Caught near the end of winter, we're still sipping dark spirits. But whiskey doesn't have to be the go-to.
Especially this time of year, it's a welcome upgrade to the bourbons and ryes you've been swilling the past few months.
Even if you're a novice with brandy -- the distilled-wine category under which cognac is classified -- a quick glance at a map of France is likely to inspire some research. And because cognac is derived from grapes, not grains, it's likely to gain fans among those who appreciate the complexities of sun-ripened fruit.
"I had a sommelier tell me the other day that cognac is a brandy like a Rolls Royce is a car," says Guillaume Lamy, vice president of Cognac Ferrand, which is produced from grapes grown in Cognac's most prestigious subregions: Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne (neither is related to northern France's bubbly HQ).
Rich with chalky, water-retaining soil, Grande and Petite Champagne are two of the six subregions from which a cognac must hail to be branded as such. It's the French law of appellation d'origine controlee, and it specifies a handful of requirements for cognac -- namely the grape variety (primarily ugni blanc), distillation (twice, in copper pot stills) and aging (at least two years in oak barrels).
Thereafter, cognac -- like port, sherry and other spirits derived from grapes -- is defined by its age. Most fall into one of three aging categories:
VS: Very Special, the youngest blend of the distilled wine is aged at least two years
VSOP: Very Special Old Pale, aged at least four years
XO: Extra Old, aged at least six years, but often stretched out for decades
In general, the older the cognac, the more complex -- and delicious.
Newbie cognac drinkers might lean toward the youngest, least expensive category. But Remi Brabant, brand ambassador for renowned cognac house Remy Martin, encourages buying VSOP -- only slightly more expensive than VS, but nowhere near the sometimes exorbitant price tags attached to XOs.
Certain cognac houses produce signature categories, such as Remy Martin's 1738 blend (which drinks like a VSOP), named for the year King Louis XV gave the distillery permission to expand its vineyard. Premier cognac brand Martell's best-seller is its Cordon Bleu, which was first bottled in 1912 -- predating the XO categorization with which it's now associated.
Just as wines vary from year to year, so do cognacs.
"We are never really able to produce the same (category) with consistency," says Lamy, "for one simple reason: We work with a very volatile material called wine."