Cognacs You Should Know and Love
Meet Cognac, the often-misunderstood monarch of after-dinner libations. At its core, Cognac is a region-specific brandy—a spirit made from the distillation of wine, which is then aged in oak barrels. But there’s much more to it than that. There are three categories into which a cognac can fall. A VS label, which stands for “Very Special,” designates a spirit that was aged for 2 years in French oak casks. A Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP) expression is aged for at least 4 years, while an Extra Old (XO) Cognac is one that remained in the cask for at least 6 years.
These days, clever marketing strategies have emphasized the bottle shape, liquid color, and story behind many Cognac brands, making the spirit’s taste an afterthought. As a result, many readily available Cognacs suffer from a homogenized aroma and flavor profile. In those cases, the goal is to appeal to the largest possible audience, and in doing so these Cognacs fail to stand out. But such is not the case for all.
The six appellations that form the Cognac region encompass different terroirs, from the sandy soils of Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires to the chalk-rich Petite and Grande Champagne regions. These varying environments create divergent brandies. From light and ethereal to rich and complex, there are as many different expressions as there are small distillers handcrafting this revered spirit. Here are a few of our favorites.
The Sweetness of Youth
A VSOP Cognac that is additive free has a bright copperish hue, is light on its feet, and usually offers floral aromas, hints of vanilla, and woody notes. At its core, a VSOP is defined by ripe orchard fruits (think apricots) and may also deliver a slight sharpness on the palate, which is characteristic of spirits aged for a short time under moderate climates.
Try Paul Giraud VSOP, a rich, palate-coating expression that delivers those expected ripe-fruit notes and hints of vanilla but also offers a long finish with sweet, pastry-like flavors.
The more time that a good Cognac spends in the cask, the more depth and complexity it will develop. While this doesn’t mean that an older Cognac is automatically better than a younger one, it does mean that a more mature example will see greater transformation of its aromatics. The ripe fresh-fruit notes that characterize younger Cognacs become darker (think dried figs and prunes), while nut, leather, and tobacco tones develop.
Try Dudognon Vieille Reserve, which showcases the texture and complexity of Grande Champagne Cognacs and introduces a beautiful rancio (fatty acids getting “rancid” by oxidation). That may not sound so appealing, but rancio is what all great old brandies have in common. It’s what produces nutty aromas and flavors—even aged cheese notes, like Parmigiano-Reggiano—and it gives Cognacs their remarkable complexity and finesse.
A Sense of Place
For Cognacs that deliver strong references to the terroir from which they came, start with Jean Grosperrin La Gabarre VSOP. What it does not have in weight (compared to the Paul Giraud), this Petite Champagne cognac gains in elegance. It’s flowery on the nose with some minerality, and it introduces hints of young but integrated oak.
If you’ve ever wondered what a Borderies Cognac should taste like, Maison de Surenne, Distillerie Galtaud is it. This 100-percent Borderies single-vintage brandy is nutty and spicy on the palate and is marked by a deep, floral nose with toffee accents.
Unlike Borderies or Grande/Petite Champagne varietals, Fins Bois Cognacs like Fevrier Saveur tend to be lighter in body. This particular distillation is a perfect example. It offers up strong notes of citrus peel, sweet spices, and hints of wood. Served either neat or on the rocks, it’s an ideal Cognac for the summer.
Nicolas Palazzi owns and operates PM Spirits, a small New York–based import/distribution company that specializes in sourcing artisan spirits. He is also an independent Cognac bottler with a proprietary cellar in the Cognac region of France, where he sources, ages, and bottles single casks (or demijohns) of old, pure, artisan Cognacs.