To Know Brandy is to Love French Brandy

I am rephrasing this heading from an old Washington Post article because it describes my sentiment about French Brandy, perfectly.

If we’re talking old school, then brandy was traditionally seen as a drink to enjoy after dinner, perhaps with a coffee or paired with a cigar. If you’re my age you’ll remember that in old black & white movies, the ‘gentlemen’ retired to the library for a brandy – a digestif.

In fairness though, brandy producers are doing a lot to change that ‘stuffy male’ image. Their marketing efforts are attracting trendy music artists and a younger generation that has no memories of black & white movies.

What I wonder about is, when people order a brandy do they understand the difference between a Cognac, an Armagnac, or some non-French brandy – or do they care? Is it just following the cool gang or a genuine drink preference?  I believe that it is a bit of both.

This blog post is aimed at the ‘cool gang’ and of course people who have a genuine interest in learning more about brandy. So, I am writing it in an attempt to help people understand, and hopefully appreciate, why you might choose one type of brandy over another.

I am concentrating on French Brandy because it accounts for 90% of sales in the global market (mainly Asia).

Also, I have much experience of people coming into Green Acres to buy a bottle as a gift and they have absolutely no idea where to start looking. I mean, anywhere grapes are grown there is probably brandy produced, so think about the endless choices. Also, think about this phrase – all cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. Is it any wonder that people are confused?

 Allow me to explain that phrase straight away – brandy can come from anywhere in the world, Cognac must come from the Cognac region in Southwest France.

So, let’s start with the name. Brandy comes from a Dutch word “brandewijn” (burnt wine) which is made by further distilling wine (burning wine) to increase the alcoholic content.

In the broadest sense, the term brandy has become to denote spirits obtained from the distillation of wine of any fruit (fruit brandy), or of pomace (pomace brandy) which produce a colourless liquid called an eau-de-vie (water of life).


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Brandy generally contains 35/60% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) and some are aged in wooden casks, to give that eau-de-vie some colouring and taste characteristics. A recent query about a bottle of Pineau des Charentes (described later) further convinced me that I should write this post in an effort to simplify the process of choosing a French brandy.

I’m going to focus on fruit brandy because, particularly in France, the fruit in question is grapes. I should mention, for the record, that there are a number of brandies produced in other Countries based on apples, pears, and other sweet fruits. And while Calvados from Normandy, Spanish Brandy, Italian Grappa, Chilean Pisco and other brandy types are popular, I’m going to focus on the French brandy names of Cognac and Armagnac.

The Neighbourly Differences of French Brandy.

Cognac and Armagnac are French brandies made from white wine grapes. As you might expect, Cognac is made in Cognac and Armagnac comes from a neighbouring region called Armagnac. They are situated just north and south of the famous wine City of Bordeaux.

Now here’s something you might be surprised by – both are made from undrinkable wine. This is because the regions are so cool that they produce very acidic grapes with low levels of sweetness, which means the wines are very tart with low levels of alcohol (7/9% ABV).

The main differences in the end product are due to:

  • Cognac only uses the Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano) grape while Armagnac uses a blend of three additional grape varietals viz. Colombard, Baco Blanc, and Folle Blanche,
  • Cognac goes through 2 rounds of distillation in pot stills, while Armagnac only goes through one in a column still.
  • Cognac has a higher ‘minimum ageing requirement’ (2 years).
  • Cognac will always be blended.
  • While Armagnac can be blended, unblended Vintage Armagnac is also very common.
  • Cognac must be 40% ABV and Armagnac is typically between 46 to 48% ABV.

Cognac is the more widely known French brandy around the world, but in my mind, both can be enjoyed equally, depending on your personal taste. But, if you really pushed me on a personal preference – I’d opt for a younger Cognac and an older Armagnac. Why? Because a younger Cognac will be smoother than a young Armagnac but an older Armagnac should age into something very special.

An Alphabet Stew of French Brandy Classifications

French brandies tend not to denote age by numbers. Instead, they use letters as terms to describe the brandy’s age. And age is determined by the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend.

So here is a description that might help you understand what I mean.

As the Washington Post article (mentioned above) commented,” the alphabet stew of classifications – V.S., V.S.O.P, X.O. – can be confusing. Actually, they are straightforward. V.S. means very special, with the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend no less than two years old. V.S.O.P means very special old pale, with the youngest eau-de-vie at least four years old. X.O. means extra old, with the youngest eau-de-vie at least six years old.”

NB: V.S. may be replaced by 3 Stars and V.S.O.P by 5 Stars on the label.

There are other classifications such as Napoleon (Cognac 4 yrs; Armagnac 5 years) which fits in between V.S.O.P and X.O. A Vintage: (one year’s harvest), A Varietal: (made from one grape) and Hors d’Age: (35/50 years old).

Just to add to the confusion, both Cognac and Armagnac regions are divided further into smaller areas – Crus – that have great influence on the characteristics of the grapes grown there (and therefore the drink).

Let’s Take a Closer Look at the French Brandy Type: Cognac.

If the heading of this post is true, then it will help to better understand the region, the grapes, the major brands and some general facts of its most famous brandy – cognac.

The Cognac region is a controlled designation of origin, or AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée), with many rules and regulations on the quality of all the styles of Cognac.

In or around the mid-19th Century a soil classification, based on the quality of eau-de-vie, was developed. This is what is used to outline the different sub-regions of Cognac, and they are:

  • Grande Champagne (17% production) – eau-de-vie: floral bouquet
  • Petite Champagne (22% production) – lacks the exceptional finesse of Grand Champagne
  • Borderies (5% production) eau-de-vie: smooth aroma of violets
  • Fins Bois (43% production) eau-de-vie: aroma of freshly pressed grapes
  • Bons Bois (43% production) eau-de-vie ages very quickly
  • Bois Ordinaires (about 1% of production), more rustic character than Bons Bois.

