About French Brandy

Cognac is the best known type of Brandy in the world, a benchmark by which most other Brandies are judged. The Cognac region is located on the west-central Atlantic coast of France, just north of Bordeaux, in the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime. The region is further subdivided into six growing zones: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Bois Ordinaries, Borderies, Fins Bois, and Bons Bois. The first two of these regions produce the best Cognac and will frequently be so designated on bottle labels. Cognacs labelled Fine Champagne are a blend of Petite and Grande Champagne. The primary grapes used in making Cognac are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. The wines made from these grapes are thin, tart, and low in alcohol; poor characteristics for table wines, but oddly enough, perfect for making Brandy. Cognac is double distilled in pot stills and then aged in casks made from Limousin or Troncais oak. All Cognacs start out in new oak to mellow the fiery spirit and give them color. Batches that are chosen for long-term aging are, after a few years, transferred to used, or "seasoned," casks that impart less of the oak flavor notes while the Brandy matures.

Virtually all Cognacs are a blend of Brandies from different vintages, and frequently, different growing zones. Even those from single vineyards or distilleries will be a mix of Brandies from different casks. As in Champagne, the production of local vineyards is sold to Cognac houses, each of which stores and ages Cognacs from different suppliers and then employs master blenders to draw from these disparate Brandies to create continuity in the house blends. Because there are no age statements on Cognacs, the industry has adopted some generally accepted terms to differentiate Cognacs. It is important to note that these terms have no legal status, and each Cognac shipper uses them according to his own criteria. V.S./V.S.P./Three Star: (V.S., very superior; V.S.P., very superior pale) A minimum of two years aging in a cask, although the industry average is four to five years. V.S.O.P.: (very superior old pale) A minimum of four years cask aging for the youngest Cognac in the blend, with the industry average being between 10 and 15 years.

Armagnac is the oldest type of Brandy in France, with documented references to distillation dating back to the early 15th century. The Armagnac region is located in the heart of the ancient province of Gascony in the southwest corner of France. As in Cognac, there are regional growing zones: Bas-Armagnac, Haut Armagnac, and Tenareze. The primary grapes used in making Armagnac are likewise the Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. But distillation takes place in the unique alambic Armagnacais, a type of column still that is even more "inefficient" than a typical Cognac pot still.The resulting brandy has a rustic, assertive character and aroma that requires additional cask aging to mellow it out. The best Armagnacs are aged in casks made from the local Monlezun oak. In recent years Limousin and Troncais oak casks have been added to the mix of casks as suitable Monlezun oak becomes harder to find.

Most Armagnacs are blends, but unlike Cognac, single vintages and single vineyard bottlings can be found. The categories of Armagnac are generally the same as those of Cognac (V.S., V.S.O.P., X.O., etc.). Blended Armagnacs frequently have a greater percentage of older vintages in their mix than comparable Cognacs, making them a better value for the discerning buyer.Up until the 1970s, portable alambic Armagnacais mounted on two-wheel carts were hauled among small vineyards in Armangnac by itinerant distillers called bouillers de cru. These traveling stills, alas, have mostly given way to larger fixed-in-place setups operated by farmer cooperatives and individual operators.

