Somewhere in the medieval past, a distiller took grapes- the fruit of the vine – and transformed them into a fine distilled spirit. Today, that spirit is know as Cognac when it comes from a small, clearly defined area known by that name in France; Armagnac, when it’s from the region of that name near Cognac; or simply brandy when it comes from anywhere else.
Cognac is considered the pinnacle of grape brandies. On its label you may fine a variety of designations indicating origin, aging and blend. If the town of Cognac is the center of a bull’s-eye, then the six areas where grapes for use in Cognac can be grown extend in roughly concentric circles out from the center. At the center is Grande Champagne, a small area from which the best Cognacs are considered to come. Then there is Petit Champagne, which despite its name, is larger than Grande Champagne. The other four areas in descending order of quality are Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Boi Communs or Ordinaries.
Today, most Cognac comes from a single grape variety, Ugni Blanc, and after fermentation the grapes go through a double distillation. Then Cognac is aged in French oak barrels. There are three designations which indicate length of aging: V.S., which is aged less than four and one half years: V.S.O.P. is aged more than four and a half years; and X.O., or Napoleon, which indicates Cognacs aged more than six and one half years. After aging, one of the real arts of Cognac comes into play – the blending.
A master blender will often use grapes from a variety of regions or sources to arrive at a consistent final product. A designation of “Fine Champagne” means 50 percent of the grapes come from the Grande Champagne. If all the grapes are from either the Grande or Petite Champagne regions, the Cognac label may state this. Some Cognac makers also produce extra special Cognacs with names like Martell Extra, Remy Martin Louis XIII, Hennessey Paradis, Courvoisier Initiale Extra and Hine Triomphe. While all of these contain Cognacs that are aged considerably longer than six and a half years, even up to 70 years in some cases, they are legally bound only to have no Cognac less than six and one half years old. Names of other outstanding producers include Delamain, Frapin, Pierre Ferrand, A.E. Dor, A. de Fussigny, A. Hardy and Louis Royer. Armagnac is similar to Cognac but only goes through a single distillation. It is considered a bit rougher than Cognac but purists believe it has a truer “grapey” flavor. It is also aged in oak barrels, and unlike Cognac, it can be bottled with a specific vintage date. Some grands to consider are Sempe, Larressingle, Darroze and Marquis de Caussade.
Spanish brandy is also a fine spirit. These brandies use a different grape variety and are often richer and darker in appearance with a sweeter flavor on the palate. Top brands include Cardenal Mendoza, Lepanto, Duque de Alba and Carlos X.
American brandy has made huge strides in the last 10 years. Two producers, Carneros Alambic and Germain-Robin, are producing pot still products; as the brandies get more barrel aging, they are being blended into top quality products. Recently, Paul Masson also launched an aged brandy into the US market. The simple grape-based spirits that do not undergo significant barrel aging include grappa, a clear liquid, and various forms of marc, a spirit made from the leftover grape must after the harvest.
Grappas are primarily Italian, although some American producers, such as Sebastiani, have been creating fine grappas. They have strong grape flavors, and are clean, striking spirits. In recent years, grappas made from single grape varieties, ofter with even more pronounced flavors, have arrived on the market.
Cognac, though, is the traditional choice in many countries for the perfect accompaniment to a great cigar. The intensity of the spirit is an especially good match for a robust hand-rolled cigar. Add a cup of coffee and you have what the French call the “Three C’s”; Coffee, Cognac and Cigars!