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'Cognac': the most famous variety of brandy

Just north of Bordeaux is a wine region that actually does not really produce wine: surrounding the town that gives it its name Cognac is the most famous variety of brandy, a spirit produced by distilling wine.

The word Brandy is derived from the Dutch 'brandewijn' ('burnt wine') and is thus generally only used for liqueurs made from grape-wine. It generally contains 36%-60% alcohol by volume, which is the worldwide measure by which the percentage of alcohol in a beverage is expressed. For some reason in the US the alcohol strength is measured by alcoholic proof, which is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume when measured at a temperature of 60°F.

According to French law Cognac must meet a finely regulated set of requirement besides being from the region of Cognac. The over 300-year old traditional production process has not been changed since the early days of regulation. The main grape used to make Cognac is Ugni Blanc, which is a widely grown white grape-variety. It is grown all over southern France and is often used in white wines from Languedoc, Provençe or Cote du Rhone, but it can even be found in many Italian white wines.

 In Cognac it is predominantly used under the name "Saint-Emillion," not to be confused with the area of Bordeaux that produces premium red wines under the same name. The world of wine can be wonderfully confusing!

The other grapes that may be used are 'Folle Blanche' or 'Colombard' both of which can often be found blended with Ugni Blanc in regular white wines for southwestern France. Many of these make a great refreshing choice of lighter style white wine for the summer!

Cognac is produced by distilling these white wines twice to make what is also know as 'eaux-de-vie' ('waters of life.') It was first created to use up grape waste in winemaking or thin harsh wines that were not really suitable for drinking.

Originally it was considered a drink for the poor.

Once distillation is complete, it must be aged for at least two years in French oak barrels before it can bear the name Cognac. The final product is usually diluted with distilled water to achieve a 40% alcohol content (or 80% proof.) There are hundreds of different vineyards in the Cognac region. Many sell their own cognac, usually as single-vineyard cognacs but blended from different vintages. Much goes to the big Cognac houses and gets blended into the better-known commercial products like Hennessey, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier or Martell.

There are three basic, regulated quality grades of Cognac:

VS - stands for 'very special' and often has three stars. It is the youngest and is stored at least for two years in casks.

VSOP - means 'very special old pale' or sometimes 'very special superior pale' (both really meaning the same). It is aged at least four years in casks before bottling, but often spends more time in barrels.

XO - 'Extra old' is stored at least six years in barrels, but on average is aged for upwards of twenty years in casks.

Cognac is most often consumed at the end of a meal and should be enjoyed at room temperature in a 'snifter' glass that captures the full aroma that still bears the qualities of the grapes used. It makes for great sipping.

Tagged: Wine, Wine Experiments