Liquor & Spirits


OK, by now I'm sure you have all heard this cliche: All cognac is brandy,but not all brandy is cognac. In fact, the only brandy in the world thatmay legally be labeled "cognac", comes from the Cognac regionin west-central France. The geographical limits of the relatively smallarea in which cognac can be made were set by the French govt. in 1909. Noother place in the world may use the word cognac on its brandy products.

Brandy is defined as the distillate from the process of distilling wine.Cognac and fine brandy are generally made from grapes (95%), however, otherfruit brandies exist too. Ten or so different white grapes can be legallyused for cognac, but Ugni Blanc, Columbard and /Picpoul/ are the main varietals.

The grape-growing area of the cognac region is subdivided into six zones,based mainly on soil and climate conditions: Borderies, Bois Ordinaire,Fin Bois, Bon Bois, Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne districts. Youwill never see the first four areas on a label;, they produce inferior products.Petite and Grande Champagne are the most highly regarded districts, withGrande Champagne being the best. The use of the word champagne, in Petiteand Grande Champagne, has nothing to do with the sparkling wine; it comesfrom the word champ meaning field.

Cognac goes through two distillations and, by law, only potstills may be used (a continuous still is used in Armagnac). This isalso referred to as Alambic Distillation. The first distillation, calledthe broullis, results in a rank. murky spirit with approximately 28% alcoholcontent. The heart of the second distillation (the head and tail are setaside to be redistilled) is called Bonne chauffe.. It emerges from the stillat 140 proof, and like all newly made spirits, is colorless and raw. Oakcasks are mandatory At one time, all of the wood came from the nearby forestof Limousin, but as Limousin oak became scarcer, it is being supplementedwith lumber from Troncais. Limousin oak is a finer, lighter oak, that impartsa sharp vanilla flavor.

Much concern is given to the oak casks used for aging, for they contributemuch to the flavors and style of the desired cognac. Age of the oak is afactor, as new oak imparts more taste to the spirit than does aged wood.A young cognac usually spends some time in new cooperage but within a yearit is transferred to older barrels. Lesser grades of cognac, which are tobe bottled fairly young, are given more time in new wood so that flavorsdevelop rather quickly. In fact. it is not unknown for oak chips, /e boise,,to be added to the barrel to hasten the effect of the wood. On the otherhand, the more promising distillates are soon moved into seasoned oak tomature more slowly. Houses producing lighter, more delicate, and softercognacs almost always do their aging in used barrels.

The most important influence in the final cognac product comes from theblending and aging The virtuosos of cognac are the master blenders, andtheir skills - passed from generation to generation - maybe the most importantingredient in the bottle. The major cognac houses maintain huge inventoriesfrom different zones, vineyards, and years, including vintages well overa century old. The rarities are stored in glass demijohns, not oak, to preventfurther evaporation called the "angel's share" by the cognacais)and excessive woodiness. It is the master blenders job to fashion this kaleidoscopeof flavors and aromas into a harmonious blend.

The cognac industry eventually settled on the following general guidelinesin their use of stars, letters, or names on labels:

- Three stars, or the letters VS or VSP (Very Special, Very Special Pale)indicate that the minimum age for the youngest cognac in the blend is 2yrs. In practice, the average age is 3 to 5 yrs.

- The letters VSOP and VO (Very Superior Old Pale, Very Old) indicate aminimum age of 4 yrs for the youngest cognac with an average age between10 and 15 yrs.

- Cognacs labeled with special names such as Napoleon, Cordon Bleu, Triomphe,Vielle Reserve, X.O. (Extra Old), Anniversaire, etc., have a minimum ageof 6 yrs for the youngest brandy, but in fact run an average age of upwardsof 20 yrs (when a cognac is labeled 'Napoleon. It refers to the emperorsdevotion to the brandy and nothing else).

- The words Grande Champagne or Grande Fine indicate that all of the grapescame from the premier growing district, Grande Champagne. Fine Champagnemeans that the grapes were grown in the top two districts, Petite and GrandeChampagne, with more than half coming from the Grande Champagne district.
VS - straightforward and likable, the woodsy and caramel notes are harmoniousbut rather simple, and its soft enough to go down smooth. Good quality.

Remy Martin VSOP - vivid, vibrant and flavorful. Enticing aromas of orangeand clove lead to a silky, spicy palate with citrus and roasted nut flavors.Not big, but extremely elegant . A Fine Champagne blend. Outstanding quality,Remy is one of the most well-known and respected cognac houses in France.

Martell VSOP Medallion - a deep sweet spiritthat is generous, from the almost reddish color. through the creme bruleearoma, to the honey and walnut flavors. Very good quality.

Delamain Vesper - the average age of brandies in this cognac are 35-45 yrs.From the Grande Champagne district, an outstanding cognac from one of theoldest, smallest and last remaining independent family owned and operatedfirms in the Cognac region. Complex, intense, rich, full bodied and silkywith a beautiful balance of sweet plum and smoky almond flavors, round.harmonious and long. In a league of its own - the best (and best value)on the Tarpy's List.

Hennessy XO - average age of brandies are 20 yrs old. Very aromatic withheather and honey notes, richly flavored with prunes and walnuts. The longfinish, with orange, caramel and spice notes, throws you back to the glass.A Fine Champagne blend. Outstanding quality.

Pot Still