The Best Cognacs
The popularity of drinking cognac has not dwindled. Although rare and expensive, beverage connoisseurs can agree that cognac, a brandy made in the Cognac region of France, is worth every penny.
History of Cognac
Grape vines were brought to France by the Romans approximately 2,000 years ago. The cultivation of the vines and the grapes from the vines would lead to the crafting of wine in France that resulted in the country’s reputation for producing the finest wines in the world.
Around the 1600’s, travel began to make it difficult for the fine wines of France to make through long, hard journeys across terrain and through difficult, rough sea voyages. Exporters did not want to lose the money that was being made from the wine and France’s reputation as the world’s most renowned wine producer, and the decision was made to distill the wine in order to help it successfully in transport across the oceans and lands of Europe.
This distilled wine became known as brandy. Just like wine, different brandies are named after different regions of France, and one of the finest of the distilled wines was, and still is, crafted in the Cognac region of France. Although all Cognac is brandy, only the brandy produced in France’s Cognac region can be what is enjoyed as cognac.
Within the Cognac region, only six delimited areas are zoned to legally produce the grapes for making cognac. Each of these regions produces grapes and utilizes a distilling process to give different cognacs a variety of attributes.
Popularity of Cognac
Despite the growing expense of a bottle of cognac, popularity of the drink continues to grow. The image one might have of drinking cognac is that from the movies—a wealthy older man, outfitted in a silk smoking jacket with an ascot, sipping a snifter of cognac while smoking a large Cuban cigar. This image does lend to the appeal, but more and more people are enjoying the best cognacs during happy hours, to celebrate holidays and special events, and as an after-dinner drink on any occasion. Its reputation as a rare and expensive liquor work to heighten the appeal rather than to hinder it.
Cognac’s popularity could also have benefited from reports of possible health benefits. According to Dr. Gordon Troup of the School of Physics and Monash University, “in moderation, brandy had been shown to have supplementary medicinal health benefits – and the better quality the brandy the greater benefit. The key to its benefits is antioxidants …” (“Health Benefits,” 2005). As the highest quality brandy, cognac seems the logical option for the best source of these health benefits.
In the United States, it is the image of the snifter in one hand and the cigar in the other that drives the choice of many for how to enjoy a glass of their favorite cognac. Typically, cognac is served in the U.S. at room temperature, neat. The smoothness and character of the best cognac in particular make this an excellent choice for enjoying the drink. It is not the only way, and it is not the most popular way in other parts of the world, including in the Cognac region of France itself.
In a tall, slim glass with ice, cognac can be mixed with tonic, cranberry juice, orange juice, club soda, ginger ale, or practically any other traditional mixer. Another classic preparation for serving cognac is with a sidecar of Cointreau topped with a splash of fresh lemon ice. With the right cognac, mixing is an option not to be overlooked.
Choosing the Best Cognac
All cognac can be considered to be high quality and special, but there are some characteristics of cognac that make some better than others.
Cognac is regulated by the Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac (BNIC). BNIC sets standards for the production of cognac, and all must adhere to the guidelines in order to be considered cognac. Otherwise, it is simply a brandy. To begin to choose the best cognac, start by investigating the label of the bottle.
The different flavors of cognac are achieved through the aging and distillation processes. Cognac is goes through a double distillation process, and all distillers must be copper. Once barreled, casks of cognac are aged for a minimum of two years in French oak barrels. The designations on cognac bottles also give clues as to the quality. VS is the Very Special grade. Four years of aging is denoted by the VSOP designation, meaning Very Special Old Pale. XO cognacs, the highest grade, are aged for a minimum of six years.
The grapes also play a role in taste. The majority of cognacs, about 90 percent, are made from Ugni Blanc grapes, with Colombard and Folle Blanche making up the rest. Further, the area of production influences the flavor based on the soil in which the grapes are grown.
The flavors of cognac vary, often dependent on the age, and individual preference will drive choice. Flavors and scents can include fruity notes from apples or peaches to lemon or orange, floral scents can include clover and honey to roses or lavender, and spice flavors can include coffee to nutmeg or cinnamon. Oak is another flavor typically present in most cognacs.
Visual elements of the cognac also identify quality. Like wine, when cognac is gently swirled in the right glass, the presence of legs along the sides of the glass indicates a well-aged product. Additionally, look through the glass; the more easily one is able to see through the cognac, the better the quality.
The Top Cognacs
While individual preference plays a role in which cognac will be most enjoyed, the longer the cognac has been aged, typically the better. Some cognacs come out ahead of others when everything is considered.
Croizet Cuvee Leonie (1858) Cognac is full of notes to hit each part of palette, from floral notes of rose to fruity notes of quince to wood notes of cedar. This mellow cognac’s thick concentration, combined with the variety of flavors, create one of the world’s most distinct cognacs.
Hardy 1777 Grande Champagne Cognac is the second oldest cognac known in the world, and the years of aging guarantee its smooth and complex flavor. As one of the oldest known cognacs, it is also one of the most expensive. A E Dor No.5 Cognac (1840 Vintage) can cost anywhere from between $5,671 to $12,540 a bottle. From what is often considered the region for producing the best and most distinctive cognacs, this rare vintage cognac is sure to help celebrate the most special of occasions.
A E Dor No.5 Cognac (1840 Vintage) can cost anywhere from between $5,671 to $12,540 a bottle. From what is often considered the region for producing the best and most distinctive cognacs, this rare vintage cognac is sure to help celebrate the most special of occasions.
Hennessy Timeless Cognac / Baccarat Crystal is a blend of eleven of the best vintages of the 20th century. With only 2,000 bottles ever produced, the expense of this cognac is well worth the experience.
Martell V.V.E.S.O.P. Over 50 Year Old Cognac / Bot. 1920s is another rare, old bottle of the fine cognac. The deep color and subtle nutty undertones create a balance and flavor unique to another of the best cognacs.