About 80 miles or so north of Bordeaux lie the two picture-postcard towns of Cognac and Jarnac, the heart of the Cognac industry. The region, stretching from La Rochelle in the north to Royan in the west and Angoulème in the east, is home to nearly 6,000 grape growers who supply white wine for distillation, predominantly made with the Ugni Blanc variety (aka Trebbiano).
These wines are characterised by high acidity and low alcohol – not something you’d particularly want to drink as they are, but perfect for distillation, which takes place (twice) in copper stills, or alembics. The eau-de-vie is then aged in Limousin or Tronçais oak barrels; the latter has a tighter grain, and imparts fewer tannins than the powerful Limousin, making it better suited to maturing Cognacs for longer. Finally, the spirit is usually cut with water to 40% abv.
Cognac has a number of categories, which reflect the time each one has spent in barrel. VS (‘Very Special’) Cognacs must contain eaux-de-vie no younger than two years old; VSOPs (‘Very Superior Old Pale’) must be at least four years old; and for XO (‘Extra Old’), as well as bottles labelled ‘Napoléon’, ‘Extra’ and ‘Hors d’âge’, it’s six years, although this will rise to 10 years from 2018 (with the exception of Napoléon). That said, in practice, the vast majority of XO Cognacs contain eaux-de-vie much, much older than the legal minimum.