What do XO and VSOP in Cognac stand for?

Getting a bit confused by those ALLCAPS letters on the Cognac labels? We’re making things clear on what VSOP, XO and others stand for, and sharing some extra Cognac know-how for you to use when selecting your next crystal bottle.

Do the ALLCAPS letters on a Cognac bottle really mean anything?
Yes, they tell you how long the youngest element in the Cognac has been aged in oak barrels. Blending is common and is generally a way for the maker to find an ideal flavour balance. Generally, the longer you age Cognac in oak, the rounder and softer it will become. Oak can contribute incredible complexity and add nutty or fruity flavours, which make aged bottles especially sought after.

Source: Flickr / padshewscky

→ VS stand for Very Special, it means aged at least two years

→ VSOP stands for Very Special Old Pale, aged at least four years

→ XO or Napoleon means Extra Old, aged at least six years. There are even plans to change the definition of XO to be oak aged for at least ten years

→ Extra Cognac is also aged at least six years, but is a Cognac superior to an XO

Like Cru, producer, price, and everything else that goes into a Cognac age doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like it. It just means that it’s legally certified to have been aged in oak for that amount of time. There are excellent Cognacs at every level! You just have to be careful about making any generalization about personal taste and quality.

All that said, there are a two names that you should really remember. Extra is usually used to denote a special Cognac so definitely look out for these. Marketing speak can always creep into the mix but usually an Extra Cognac is something special because their makers label them this way. There was something there that made them especially proud so perk up your ears for that term. Of course you’ll pay for the privilege, but you want that peak experience, don’t you?

Speaking of peak experiences, definitely look out for Hors d’Age Cognacs. It literally means beyond age and it’s the Cognac world’s way of saying “priceless.” These can be very old, probably the oldest Cognac that you’ll be able to find and, should you be able to afford it, a recommended tasting experience. Even if you can’t afford it take a few minutes to learn about its story, as every one of this bottles is sure to have one. 

What are Crus de Cognac?
Source: Flickr / flissphilAll the grapes that go into Cognac, the distilling process, and the ageing occur in the Cognac region north of Bordeaux, which has a distinct weather and geography influenced heavily by the Atlantic Ocean.

The Cognac region is broken down into six zones or Crus, which tell you something about the perceived quality of a Cognac. The classic order of quality in descending order is:

Grand Champagne
Light, floral, and they need the most aging.

Petit Champagne
Very similar to Grand Champagne in flavour, they just aren’t as subtle.

Round and smooth, some have a violet nose, some a distinctive nuttiness.

Fins Bois
Round, smooth, and fast aging. They tend to have very fruity scents, frequently grape.

Bons Bois
Fast ageing

Bois Ordinaires
Fast ageing and frequently described as having a briny or salty flavour ascribed to their proximity to the sea.

Another category you’ll see is Fine Champagne which isn’t a cru, it’s used for Cognacs composed of a blend of at least 50% Grand Champagne and Petit Champagne.

The Crus were defined in 1909 based on the quality of the soil in each region. Generally the higher the order the longer they age, so that a Grand Champagne will take longer to express its true potential than a Bois Ordinaires.

Don't let this names misguide you: there's no Champagne in Cognac. The sparkling wine we all know and love is produced east of Paris. It’s just that the word champagne in French has a root word which means chalky soil and that soil type is common to both Champagne and Cognac region.

By Max Garrone

Max Garrone

About the author: Max is cofounder of Mezcalistas, a website and event company that covers the world of Mezcal. When he’s not writing about agave spirits he can be found drinking espresso, sampling the San Francisco dining scene, or helping his clients set their content strategies.

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