Soul Warmer

3 minute read

Five hours southwest of Paris by car lies the Charente, a lush agricultural area known for sappy melons, slimy escargots, earthy mushrooms and, of course, one of the world’s most famed spirits, Cognac. A perfect winter sipper, Cognac warms the body and, if you let your imagination run wild, the soul. With its edgy burn, it also has plenty of nuance and spice, which make it ideal for the festive, mellow moments of the holiday season.

To be labeled Cognac, the spirits must be produced in the Cognac region from grapes–these days, mostly ugni blanc–grown in any of the six appellations surrounding the towns of Cognac and Jarnac. There are bois ordinaires, bons bois, fins bois, borderies, petite champagnes and grande champagnes. The last two, by the way, have no relation to the Champagne region just outside Paris that produces bubbly. But of the six appellations, petite champagnes and grande champagnes, with their gravelly, chalky soils, are credited with producing the best grapes for Cognac. Once the wine is distilled into spirits, it is aged in oak casks, sometimes for many decades. The blending of various spirits, old and young, gives Cognac its superior edge.

If you can’t decipher the typical Cognac label, join the club. It will help to know, however, that VS is the youngest category, which most connoisseurs skip (or relegate to the punch bowl). V.S.O.P., or Réserve, Cognacs contain spirits at least 41/2 years old. While this can be a pleasant category, for gifting you will want to upgrade to Napoléon, Impérial, Hors d’âge, Vieille Réserve, Vernerable or X.O. These are all terms used for older Cognacs in which the youngest spirits are at least 61/2 years old.

The Cognac category is more sensitive than wine to advertising, and so the world is largely familiar with the big names–Martell, Courvoisier, Hine and so on–all of which turn out a fine product. There are also several smaller, quality houses such as Prunier, Delamain and Ragnaud. But the best Cognac you have never heard of is A. Edmund Audry. Specializing in Cognacs with large stocks of older base spirits, Audry is difficult to find in the U.S. but worth the extra legwork. (Hint: call its importer for help at 212-967-6948.)

Tasting around among the styles of various Cognac houses makes a great adventure (see box). Some are edgy, some are round, some fruity and some buttery. Because each has its own character, there’s a Cognac for every drinking personality on your holiday gift list. Even if the recipient is you.

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