XO XO from Cognac with love

Winston Churchill. Kim Jong-Il. Jay-Z. Segolene Royal. What’s probably the one thing they have in common? Cognac!

With fans as diverse as this, how could I not know more about this distinctive beverage? Samuel Johnson threw down a challenge to us wine geeks more than 200 years ago when he was offered a glass of claret. “No, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy,” according to Boswell.

Well, I don’t know if I aspire to hero status, but I’m not going to settle for being a mere “boy!” So when the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de Cognac, the trade group representing ALL producers and distillers in the region invited me on a press trip, how could I refuse?They asked me what I know about cognac. I said nothing. They said, “Fine!”

So what do I know about cognac? Let me think out loud:

  • Like Champagne, Cognac is both a drink and a place. Fancy that. It’s north of Bordeaux, touching the Bay of Biscay and runs inland.
  • Also like Champagne, Cognac favors brands over growers. That’s evidenced by the fact that the cognac Hennessey is the best known wine and spirits brand according to Business Week magazine. And the second? Moet.
  • Cognac is made from grapes! The humble ugni blanc is grown with yields almost three times that of quality table wines. Then it is distilled. Twice.
  • Production is 95% exported.
  • Hip-hop artists want to “pass the Courvoisier.” Cognac is also known as “yak.”
  • One cognac comes in a Baccarat crystal bottle and costs over $1,000.

Actually I do know one more thing: there are various grades of cognac. Here’s my initial impression, pending further research:

  • VS = blending
  • VSOP = blending or sipping
  • XO = sipping, big bling factor

For the late, great R. W. Apple Cognac, “properly made and aged, is the best brandy in the world.” The decisive factor in setting cognac apart from other brandies is not the unique climate or soil. Appple ascribed its difference to the humans, saying “the decisive factor is the skills in distilling, blending and maturing that have been perfected over 300 years.”

But with almost all the production exported, looking at who and where it is consumed is arguably just as important as where it is made. In his excellent story “Cognac and its Cognoscenti” in the Wall Street Journal last June, Eric Felten wrote about the rich history of brandy and American musicians, particularly African-American musicians such as Billie Holliday or Dexter Gordon all the way to P-Diddy. Felten observed this change:

With Lady Day and Dexter, cognac was a way to cultivate and project a worldly, savvy and civilized image. By contrast, the hip-hop brandy trend has been more about sheer expense — especially the stuff that sells for four figures and comes in Baccarat bottles. Even so, I suspect that cognac’s appeal to the hip-hop crowd is about more than conspicuous consumption. The authors of the “thug” lifestyle seem to think a glass of cognac is like “a gat in the hand.” Rap’s celebration of yak is an embrace of the venerable notion that cognac is the drink not only of the rich, but of the powerful.

How open are the cognac producers to this embrace? After all, when the Economist asked a representative of Roederer about the house’s top wine, Cristal, being a favorite of the hip-hop crowd he made comments that were interpreted as racist and led to a boycott of the bubbles.

It seems to me that the cognac producers are likely more relaxed about their “cognoscenti.” Their beverage is, after all, a distillate, potent and concentrated. They’re used to blending or just playing it straight.

So next week I’ll be reporting on this and more from the region. I hope to be able to post from the region but that depends on two things. First, internet access, which can be spotty in France. And second, if I can keep my tasting volumes below the “heroic” levels of Churchill.

What I’m reading to get up to speed on Cognac:
Cognac, by Nicholas Faith (2005, Mithcell Beazley)
Cognac, the Seductive Saga of the World’s Most Coveted Spirit, By Kyle Jarrard (2005, Wiley)
“From the Thinnest of Wines, the Richest Spirit: Cognac,” R. W. Apple, NYT, September 25, 2002.
“Cognac and its cognoscenti,” Eric Felten, WSJ June 3, 2006
Cognac.fr, the BNIC site

PS bonus points for anyone who can say who Segolene Royal is. And double bonus for why she is relevant to cognac!

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17 Responses to “XO XO from Cognac with love”

  1. She’s the French Socialist canidate, who is the president of the region that cognac is grown in.

  2. Felicitations, tedward!

    Right on both counts. Poitou-Charentes is indeed her electoral base.

  3. Welcome to France! (in advance!)

    I live just outside of Saint-Emilion (not so far from Cognac) and we pay 30Euros/month ($36) for high-speed internet access, free calls to all land-lines in France, Canada, U.S.A…., and cable television. There is even an internet bar/cafe in the small medieval village of Saint-Emilion.

    We’re making progress quickly here!

  4. Lisa–

    I can but hope!

    Also, I forgot to ask if anyone has any recommendations for touring or tasting, please let me know!



  5. I am vert with envy, Dr. Vino. For the trip and for the chance to taste a lot of great Cognac.

    Bon voyage.

    Terry @ mondosapore

  6. Terry,

    But you will be in Cognac “in spirit” via the blog!



  7. Celine –

    I didn’t even know! Looking forward.


  8. Tyler,

    We have a friend whose family has been making Cognac for 6 generations, and I could certainly recommend you visit them. Their vintage cognacs are particularly interesting.

    The house is Chateau de Montifaud in Jarnac-Champagne and his name is Laurent Vallet.


  9. Tyler,

    Congratulations for your very nice website.
    Actually we have meeting together on Wednesday in my humble Cognac House (I am the Marketing Manager for Meukow Cognac).
    I will do my very best to answer your questions and to make the tasting an unforgettable moment !
    So….see you soon !

    Céline Viard
    Marketing Manager

  10. Hi,
    There are many fine wines and Cognacs from Cognac (no pun intended), but I also just learned that there is a new gin being produced in the region. It’s called G-Vine and it’s made from a combination of juniper and grape leaves. I had my first taste last week and it’s delicious. Anyone else try it?

  11. Hi Adam,

    thanks for your kind words about G’Vine. G’Vine is indeed a luxury gin – French and made in Cognac, yes … – the first-ever gin created from grape spirit and starring the vine flower. Anyone coming to Cognac next time can come and visit us with pleasure ! Best, Audrey from Eurowinegate

  12. I found your site and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

    Interesting post. A subject near and dear to my heart and one I’ve spent a fair amount of personal research on the past couple years.

  13. I have not read the entire article, however I just want to say it is great to see so many lovers of fine cognac.

    Shunte Heard
    Wine Consultant

  14. Just recently got into Cognacs, Armagnacs, and even single malt Scotch and I’m loving them all! My preference right now is for Armagnac though… recently tried a St Christeau 1945 Armagnac and it was simply sublime!

  15. Now Rapper Ludacris is promoting Conjure Cognac. This is completely a new direction in cognac marketing.


  16. I recently visited Cognac and wrote this article http://www.jetsetjen.com/articles/wine/cognac-only-nose-knows

  17. Hello! I have very little time (a few hours one morning on either Aug 27 or 28) to visit Cognac in a few weeks, but would like a small boutique expderience vs a large distillery. What would you recommend and how can I get in touch with them? Thanks.


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