In Western France, the regions of Cognac and Armagnac produce some of the world’s most venerated grape brandies. Although they share proximity—Cognac against the Atlantic, north of Bordeaux, about an hour-and-a-half from landlocked Armagnac to the south—they produce two very different styles of brandy distinguished by history, grapes, soil, technique and aging.
What is Cognac?
Cognac is a brandy specifically made from wine in the Cognac region of France. The primary grape used to make Cognac is Ugni Blanc, though smaller amounts of Folle Blanche (also called Picpoul) and Colombard are allowed.
Because it borders ocean ports, brandy from Cognac has always been more popular and commercially available. England was an important early destination for the spirit in the 1700s. Many of the legacy brands in Cognac are named for foreigners like Richard Hennessy, an Irish trader, and Thomas Hine, an Englishman who married into a family with a distillery.
In contrast to French wine, Cognac is still known by its brands, rather than individual producers or estates. The four biggest houses, Hennessy, Courvoisier, Rémy Martin and Martell, are global entities whose bottles are found behind almost any bar. However, the majority of production is contracted from producers all over the region. Many of these grape growers and distillers work with multiple brands. Some also bottle their own Cognac.
Since the spirit is sourced so commonly from different producers, most Cognacs are blended to produce various house expressions. The grades are V.S. (very special), V.S.O.P. (very superior old pale), X.O. (extra old) and an unofficial designation named Napoleon.
These designations indicate the age of the youngest brandy in the blend. V.S. means that the youngest brandy (called an eau-de-vie at this stage) is at least two years old. V.S.O.P indicates that the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least four years old. Previously, X.O. meant the youngest eau-de-vie was aged least six years, but as of 2018, was revised to a stricter requirement of a minimum of at least 10 years of age.
What do the labels mean on Cognac?
V.S.: “Very special,” youngest brandy in blend aged at least two years
V.S.O.P.: “Very superior old pale,” aged at least four years
Napoleon: Aged at least six years
X.O.: “Extra old,” aged a minimum of 10 years
The Napoleon category used to be an unofficial label for extra-old Cognac, generally those that qualify as X.O., but also many aged much longer. Since the reclassification of X.O., Napoleon has adopted the category’s former requirements, and now signifies a blend with a minimum age of six years.
Worth noting is that these designations don’t always show up on a bottle, and most quality producers will exceed their minimum listed age significantly.
Cognac can also be labeled with one of the six appellations of the region: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires (or Bois à Terroir). The two Champagne regions, like the famed sparkling wine region, are named for the high composition of chalk in the soil. If a bottle of Cognac is labeled “Fine Champagne,” it’s a blend of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne brandies. However, to earn this designation, at least 50% of the blend must be Grande Champagne Cognac.
What is Armagnac?
Armagnac is more rustic in production, which results in a full-flavored brandy that importer Charles Neal, of Charles Neal Selections, calls “a bit more…forward and punchy.” The brandy used to produce Armagnac was made historically by roving distillers. Stills in tow, they would travel to farms in the hinterlands, allowing the farmers to make brandy from their wine without having to buy equipment of their own.
The major difference between Cognac and Armagnac is the distillation. While Cognac is twice distilled using a pot still, Armagnac undergoes column distillation, though much different from the large, modern industrial stills often used to produce neutral spirits like vodka.
“[These] are column stills that are 15 plates or less,” says Leonardo Comercio, sales manager for PM Spirits, an importer that specializes in brandy. “They are not there to strip and transfer raw material into neutral distillate. They cleanse it and give it a high aromatic tone that would still be still be a flavorful distillate before it even goes into barrel.”
“Cognac is almost like the vodka that you store on the kitchen counter. Whereas Armagnac, texturally, is more like the vodka in the freezer, thicker and richer on the palate.” —Charles Neal, importer, Charles Neal Selections
A column still creates texture differences between Cognac and Armagnac as well. “Cognac is almost like the vodka that you store on the kitchen counter,” says Neal. “Whereas Armagnac, texturally, is more like the vodka in the freezer, thicker and richer on the palate.”
The difference in mouthfeel results partially from the concentration of alcohol. Armagnac tends to come off the still at around 52–60% alcohol by volume (abv). Unless it’s blended or bottled at cask strength, it will typically be diluted to around 45–47% abv.
Cognac, on the other hand, is distilled twice in a pot still, which brings it to around 70% abv. Usually, it’s diluted and bottled at 40%. Neal says that the additional dilution contributes to Cognac’s lighter sensation.
A pot still allows for more control over the “heads, heart and tails,” or how distillers describe respectively the first, middle and final parts of the spirit to flow out of the still. Cognac contains a larger portion of heart, or the middle section of the distillation run, considered to be the purest in flavor. However, while there is a lot of potential for this heart-heavy spirit to develop, it also means Cognac can take more time to show its more exuberant side. Armagnac, meanwhile, it more likely to be fruity and intense when young.
Like Cognac, Armagnac is blended and labeled frequently with indications like V.S.O.P., X.O. and Reserve to show the minimum age. However, it’s more traditional to bottle vintage Armagnac than Cognac. Vintage Armagnac is relatively affordable compared to other aged spirits, and it’s a great option if you seek a bottle to commemorate a particular year.
Cognac, Armagnac and their wine connection
For wine lovers, the differences between Cognac and Armagnac are much like those found between big-name wine regions and under-the-radar appellations that also produce competitive, high-quality bottles, but to less fanfare. While Cognac sets sales records year after year, Armagnac has re-emerged as a connoisseur’s drink. It’s beloved by professionals and those in the know, but outsold by its more popular sibling.
Choose Cognac and Armagnac like you would wine. Pay attention to importers and distributors that represent brands you like. When you’re ready to dig deeper, seek out smaller labels for a more distinctive experience.
It’s easy to overlook the details that define regional spirits, but their discovery can be very rewarding. Brandy is wine’s cousin in the spirits world, and Cognac and Armagnac have as much to reveal about where they come from as any wine region on earth.