Age. The age of the cognacs that make up a particular blend put it in a particular class, indicated by initials or a name. The class is determined by the age of the youngest spirit in the blend.
VS (Very Special) – Must be at least four-and-a-half years old. Also can be designated as “Sélection,” “***,” or “de Luxe.”
VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) – Must be between four-and-a-half and six-and-a-half years old. Also designated as “Réserve.”
XO (Extra Old) – Must be more than six-and-a-half years old, but many are far older, often 30 years or more. Also designated as “Napoleon,” “Viélle Reserve,” “Imperial,” and “Hors d’âge.”
Alembic. The distilling apparatus that uses a process of heating and cooling to produce cognac eau-de-vie.
Appellation. The complete term, Appellation d’origine controlée, means controlled term of origin. Certain products around the world have names designated as “appellations” which are strictly governed by an international government bureau (IAOC). Cognac and Armagnac are two spirits appellations, which means that only spirits produced in those regions can rightly bear the name.
Barrels. Oak containers in which cognac matures, giving it color, adding wood and other flavors during aging. Cognac is aged in barrels made from oak that comes from the Limousin or Tronçais forests.
Blend. A mixture of several eaux-de-vie to create a cognac. Cognacs are most often the result of blending many eaux-de-vie of different areas and ages, developing a rich, full and unique flavour.
Borderies. The smallest of the six growing areas of Cognac which make up the appellation. Petite and Grande Champagne, Fins bois, Bons bois and Bois à terroirs are the other growing areas.
Brouillis. The first product of distillation, the result of distilling wine in the alembic. This first distillate then undergoes a second distillation known as the bonne chauffe.
Eau-de-vie. Literally “water of life,” eau-de-vie is the double-distilled wine that is aged in oak barrels. Some houses bottled a single eau-de-vie, but most blend several eaux-de-vie into a cognac marque.
Fine. A label with the word “Fine” in front of the vintage means that 100% of the cognacs in the blend come from that region. A “Fine Petite Champagne,” for example, is made only with cognacs from the Petite Champagne region. A “Fine Champagne” must be made with at least 50% Grande Champagne cognacs, with the balance from Petite Champagne.
Cognacs labeled from the other regions are considered 100% vintage, whether the word “Fine” is on the label or not. A 100% Borderies cognac blend can be labeled either “Fine Borderies” or simply “Borderies.
Grapes. Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard are the primary grapes used in cognac, probably the world’s best-known brandy. While these grapes produce wine too thin, tart and low in alcohol for a good table wine, they’re excellent for making brandy. Cognac also is made with Champagne, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and other white wine grapes.
Heart. At the beginning of the bonne chauffe, the second of the two distillations conducted in the still, the eau-de-vie is cloudy and very high in alcohol, and is referred to as the head. Shortly afterwards, the heart follows, a clear spirit which will become cognac. The distiller’s art is knowing when to make the cut, separating the heart from the seconds. At the end of the distillation come the tails, which will be redistilled along with the seconds.
House. The Cognac House is the producer. The largest houses are sometimes vintners as well as distillers and bottlers. Many smaller houses contract with local vintners for their grapes or wine and simply distill, blend and bottle their cognacs. And perhaps an even greater number purchase a variety of cognacs from the larger houses and then age and blend them into their own creations.
While most brandy drinkers are familiar with the large Cognac Houses like Hennessy, Remy Martin, Courvoisier and Martell, more discriminating customers will likely be looking for new cognac experiences. Other houses include Thomas Hine, Camus, Delamain, Leyrat, Menuet, Menard and many more.
Lees. The sediment in the wine, some lees are light and suspended in the wine, others are heavier and sink to the bottom. Depending on the desired flavors in the eau-de-vie, the lees are retained or filtered out before distillation.
Maturing. Eaux-de-vie are “raised” or “brought up” during aging in barrels. When new, the oak gives the spirit a strong wood character; when red (already used) it transmits all the flavors soaked into the wood to an eau-de-vie. When old, with most of its tannin used up, the barrel can be used to store an eau-de-vie without changing its flavor.
Marque. Most houses have several “marques” or levels of age and/or quality within the house. Sometimes the marque is simply designated by age – X.O., for example. Others may designate their marques by the vintage (which is its place of origin, not year of origin – see below). Larger houses, though, may have two or three lines, with several marques in each line. Camus, for example, has five marques in its Elegance line, two in its Ile de Ré Fine Island line, a Borderies cognac, and three rare Cognacs.
Vintage. The vintage indicates the growing region where the cognac wines originated. The five regions in the Cognac appellation are Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois and Bons Bois. The closer to the heart of Cognac, the better the growing conditions and more prized the grapes. The best cognacs, therefore, are supposedly made up of blends of cognacs from Grande Champagne, though recently blends of eaux-de-vie from Borderies are in demand.