is no less than four years old. X.O. (Extra Old) and Napoléon are no less than six years old and set to be increased to 10 years. There are countless other proprietary designations used by specific producers but these are the most common and declared official by the BNIC.
Pricing on Cognacs in the U.S. ranges from very affordable (primarily the V.S. group), to affordable (higher-end V.S. and V.S.O.P), to not so affordable (X.O. and Napoleon) and finally to generally unaffordable.
Some examples of the last unofficial category are: J. Painturaud Secrets de Famille Grande Champagne in a crystal decanter ($900); Hennessy Paradis Rare ($1,000 with other renditions much higher); Rémy Martin Louis XIII in its historic Baccarat bottle ($3,000 and $7,000 in magnum) and Kelt Tour de Monde Quatre Vents ($4,000).
Of course, these represent only a small sampling of the prestigious cuvées and is certainly not representative of the entire family of Cognacs available in the market. In general, the V.S. category is available in the $30 to $50 range, the V.S.O.P.s in the $70 to $80 range, the X.O.s significantly higher at $150 or so. Napoleons range at about $250 and well above.
However, when thinking about price, we must also remember that a bottle of Cognac is not meant for a single service as is true with a dinner wine. Once opened, it will stand the test of time and can be enjoyed over several servings for many months with no ill effects.
For a brand reference, those considered as the “Big Four” are Hennessey, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier. Each of these producers have gained their reputations with centuries of experience and quality. Each also offers a broad range of Cognacs in all the official categories and proprietary blends as do many other important brands on the market.
In any discussion of brandy and Cognac it is important to remember the old adage, "while all Cognac is brandy not all brandy is Cognac."
The Wine Exchange: Allen Balik shares wine industry news and insights
Allen Balik is a noted wine collector, educator and recognized authority on the wines of California and Europe, sampling more than 1,500 wines each year as a member of the trade and numerous tasting groups. His column The Wine Exchange appears in the Napa Valley Register on Fridays.
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Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at napavalleyregister.com/wine-exchange or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.
In this Series
The Wine Exchange: Allen Balik shares wine industry news and insights
Allen Balik, The Napa Valley Wine Exchange: Cognac: wine or spirit -- or both?
Allen R. Balik, The Wine Exchange: What’s becoming of white wine?
Allen Balik, The Wine Exchange: Reflecting on 2022: How did Napa Valley fare?
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