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

Ferrand Selection des Anges XO Cognac
94 points
$190
Brilliant amber color. Inviting, tropical aromas of roasted cashew, baked apple, ripe tropical fruits, milk tea, toffee, and tapioca with a velvety, vibrant, fruity medium body and a smooth, complex, long honey-roasted macadamia, strawberry jam on toast, minerals, flint smoke, black tea, and honeysuckle finish. A memorable Cognac that truly stands out in its class; an exotic, traveling finish full of tropical fruits, nuts and mouthwatering minerality.
Awards: 2020 Best Cognac
Courvoisier XO Cognac
93 points
$150
Copper color. Aromas of burnt sugar, peppercorns, heirloom apples, ginger, molasses, and lemon balm with a slightly chewy, crisp, dry-yet-fruity medium-to-full body and a tingling, elegant, medium-long dark chocolate, cappuccino, and gingerbread finish. A bright and concentrated XO with a roasty finish and elegant style.
Awards: 2021 Best Cognac
Camus XO Cognac
93 points
$185
Copper color. Aromas of parsley, cilantro, bamboo, cedar, juniper, and toffee with a satiny, vibrant, dry-yet-fruity medium body and a warming, involved, long peach tart, apple blossom honey, poached pear, passionfruit, and jamon iberico finish. An herbal, spicy XO cognac with a distinctive personality.
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
Bisquit & Dubouché XO Cognac
92 points
$180
Dark amber color. Aromas and flavors of toasted spice cake, buttercream, marzipan, apple custard, and spiced carob with a slightly chewy, crisp, fruity medium-to-full body and a nuanced, endless finish with accents of graphite, mocha latte, spiced pistachio in dark chocolate, ginger-peach tea, and cured meats. Exceptional length gives an indulger pause; sip slowly and contemplatively.
Hardy Legend 1863 Cognac
92 points
$59.72
Amber color. Aromas of pecan praline, creme brulee, and brown butter with a velvety, vibrant, dry-yet-fruity light-to-medium body and an effortless, compelling, medium-length brown sugar, proscuitto, caramel-drizzled salted almonds, pretzels, and milk chocolate finish. A rock-solid cognac with rich caramelly notes that mingle with elegant and mature character.
92 points $59.72
Larsen Aqua Ignis Cognac
91 points
$49
Amber color. Aromas of cola, chai tea, candied nuts, prune, and dried banana with a supple, crisp, fruity medium body and a warming, interesting, medium-length spiced caramel, hazelnut creme, and hints of prosciutto finish. A rich VS Cognac that delivers great intensity for the category; Sazeracs and Vieux Carres await.
Branson Cognac XO Premier Cru Cognac
91 points
$249
Amber color. Aromas of heirloom apple, buttered brioche, candied cherry, finest baking spices, dried apricot, horehound, and dried pineapple with a velvety, crisp, dry-yet-fruity medium-to-full body and a warming, very complex, very long cappuccino, toasted almonds, hazelnuts swimming in dark chocolate ganache, and smoked meats finish. An endlessly satisfying palate keeps you coming back in this excellent XO Cognac.
Camus Very Special Cognac
91 points
$35
Best Buy
Golden amber color. Interesting aromas of ripe heirloom apple, caramel, sticky date pudding, and hint of smoked nuts with a satiny, crisp, fruity light-to-medium body and a tingling, compelling, medium-length cherry stone liqueur, orange marmalade, and cinnamon smoke finish. A fruity and cheerful VS cognac that offers a great value.
91 points $35 Best Buy
Augier Le Sauvage Cognac
91 points
$49.99
Gold color. Citrusy aromas of nutmeg, sage, apple butter, dried dates, and ripe tangerine with a silky, bright, dry-yet-fruity light body and a tingling, interesting, relaxed caramel, pink peppercorns, and bay finish. A spicy, autumnal cognac that will be lovely in cool-weather cocktails.
91 points $49.99