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  • Writer's pictureErin

Cotton on to Cognac

I absolutely love a good whisky, but brandy took me a little more perseverance to enjoy, but I'm well and truly there now.

Cognac alongside Armagnac are two of the greatest brandies in the world, both from grapes, both from France, and both delicious.


Cognac lies just north of Bordeaux whereas Armagnac is to south east, and the reason we see so much more Cognac on our shelves is foremost down to the position of the two areas. Cognac has always been ahead of cognac due to its location, it's in a much stronger position in the trade network with it being much closer to the sea. Armagnac was in fact France's first Brandy, and although throughout history it's been widely traded and highly prized, it's position further inland meant it just couldn't compete.


Cognac started out producing wine, and the switch to brandy came about in the 16th century, and was a particular favourite in Britain and Ireland, managing to keep up its reputation throughout the 18th century. Into the 19th century it was the British and the Irish who dominated the trade, being supplied by the major houses (many of which still exist today!). Phylloxera hit Cognac hard from 1871 onwards, and even today the vineyard area is as patch on what it once was. The 20th century was full of ups and downs as Cognac fell in and out of fashion, which led to consolidation of the industry into four major houses; Hennessey, Rémy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier. Armagnac on the other hand has no dominant producers, instead there's a wide selection of smaller merchant houses and producers.


Cognac has six permitted grape varieties, with Ugni Blanc accounting for 98% of plantings. The best grapes for Cognac are grown in the six crus - Grande Champagne, Petit Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaire. The first three are where the best Cognacs are made, a reason for this is the chalk and clay soils here. Armagnac has ten permitted grapes but four are of real importance; Ugni Blanc, Baco, Colombard and Folle Blance. Ugni Blanc is the most widely planted and produces grapey and floral notes, second is Baco which gives earthy and prune flavours, Colombard shows spicy pepper notes and Folle Blanche has more floral tones. In Armagnac there are three crus, the majority of plantings is in the Bas Armagnac, followed by Ténerèze, with only a small amount coming from Haut Armagnac.

Harvesting and winemaking

To make brandy, a low alcohol, high acid, fairly neutral flavoured wine needs to be produced. Grapes are machined harvested without the use of sulphur dioxide with the winemakers relying on the high acidity levels of the grapes (and of the wine) to counter micro-organisms. The grapes are crushed and gently pressed, followed by fermentation to produce a low alcohol wine with very few flavours - the perfect solution to concentrate, hence distillation! An important decision to factor in is the use of lees (dead yeast cells) - do you keep them in or filter them out? Martell decide to remove them which will produce a lighter more purer style, those who keep them in such as Rémy Martin are after a more richer mouthfeel with more intensity and complexity and perfect for ageing.

Distillation of Cognac

Cognac is distilled using a type of double pot still called a Charentais still. They must be made from copper and consist of a round pot built into a brick furnace, with a linking pipe at the top which leads into a condenser. The pot is filled with the wine, heated to enable vapours to form, as ethanol boils at 78.4ºC the vapours at the start will have a higher concentration of this alcohol. Water boils at 100ºC so it's important to be able to manage the temperature of the still. The first distillation is to separate parts of the wine from some of the water and the still cannot be filled more than 140hL. The second distillation continues the process of concentration but it's focusing mainly on determining the style and flavour of the spirit, the still in this distillation has a capacity of 30hL but is restricted to 25hL. To achieve this the spirit is collected in three parts - the heads, hearts and tails. The hearts come over first and will contain more volatile fractions (such as methanol) which have lower boiling points than ethanol. The liquid is constantly monitored and once all the undesirable components have finished coming over, they will redirect the liquid into another container for the collection of the heart. The heart is used to make the final spirit and has high concentrations of ethanol and all the other flavours you need to make a great Cognac. Once all the goods bits have come over, the less volatile components start be seen (I remember this by thinking the less boil-able ones, the ones with the higher boiling temperatures!). At this point another switch will be done, and the collection of the tails will start (fusels oils). The heads and tails will still contain some ethanol and flavours so they can either be redistilled with the next batch of original wine, or with the brouillis. Take note that if they are put back in the wine, the alcohol level will be raised quite significantly so it doesn't need to be concentrated as much, so less concentration of flavours too. This means the final spirit will be a lighter - a characteristic of Martell. If the heads and tails are added to the brouillis, a deeper richer spirit will be produced, this technique is used to make Rémy Martin. Some take a happy medium and do a bit in both, such as Hennessy!

Maturation and bottling of Cognac

Cognac must be matured in oak for at least two years, a few decisions to make are the type of oak used; either wood from the Limousin forest (open grained, more tannin) or from the Tronçais forest (tighter grained, more aromatic). New spirit will normally age in new oak for around six months to a year before being transferred to old oak. Once ready for bottling, the spirit is reduced to bottling strength (with pure water) and the colour modified for consistency with the addition of caramel (it has no effect on flavour). Now on to the labels;

VS - youngest spirit in the blend is 2 years

VSOP - youngest spirit in the blend is 4 years

XO - youngest spirit in the blend is 10 years

Distillation of Armagnac

The main differences in the distillation of Armagnac is that they have access to more grape varieties, they distill to a lower abv (between 52 and 72.4%abv)and can also produce an un-aged spirit.

The distillation of Armagnac is done using a type of column still called an alambic Armagnacais, which is ideal to produce a low strength spirit. It's a single column still that can be run continuously, and made up of a burner, a column, a wine heater and a condenser. Wine flows into the condenser and then into the wine heater, the heated wine then passes into the still and the vapours pass back through the serpentine into pipes in the wine heater and condenser, heating it, before its collected as a spirit. - Confused?! Have a look at my diagram below...

The different grape varieties are distilled separately but the still doesn't have to be stopped, the distiller just switches over, relying on their taste and knowledge! For this column there is no cut for heads and tails although the liquid residue that doesn't make it out of the column is drained off at the base of the column.

Maturating and bottling of Armagnac

The main difference to Cognac is that an un-aged spirit can be produced and is labelled blanche. Everything else has to be matured in oak for a minimum of one year. European oak is the norm, from the local Monlezun forest, but the same for Cognac is also used. Like Cognac, the spirit will normally spend a short period in new oak (around six months) before being transferred to older barrels for the rest of the maturation process. Now on to the labels...

VS - youngest spirit in blend is 1 year

VSOP - youngest spirit in blend is 4 years

Napoléon - youngest spirit in blend is 6 years

XO - youngest spirit in blend is 10 years

Now on to drinking!

Ok so now that's all out the way, I certainly think it's time for a drink right?

Cognac is widely available whereas Armagnac is hardly to get hold of, plus a little more on the expensive side - but I highly recommend you find it, even if it's at the end of a meal at next time you're eating out.

Compared to Cognac, Armagnacs are described as being more rustic and robust, compared to the more delicate and refined flavours of Cognac.


Pierre Ferrand XO - Expect a pronounced and intense spirit with tonnes going on. From fresher notes of grapes, peach and apricot, alongside candied fruit and spicy saffron. There's also some floral notes coming through as well of jasmine tea, honeysuckle combined well with dried prunes and figs. And then there's plenty of indications of age with spice, cinnamon and toast moving into fruitcake and raisins (some great examples of some rancio flavours). It's an XO so this would of seen at least 10 years


Chateau Du Tariquet VSOP

Chateau Du Tariquet VSOP is a great example, and widely available in the UK. It's slightly more toned down, still seeing those dried fruit flavours we saw in Cognac, with more toffee, butterscotch, caramel flavours and just little touch of toast.


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