Home >> Columns >> Spirits
French accent
A newcomer’s guide to cognac and Armagnac

Just the name cognac seems to conjure up images of beautiful people in fancy magazine ads - or perhaps, if you're a history buff, you see Sir Winston Churchill in his underground bunker in London during World War II. Rumor has it he consumed a bottle every day.

While most people are aware of cognac, far fewer are familiar with Armagnac, another example of distilled brandy from France. I will try to clarify both for you.

The town of Cognac lies 100 miles north of Bordeaux. The cognac-producing region encompasses about 20 miles around this medieval town.

There is a hierarchy of quality in the Cognac region which is best described as a series of concentric circles spreading out from the city. Grand Champagne is the innermost circle and the most prestigious region. The combination of fossil-rich soil and a perfect climate produce cognac of the most elegant type, with lovely floral aromas. The next circle out is Petite Champagne, where the soil has more limestone and the cognacs show more fruit and less-dominating scents. The region of Borderies lies to the north of Cognac and produces lighter, elegant styles of cognac. The Fins Bois region forms a large outer ring around the entire Cognac area and typically produces robust, full-flavored cognacs that mature quickly.

The base wine is produced from a combination of Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche grapes. After fermentation, the base wine is distilled in copper pot stills. The first distillation removes a lot of volume, resulting in a coarse brandy with 24 percent to 50 percent alcohol. The second distillation refines the brandy, and the final product has 68 percent to 72 percent alcohol.

After distillation, the aging process begins. The brandy is placed in oak casks, where it evolves over many years. With each passing year, about 4 percent of the cognac evaporates through the porous wooden barrels - it's what is referred to as the "angels' share."

In Cognac, the large houses - such as Hennessey, Remy Martin, Courvoisier and others - dominate the market, with each producer aiming for a consistent house style. Typically their final cognacs are blends of barrels with varying age.

The regulations governing aging prescribe the minimum age of the cognac, which may be included in the blend; often the cognacs used are much older. 

Here are the general regulations: V.S. may not be less than 41⁄2 years old. In V.S.O.P., the youngest cognac in the blend is between 41⁄2 and 61⁄2  years old. Napoleon, X.O. and Imperial must be a minimum of 61⁄2 years, although typically they are much older.

Despite the domination of the major producers, the past decade has seen the emergence of many high-quality grower-producers, who both grow their own grapes and produce their own cognac. While not widely available, these cognacs are worth the search for their own unique style, and they often represent good value for the price. Producers such as Jean Luc Pasquet, Jean Fillioux and Grateaud are worth the hunt.

Armagnac is less well-known to most Americans, with the brandies coming from the Armagnac region in Gascony, located in southwest France.

While the major houses dominate in Cognac, small producers make most Armagnac. The grapes used are the same as in cognac. Unlike cognac, Armagnac is only distilled once, so in its youth, it can be a rougher, more raucous spirit than cognac. However, extended barrel aging can lead to brandies of exceptional quality.

The aging rules here are different than in cognac and are as follows: V.S. must have a minimum of two years aging in barrel. V.S.O.P.  must be a minimum of five years in barrel. X.O. must be a minimum of six years, and Hors d'Age a minimum of 10 years.

In addition, many producers will age their brandies much longer and vintage-date their bottling. Armagnacs of 20-plus years old are often available. While not inexpensive, they represent brandy of sublime quality and are worth the splurge for special occasions. Look for producers such as Dartigalongue, Delord and Marie Duffau, special spirits worthy of the search.

Once opened, these fine spirits should be stored upright so they are not in contact with the cork. They will not improve in the bottle but will drink well for a long time.

Celebrate the holiday season with one of these fine bottles. Your friends will be glad you did.


Story published Friday, December 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 7 )

Stay connected

Twitter Facebook
Copyright ©  GateHouse Media, Inc. Some Rights Reserved.
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use
Original content available for non-commercial use
under a Creative Commons license,
except where noted.