Let’s take a closer look at the details of the grapes at the core of the production of this world-renowned brandy.

Ugni Blanc makes up 98% of the region’s 196,000 acres (79,600 hectares) and is blended occasionally with Folle Blanche or Colombard. Winegrowers also have the possibility of using up to 10% of other grape varieties too, which include the rare varieties of Folignan, Jurançon blanc, Meslier St-François, Montils, or Semillon.

When we look closely at the Cognac producers we can see that four brands stand out: 1) Hennessy, 2) Martell, 3) Remy Martin and 4) Courvoisier. There are almost 4,500 wine growers in the region and only about 350 that brand their own Cognac. The others supply their eau-de-vie to these four bigger brands.

Other facts to note:

  • Cognac is distilled in special Charentais pot stills
  • The distillation starts the 1st of November and is required to be completed before the 31st of March. Cognac’s aging then begins on the 1st of April following the harvest.
  • Most Cognac ends up in blends produced by the big Cognac houses mentioned above
  • Pure, distilled or demineralized water is added to Cognac to make a finished product that is 40% ABV (although some producers sell aged “cask strength” Cognacs at around 50%–60% where evaporation has reduced ABV naturally).
  • The use of caramel colour, boisé, and sugar is allowed to adjust the taste/look of Cognac before release, but in general, its colour comes from ageing.

So, now armed with some knowledge of Cognac, we can look at a label and determine its region, its age, the quality of the brand and how/why its colour and ABV is so.

Let’s Take a Closer Look at the French Brandy Type: Armagnac.

Since Roman times, the wine growers in Gascony, France have used skills to turn grape juice into aygo ardento (ardent water), later known as eau-de-vie. In fact, history tells us that Armagnac Stills were in existence well before its neighbouring rival, Cognac, began producing brandy.

Mainly, due to location (waterway access), Cognac took over the mantle of the premier eau-de-vie from the region. This access to distribution, together with the marketing muscle of big players like Hennessy and Martell, led to Cognac’s world domination. Because of this, some regard Armagnac as Cognac’s poor cousin.

To make the case for it being different rather than ‘poorer’, we should look at the following facts:

  • Most Armagnacs are distilled only once, which allows their ‘terroir’ to shine through
  • Armagnac remains in the hands of small-producers/families scattered around the region
  • The best Armagnacs come from a single domain or chateau, often bottled as a vintage
  • By and large, Armagnac is made in the old-fashioned artisanal way
  • Much good Armagnac can found at cheaper prices because of the wide choice (300).

The region is divided into three parts – Haut Armagnac to the east and south, Bas Armagnac (57% production) in the West and Tenareze in between. Of course, they all claim to be the best but in reality, Haut Armagnac now produces very little. That being said, because the locals keep much of the good stuff for themselves, if you really want to get to know Armagnac – a visit is essential.

To summarise, Armagnac is the oldest of France’s brandies but is still the little guy, produced on small farms compared with Cognac which has a different terroir and 10 times the production.

Pineau – The Little Brother of Cognac

Before I finish this post, I want to mention one of my favourite aperitifs from the same region as the French brandies mentioned above. Pineau des Charentes (Pineau) is a fortified wine.

Its background is described in this article Pineau des Charentes, but I would like to outline its profile here. Why it’s called the little brother of Cognac is that it is a blend of slightly fermented grape must and Cognac’s eau-de-vie. I prefer it served chilled (8/10°C) in a tulip-like glass.

There is white and red Pineau. The white uses the same grapes as Cognac and the blend must be stocked for a year and a half (incl. 8 months in oak). Its ABV lies between 16/22% and its taste is sweet but balanced with acidity. I use it as an aperitif or a substitute for a sweet wine.

The red is made from dark red grapes such as Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, and Merlot. It’s aged for at least 14 months (incl. 8 months in oak). It has similar ABV to the white and the colour can be anything from rose to mahogany.

With regard to ageing, Pineau has two classifications – Vieux (5 years min. in oak) and Tres Vieux (10 years min. in oak). Because of its lesser alcoholic content to the brandies – I love it as a nightcap.


Today, brandies are as diverse as wine or craft beers in taste and aroma. Whilst brandy can be made in any Country (usually one that produces wine) the vast majority of popular brandies stem from regions in South West France.

When faced with the decision of purchasing a bottle of brandy, the caveat is the same as buying a bottle of wine. Some are wonderful, some are average and some are cheap (and not cheerful). I briefly outlined the ageing/labelling process above which will help you decide.

There are no tasting notes on a bottle of brandy so, the 2 main items to look for on a label will be what type of brandy (e.g. Cognac vs Armagnac) and its age (VS, VSOP, XO etc.).

If you’re lucky enough to be at a brandy tasting – rather than sticking your nose into the glass, hold it at chest level and allow the balance of the aromas waft upwards. Then take two sips – the first just wetting your lips almost and the second, a bigger sip that you can swirl around your mouth.

Similar to finding a wine that suits your palate, you will also find a French brandy that you will love. You will fall in love with the flavours, the taste and in particular, the enjoyment of being on that journey of discovery.

“Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” ? Samuel Johnson

Thank you for reading our blog. Feel free to drop-in to us here in Green Acres to discuss any aspect of brandies. Also, if you’d like to receive future blog posts from us, directly to your email, just ‘click’ here.

We look forward to engaging with you again soon – Cheers, James.

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