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 Paradis de Famille Hors dAge Cognac
97 points
$230
Bronze color. Aromas of sweet ripe mango, creme fraiche, fine leather, polished furniture, cherry fruit leather, and cured meats with a slightly chewy, crisp, dryish full body and a warming, subtle, very long aromatic barks, terra cotta, toasted crumpet, and roasted pumpkin seeds finish. A giant, chewy cognac for the most special of occasions.
Awards: 2017 Best Cognac, 2017 Best Luxury Cognac, 2017 Best Brandy
Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask Cognac
96 points
$79.99
Best Buy
Golden amber color. Aromas of roasted agave, caramelized pineapple, luxury cigarette, fresh organic pear, roasted pine nuts, coriander, and mustard with a vibrant, fruity medium body and a warming, very complex, very long sweety drop peppers, fine english toffee, and star fruit finish. A sophisticated and finesseful cognac that will delight connoisseurs.
96 points $79.99 Best Buy
Selection Olivier Blanc XO Extraordinaire Cognac
96 points
$180
Amber color. Elegant aromas of rich caramel, teriyaki sauce, roasted nut butter, fruit preserves, and anise with a round, lively, dryish medium-full body and a warming, complex, very long salted peanut skins, black tea, warm earthy spices, and menthol finish. An exceptionally balanced, powerful, and lengthy cognac for whiskey lovers.
Awards: 2017 Best XO Cognac
Courvoisier XO Cognac
94 points
$150
Brilliant copper color. Nutty aromas of ripe red apples, plum tart, almond butter, and toasted coconut with a round, vibrant, fruity medium body and a warming, complex, very long leather, cacao nibs, dried hen of the woods mushrooms, smoked paprika, and cured pork finish. A spectacularly complex cognac that offers a layered flavor journey for the palate; experiential.
Awards: 2018 Best XO Cognac
Camus Extra Dark and Intense Cognac
94 points
$499.99
Dark amber color. Aromas of dried cherries, luxury tobacco, and caramelized passionfruit and soursop with an oily, crisp, fruity medium-to-full body and a warming, involved, very long bay leaf, rose water, game, espresso crema, allspice berries, ginger, and artisan rootbeer float finish. A nutty, decadent Cognac with an oscillatingly nectar-sweet and spicy finish.
94 points $499.99
Drouet et Fils XO Ulysse Cognac
94 points
$140
Copper color. Inviting aromas of prosciutto, cafe au lait, cherry mostarda, musk, and yuzu with a round, bright, dryish medium-to-full body and a warming, very complex, long chocolate dipped candied orange peels, cinnamon spice drops, chocolate caramel candies, and dried rose petals finish. A delicious, engaging cognac with a long, developing finish; savor.
Selection Olivier Blanc Exceptionnel Cognac
94 points
$380
Dark amber color. Exotic, fruity aromas and flavors of bright lychee, peach candies, vanilla caramel, ramune soda, and dried apricot with a velvety, vibrant, fruity medium-full body and a warming, interesting, long sweet tobacco, mango powder, and thai chiles finish. Rich exotic fruits explode out of the glass in this distinctive expression of cognac.
Augier Le Singulier Cognac
93 points
$59.99
Golden amber color. Toasty aromas of candied apple, clove, creamy caramel cheesecake, tobacco, and hazelnut with a satiny, dry-yet-fruity light-to-medium body and a warming, amusing, medium-length dried currant, prosciutto, and milk and honey finish. An oak-forward VSOP that will work well in classic cognac cocktails or simply neat.
93 points $59.99
Croizet X.O. Gold Cognac
93 points
$137.99
Amber color. Aromas of caramel, passionfruit, toasted croissant, sesame oil, and cured meats with a velvety, crisp, dry-yet-fruity medium body and a warming, layered, long espresso beans, red bean bao, milk chocolate with roasted almonds, caraway, and dried peach finish. A spicy, chewy XO cognac that will be a delightful nightcap offering for your guests.
93 points $137.99
Camus Borderies XO Family Reserve Cognac
93 points
$169.99
Bright bronze color. Aromas of tobacco, caramel sauce with candied lemon peel, apple strudel, and wax with a round, crisp, dryish medium body and a charming, medium-length mixed berry jam, spiced orange oil, dry roasted peanuts, pressed flowers, and leather patina finish. A dry XO that brings a citrusy vibe for mellow sipping.
93 points $169.99