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 flavor balance. Usually, the longer you age Cognac in oak, the rounder and softer it will become. Oak can contribute incredible complexity and add nutty or fruity flavors, making aged bottles especially sought-after.
→ VS stands for Very Special, and it means Cognac was 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 two names that you should really. 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 extraordinary 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 these bottles is sure to have one.
How to drink Cognac?
Cognac is a smooth-talking Spirit, and extremely versatile. Like a little black dress, it pairs perfectly with all occasions. It’s fabulous dram that you can enjoy pretty much any way you want.
- If It’s Young, Mix It; If It’s Old, Drink It Straight
Younger Cognacs lack the depth of flavor that older Cognacs have. Therefore, they are the perfect choice for mixed drinks. For cocktails, we advise that you choose a Very Superior (VS) or Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP) Cognac and save those pricey XO and Hors d’Age Spirits for sipping.
If you’re a Cognac purist who wants to enjoy your Cognac neat, use a ‘taster’s glass’ with a long and narrow tulip shape. You’ll be able to capture every rich note the Cognac has to offer, sans the alcohol aroma. Cognac can be served as a digestif after dinner.
- Over ice
Like your Cognac cool? Enjoy it on ice in a large tumbler glass, over two cubes. Or you can enjoy it “frozen,” though the actual liquid never freezes; putting Cognac in the freezer gives it a nice viscosity.
- Like the locals
Or you can drink as the locals do: add a splash of tonic or ginger ale to your Cognac and enjoy a smooth, tasty apéritif
How to serve Cognac?
Use a tulip glass, balloon glass, or wobble snifter. They are the ideal drinking vessel that allows for swirling and funneling the rich aroma to the glass’s top.
Cognac Food Pairings
The older the Cognac, the more opulent its fruity and nutty notes are. Pair them with chocolate, mushrooms, and game meats. If you have a younger Cognac in your glass, enjoy it with caviar, oysters, or hard cheeses.
Serve Cognac with rich food as it pairs perfectly with the floral notes and brings out brighter flavors. Think pâtés (foie gras, for instance), tomato-based pasta, roasted meat, or a duck confit.
Or go for cheese. Cheese plates are great appetizers and snacks, and there are various types of cheeses to pair with different ages of Cognac. Make yourself a plate with three different kinds of cheese, fresh fruit, cured meats, crackers, and roasted nuts.
VS Cognacs love creamy cheeses (Roquefort, mascarpone); VSOP Cognacs pair well with mature hard cheeses (cheddar, gouda), while XO calls for nutty aged Mimolette or Parmesan.
Learn more about perfect Cognac food pairings here.
What are Crus de Cognac?
All the grapes that go into Cognac, the distilling process, and the maturing occur in the Cognac region north of Bordeaux, which has 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:
Light, floral, and they need the most aging.
Very similar to Grand Champagne in flavoR, but less subtle.
Round and smooth, some have a violet nose, some a distinctive nuttiness.
Round, smooth, and fast aging. They tend to have very fruity scents, frequently grape.
Fast aging and frequently described as having a briny or salty flavor 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. A Grand Champagne will take longer to express its true potential than a Bois Ordinaires.
Don't let these 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 that means chalky soil, and that soil type is common to both the Champagne and Cognac region.