The December 31, 2010 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Cognac. You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.
Here’s what I learned in the course of tasting through 20-something different bottles of Cognac, a task which I have to admit, truly did not suck:
1. Cognac comes from the Cognac region of France. Otherwise, it’s just brandy.
2. The alphabet stew of classifications – VS, VSOP, XO – can be confusing. VS means Very Special, with the youngest eau de vie in the blend no less than two years old. VSOP means Very Old Superior Pale, with the youngest eau de vie at least four years old. XO means extra old, with the youngest eau de vie at least six years old. Most of the Cognac sold in the U.S. is either VS or VSOP.
3. Rancio! It’s a delightfully weird umami-type flavor found exclusively in some aged Cognacs. It reminded me of funky aged cheeses, in the best possible way.
4. Cognac is the drink of choice for the kings of rap and hip-hop, many of whom back or tout the spirit. Frankly, this trend has helped revive sales in the category. (Remember the 2001 hit “Pass the Courvoisier”? According to BusinessWeek, sales of Courvoisier skyrocketed 20% after its release.)
5. There’s got to be another word for “caramel.” I ran into this same issue with Bourbon and rye reviews. Here’s the thing: one lovely side effect of barrel-aging is that it produces a brown color and a caramel-like aroma. But it’s lazy writing to describe every spirit as “caramel,” and it ignores all the nuances. So I’m trying to push harder on what exactly that scent and flavor really resembles. Is it really a milky caramel? Or is it toffee, maybe even burnt toffee? Vanilla? (vanilla and caramel seem really similar, until you smell them side by side.) More like honey, or even figs, cloves or flowers? I’m starting to keep flavor adjective lists, just like when I wrote about stocks, and I had a list of different ways describe how the market rose or fell – edged lower, or plummeted? There’s a big difference. So I tried to discern during the Cognac tastings: is that a subtle caramel note, or a big honking wall of vanilla?
If you have a favorite Cognac, cocktail featuring Cognac, or even just a helpful synonym for “caramel,” I’d love for you to share it. I really enjoyed the lively debate over the Absinthe post a few weeks back!