For wine lovers who want to learn and explore the spirit world, Cognac is the quintessential bridge. Yes, it’s derived from grapes, but more importantly this elixir’s tradition is intertwined with wine’s rich culture.
During a recent visit to the region I was awestruck by the sheer vastness of Cognac’s vineyards. It was harvest time, and just like in wine country across the northern hemisphere, that euphoric buzz of grape picking and pressing was palpable everywhere I went, from the dusty vine rows to the bustling cafés on cobblestone streets.
Another shared trait with wine’s heritage: Practically everyone you meet in Cognac either works for one of the vineyards or distillers, or is related to someone who does. And with Cognac’s old-vine grapes and its often decades-long aging time, it’s not uncommon to sip something crafted by multiple generations of a single family.
There has never been a better time to explore Cognac, as now there is wide spectrum of styles to try—from the resoundingly bold and full-bodied (Jean Fillioux Cep D’Or) to the light and crisp (Leopold Gourmel Premieres Saveurs); from flavored offerings (Courvoisier Gold and Rose) to stiff, high-proof mixers (Louis Royer’s 53 Cask Strength). What’s more Cognacs receivedsome of my highest scores all year, particularly the longest-aged brandies (XO, or “Extra Old”). Still, some younger pours did manage to rate extremely high. With so many options to choose from, you will find that right bottle. Bon chance, and enjoy your delicious journey into Cognac.
Cognac Prunier XO (France; Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York, NY); $108, 97 points. A particularly fruit-forward Cognac, look for candied-orange peel, ripe grapes and stone fruit on the first sips, which soon mellow to stewed-fruit flavors on the caramel-coated finish. Savory, mouthwatering rancio notes make for addictive sipping. Made with brandies aged 20–50 years.
Distillerie du Peyrat XO (France; Heavenly Spirits, Lakeville, MA); $150, 97 points. Peyrat is one of the few producers to focus on certified organic
Cognac—this one is certified by France’s Ecocert, with USDA certification still in the works. Organic or not, this is a beauty, rich in Sherry and birch beer-like notes, dappled with cinnamon and allspice. The dry finish suggests accents of spiced cocoa and leather.
Cognac Paul Giraud XO (France; Robert Kacher Selections, Washington DC); $90, 96 points. Like gingerbread in a glass, this topaz-hued and highly aromatic brandy offers bold baking spice, orange peel and floral notes, and an elegant, spicy finish, with flavors of ginger and clove.
Jean Fillioux Cep D’Or (France; Heavenly Spirits, Lakeville, MA); $90, 96 points. Rich and luxurious, this 12-year-old “Tres Vielle” Cognac offers deep toffee and hazelnut flavors, before tapering off to a cocoa and espresso-inflected finish. It’s a well-structured brandy that puts you in mind of a leather club chair—you just want to close your eyes and sink into it.
Camus XO Elegance (France; CIL US, West Palm Beach, FL); $139, 95 points. This copper-penny colored Cognac is best when allowed time to open, since it evolves in the glass. The nose offers notes of dried cherries, toffee and oak. The palate is light at first, with vanilla and warm caramel deepening to an unusually fruity finish full of rounded apricot and orange flavors. It’s mouthwatering and delicious, perfect for pairing with fruit tarts and pies.
Delamain XO (France; Kobrand, New York, NY); $119, 95 points. Bold and butterscotchy, this easy-drinking Cognac also has dried fruit and nutty tones, plus a saline touch that’s reminiscent of salted caramel. There’s a spicy flourish on the relatively dry finish. Delamain notes that it is one of the only Cognac houses to exclude VS and VSOP expressions from its portfolio, “its range starts where others end, with an X.O.”
Lise Baccara XO Old Vines (France; Heavenly Spirits, Lakeville, MA); $130, 95 points. The aroma is particularly rich and complex, with notes of cocoa and apricot. On the palate, thick caramel and cocoa flavors lead, finishing with a perky baking-spice accent and hints of almond and apricot. If you can bear to squander a few ounces of a Cognac made from old vine grapes, consider making a Japanese cocktail—orgeat would complement the natural nuttiness.
Pierre Ferrand Ancestrale (France; W.J. Deutsch & Sons, White Plains, NY); $800, 95 points. At the more precious end of Ferrand’s offerings, it takes 90 bottles of wine and 70 years to make just one bottle of Ancestrale. It’s undeniably delicious, with dark fruit notes that suggest brandied cherries, Port, ripe plums and cassis, finishing with a wash of dusty cocoa. The concentrated, rounded flavor may remind some of Bourbon.