Long regarded as the world’s finest brandy, Cognac can be an ideal holiday delicacy. Though often thought of as a restaurant or club beverage, it seems right at home, when at home, this time of year. Whether a gift for someone special, a treat for guests, or even a present for one’s self, fine Cognac offers something special in a special season.
Cognac does have something of a split personality. On the one hand, it’s a spirit--heady and strong, a drink akin to whiskey or rum. On the other, it’s made from wine, and like any wine bespeaks its geographic origin or “terroir.” The brandies that do that most evocatively are the most special.
This double character is reflected in how Cognac is both marketed and consumed. Traditionalists usually drink it neat, often after dinner, and often in a snifter or tulip-shaped glass. By contrast, more contemporary consumers tend to treat it as a cocktail. They drink it over ice, with soda, tonic, and all sorts of other mixers. For them, it’s more of a bar or nightclub beverage than a living or dining room one.
Not surprisingly, the big Cognac producers advertise their products primarily to this contemporary, usually urban audience. They try to grow the market by looking beyond the traditional one.
While neither approach to Cognac is inherently right or wrong, it’s important to understand that each looks for something different from what’s in the glass. Thus different Cognacs, or categories of Cognac, are best suited to the different approaches.
Because the addition of soft drinks or juices, let alone liqueurs or other spirits, inevitably will mask a Cognac’s subtleties and nuances, it makes no sense to use truly special brandies as bases for mixed drinks or cocktails. For the millions of consumers who enjoy Cognac this way, entry-level Cognacs are the way to go.
When newly distilled, Cognac is fiery stuff. Aging in cask tempers it, and long aging actually enhances it, yielding after many years the wonderfully expressive elixir so celebrated by connoisseurs. That’s why French law requires all Cognacs to be registered by age, with the youngest that can be sold being at least two-and-a-half years old.
Cognac of this age, usually identified as “VS,” is great for cocktails and mixed drinks. The large firm of Hennessy makes a very popular “VS.” Warm and grapey, it costs roughly $35, and accounts for nearly one bottle in three of all the Cognac sold in the world.
“VSOP” or “Reserve” is the next category. The youngest Cognac in these blends must be at least four-and-a-half years old, though many producers do use some older spirits, the final brandy averaging closer to eight or ten years of age.
Although most “VSOP” Cognacs are probably best suited for mixing, some firms that specialize in this category make brandies worh sipping by themselves. Remy Martin is probably the best known. It’s “VSOP” ($50) tastes spicy, slightly sweet, and is impressively long. Others to look for include the more floral Courvoisier “VSOP” ($40) and Hine’s elegant “Rare” ($60).
The next category, however, is the one containing most of the finest Cognacs. To be labeled “XO” or the like, the youngest brandy in the blends must be at least six-and-a-half years old. Almost all firms, though, use significantly older stock. As important, these brandies almost always are made from wines from the best regions, since these are the ones proven to improve with age.
Cognac is a large area, stretching from the Atlantic coast some eighty miles or so into central France. Centuries of experience have demonstrated that three small sub-regions, all in its center, yield the best grapes for brandy. Two are somewhat confusingly called “Champagne”--one “Grande” because covering more acres, the other “Petite.” (The name has nothing to do with the Champagne that is home to the world’s finest sparkling wines.) The smallest sub-region is Borderies, just to the west of the town of Cognac itself. Virtually all the best Cognacs come from one or more of these three areas.
Cognacs from Borderies display a distinctive nutty flavor, while those from the two Champagnes tend to be more floral and fruity. As important, brandies from all three have the capacity to age both vigorously and gracefully. Although they begin hot and raw, they become seductively smooth and sumptuous over time.
This transformation occurs only in cask. Once the Cognac is bottled, it can no longer change. The very finest Cognacs sometimes stay in casks, all made with tight-grained oak, for over fifty years. Since a proportion of the spirit evaporates through the wood every year (called the “angels’ share”), these are both rare and costly. They form a significant portion of the blend in the most expensive, prestige Cognacs, the sort that come in deluxe crystal bottles and cost a small fortune. The best known of these is Remy Martin’s “Louis XIII.” It comes in a round Baccarat bottle, and costs over $2500!
Happily, one need not spend anywhere near that much to savor truly superb, old Cognac. The quality difference between most prestige bottlings and “XO” types is far smaller than between “XO” and “VSOP.” Unless you’re flush with extra cash, there’s really no need to go beyond “XO.”
Below are recommendations of eight Cognacs at the “XO” level to consider buying. They’re listed by price, but any one of them would make a special gift--and be a very special holiday treat. Prices all are approximate, and you should note that many stores offer deep discounts this time of year.
Prunier “Twenty Years Old” ($90)
From a small, family firm, this Cognac seems perfectly balanced. It exhibits rich, powerful flavors and at the same time feels seductively silky and smooth--the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove.
Jean Fillioux “Tres Vieux” ($125)
A small, family-run firm in the very heart of Grande Champagne, Jean Fillioux produces a series of excellent Cognacs that are marked by delicacy more than power. “Tres Vieux” is over twenty years old, and displays a sweet spice character.
Martell “Cordon Bleu” ($125)
Marked by brandy from Borderies, this always popular label tastes deep and nutty, with flavors that to an American palate resemble pecan or walnut pie.
Otard XO ($135)
Round and rich, with chocolate-tinged undertones, this is an expressive, well-balanced “XO.”
Pierre Ferand “Selection des Anges” ($150)
From Grande Champagne and roughly thirty years old, with a crisp, apple-like character and vanilla undertones.
Remy Martin XO ($160)
Rich, almost lush on the palate, with hints of caramel and vanilla in addition to rich fruit, all introduced by a floral bouquet, Remy’s XO exemplifies this firm’s style, one that expresses the character of grapes from the Champagnes.
Hine “Antique” ($190)
Nutty, deep, and very elegant (because not at all hot or heavy), “Antique” tastes rich but at the same time seems delicate--a paradoxical but delicious combination.
Delamin Vesper ($200)
From Grande Champagne and quite rich, with a floral bouquet and a wonderfully complex finish. All Delamin Cognacs are very good.