Cognac (pronounced /konjak/KON-yak), named after the town of Cognac in France, is a famous variety of brandy. It is produced in the wine-growing region surrounding the town from which it takes its name, in the French Departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime.
According to French Law, to bear the name Cognac, the production methods for the distilled brandy must meet defined legal requirements, ensuring strict conformity with a 300-year old production process. It must be made from certain grapes (see below); of these, Ugni Blanc, known locally as Saint-Emilion, is the most widely-used variety today. It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais.
Most cognacs are aged considerably longer than the minimum legal requirement of two years, because cognac matures in the same way as whiskies and wine when aged in a barrel.
Fine, aged cognac is appreciated and collected by connoisseurs in much the same way as fine French wines and old Irish and Scottish whiskies.
The official quality grades of cognac are, according to the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac):
- VS Very Special, or ✯✯✯ (three stars) where the youngest brandy is stored at least two years in cask.
- VSOP Very Special (less commonly, but officially according to the BNIC, 'Superior') Old Pale, where the youngest brandy is stored at least four years in a cask, but the average wood age is much older.
- XO Extra Old, where the youngest brandy is stored at least six, but average upwards of 20 years. On April 1, 2016, the minimum storage age of the youngest brandy used in an XO blend will be set to ten years.
In addition the following can be mentioned:
- Napoleon Although the BNIC states this grade is equal to XO in terms of minimum age, it is generally marketed in-between VSOP and XO in the product range offered by the producers.
- Extra A minimum of 6 years of age, this grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.
- Vieux Is another grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
- Vieille Réserve Is, like the Hors d´Âge, a grade beyond XO.
- Hors d'âge The BNIC states that also this grade is equal to XO, but in practice the term is used by producers to market a high quality product beyond the official age scale. Hence the name "Hors d'âge" (beyond age).