French Brandy is the catch-all designation for Brandy produced from grapes grown in other regions. These Brandies are usually distilled in column stills and aged in oak casks for varying periods of time. They are frequently blended with wine, grape juice, oak flavorings, and other Brandies, including Cognac, in order to smooth out the rough edges. Cognac-like quality designations such as V.S.O.P. and Napoleon are frequently used, but have no legal standing.
Top Picks for French Brandy
Drouet et Fils
Cuvée Ulysse XO Grande Champagne Cognac
Deep copper color. Interesting aromas of cashew nougat, dried fruits, leather, and floral honeycomb with a satiny soft, fruity-yet-dry medium-to-full body and a long, chocolate orange peel, creme brulee, tropical fruit, and Asian spice nuanced finish. A lively and elegantly flavorful XO Cognac that is sure to please both Cognac novices and connoisseurs.
97 points $124.99
Date Tasted: 1/17/2014 in our Chicago tasting lab
Louis Royer
Extra Grande Champagne Cognac
Dark mahogany garnet color. Rich, complex aromas and flavors of mocha buttercream, chocolate cherry nut fudge, and pencil shavings with a satiny, vibrant, fruity medium-full body and a smooth, complex, endless finish with elements of cola float, spiced fruits, toffee, and wintermint with well-integrated tannins and moderate oak. A lush and exquisitely flavorful well-aged Cognac with evolving waves of flavor.
Date Tasted: 1/21/2015 in our Chicago tasting lab
Petite Fine Champagne Cognac XO
Deep reddish mahogany color with an olive rim. Dense aromas of varnished wood, singed nuts, cherry cola, anise, and dried fruits with a supple, dry-yet-fruity medium-full body and a long, resonant finish with notes of creme brulee, honey, spiced apples, pepper, pencil shavings, and forest floor. Lots of mature, wood aged complexity and panache for very serious sipping or cigars. Make sure to aerate for several minutes.
Date Tasted: 1/17/2014 in our Chicago tasting lab
Louis Royer
XO Cognac
Bright bronze color. Dense, complex aromas and flavors of caramelized black walnuts and plantains, licorice, fig paste, and spice with a velvety, bright, fruity medium-full body and a smooth, complex, medium-long finish with suggestions of pipe tobacco, mocha, cola, and mineral dust with moderate oak. A well balanced and rewarding XO that will be fantastic with cigars.
Date Tasted: 1/21/2015 in our Chicago tasting lab
Cognac XO
Dark copper color. Wood driven aromas of dried and overripe apples, cellar, and stone fruits, nuts, spice and leather with a rich, dry-yet-fruity medium-full body and a long, pepper and baking spice finish with mineral and oak tones in support.
Date Tasted: 4/30/2013 in our Chicago tasting lab
Le Singulier Cognac
Brilliant gold color. Bright, fruity aromas and flavors of raisin compote and cake, fruity caramel, saffron and delicate spices, and suede with a satiny, bright, dry-yet-fruity medium body and an effortless, elegant, long chocolate caramel cream, honeyed raisin toast, browns spices, and minerals finish. A beautiful and delicious VSOP-like Cognac that over-delivers for the category.
Date Tasted: 1/19/2016 in our Chicago tasting lab
XO Cognac
Medium dark amber color. Rich, fruity, spicy aromas and flavors of raisin cake, orange and apricot marmalades, and toffee with a satiny, crisp, dry-yet-fruity medium body and a peppery, complex, medium-long cola, spiced dried tropical fruits and nuts, caramel cream, and cedar and leather finish. A wonderfully dry and flavor packed Cognac that will be great with cigars.
Date Tasted: 1/21/2016 in our Chicago tasting lab
VSOP Cognac
Amber color. Bright, fruity aromas of spiced raisin-peach compote and orange blossom honey with a satiny, vibrant, fruity medium body and a warming, interesting, medium-long bright baking spices, dried fruits, toffee, and minerals finish with crunchy tannins and moderate oak. A fantastically vibrant and appetizing brandy with great artisanal balance and style.
93 points $29.99
Date Tasted: 4/16/2015 in our Chicago tasting lab
Louis Royer
"Force 53" VSOP Fine Champagne Cognac
Deep amber copper color. Rich aromas and flavors of mocha gelato, chestnut brittle, honeyed dried fruits, and cherry cola with a satiny, racy, fruity full body and a warming, nuanced, long finish displaying notes of rich brown spices, caramelized fruit, mint tea, and minerals with moderate oak. A sensational vibrant and remarkably smooth and balanced high proof Cognac that will be a great choice for cigars.
Date Tasted: 1/21/2015 in our Chicago tasting lab
A. De Fussigny
Selection Fine Cognac
Deep amber color. Delicate aromas and flavors of honey cream, praline, and dried fruit with a silky, vibrant, dry-yet-fruity medium body and a silky, interesting, medium-length finish with accents of sweet spices, white chocolate, brandied cherries, and minerals. A subtle and elegant VS Cognac with a great balance of fruit and warmth.
93 points $49.99
Date Tasted: 1/21/2015 in our Chicago tasting lab