Cognac is the most famous brandy in the world, with the most confusing classification system of any spirit. The Classification system that most people are familiar with are VS (Very Special, not less than 2.5 years in a barrel), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale, not less than 4.5 years), and XO (Extra Old, more than 6.5 years in a barrel). These initials actually are “English,” not translation, because the English and Irish used to control a great deal of the brandy production in Cognac. Most of the top Cognac producers leave their brandies in barrels a lot longer than these classification minimums--and some producers don’t even use this nomenclature. So the classification system may be helpful, but you really need to know the producer to understand the classification system, thus creating a great deal of brand loyalty.
The actual location of the vineyard where the grapes are grown is often more important than the time the brandies spend in a barrel. Basically, the Cognac Region is like a target with six concentric rings, with the Bullseye in the middle called the Grande Champagne AOC. (This has nothing to do with the Champagne region whewre the sparkling wines come from!) There’s only about 32,000 acres of planted vineyards in this appellation—Considerably less than Napa Valley’s total acreage of 45,000, or about the same size as the City limits of San Francisco. The grapes in the Grand Champagne Region grow in Campanian chalk soil, and have a subtle floral taste. The brandies from this region age very well, so that’s why there are so many very old bottles of Grande Champagne.
The other regions of Cognac in the target of concentric circles is as thus:
To have the appellation on the label, the grapes have to be sourced 100% from that appellation. The one exception is the Fine Champagne classification, which means the grapes are a combination of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, with at least half the grapes coming from the Grande Champagne region.
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