There are countless regulations that Cognac brands must adhere to, however there are surprisingly few legal requirements when it comes to what needs to go on a label of a Cognac. Today, for instance, every bottle of Cognac sold must declare its geographical name (‘Cognac’), the volume in litres and its percentage alcohol content. All other details about the Cognac on the label are optional – and some brands choose to provide more information than others.
Here we decode some of the terms commonly found on Cognac labels through the ages.
A Cognac will always say ‘Cognac’ on the label.
This rule, defined by Geographical Indication (GI) Cognac came into effect 15 May 1936.
A decade later, the Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac (BNIC) was founded in 1946 to protect the Cognac and its producers.
In 1800s a geology professor named Henri Coquand studied the composition of the soils in the Cognac region. He classified the sub regions of Cognac based on the quality of wine spirit they produced.
These sub regions became the basis of the categorised areas, or ‘crus’, for the Cognac region in 13 January 1938. They are still used to this day and are often shown on the label:
A Cognac with ‘Grande Champagne‘ on the label is usually expected to be the best and most expensive. The shallow clay and limestone soil, over limestone and chalk gives its wines great finesse which are suitable for long ageing in cask. These Cognacs are known for a predominantly floral bouquet.
Cognacs from grapes grown in ‘Petite Champagne‘ are similar to Grande Champagne Cognacs but with slightly less finesse and perhaps a bit more structure.
A bottle labelled as ‘Fine Champagne‘ tells you it is a blend of a minimum of 50% Grande Champagne and the rest is from Petite Champagne.
A Cognac that mentions ‘Borderies‘ on the label will be from vines grown in the clay and flint soils for the Borderies cru for round, aromatic and soft wines with a bouquet of violets. These tend to require less ageing in cask than Grande and Petite Champagne.
A ‘Fins Bois‘ Cognac is made from vines planted in its very stony, heavy clay and limestone soils. The heavier eaux de vie has a round, smooth, fruity bouquet that ages relatively quickly.
The poorer soil and maritime climate of ‘Bons Bois‘ Cognac makes quick-maturing spirits with fruity aromas.
The words ‘Premier Cru‘ can only be used on the label if the Cognac is made from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne Cru.
Grapes are rarely mentioned on Cognac labels but an educated guess can be made based on the era of the bottle. Ugni Blanc has been the the most common grape variety in Cognac throughout the 20th century. It makes up 98% of all grapes grown in the region.
Historically as well as Colombard, Montils and Sémillon were the traditional grape varieties. This was until phyloxera epidemic began to affect the region in 1872. Wine growerers then discovered advantages of the hardy and more desease resistant Ugni Blanc.
The 21st century has seen a small renaisance for the historic grape varieties so when a grape is mentioned on a Cognac label it is significant.
Other grapes are permitted. For instance Folignan can make up to 10% of the grape blend.
There are one or two other exceptions: Jurançon, Meslier Saint-François and Sélect were authorised if the vines were planted before 2005. Their use in blends was permitted up to and including the 2020 vintage.
Ages in years, or ‘ans‘, are rarely mentioned on Cognac labels but certain words give an indication to the minimum time the Cognac spent maturing in a cask.
The BNIC’s regulations for minimum ages have changed over the years. These are the current rules:
A Cognac with VS, Very Special, 3 Etoiles or *** all need to be at least two years old.
VSOP or Very Superior Old Pale on the Cognac label indicate that it is at least four years old.
Until recently Napoléon on a Cognac label meant very little but since 2018 it has been used to indicate a that the Cognac is six years old.
Since 2019 an XO or Extra Old Cognac will have spent at least ten years in cask. Previously it was six years.
The words Hors d’âge, Extra, Ancestral became regulated in 2019 to only be used on Cognacs of ten or more years. Previously it was used by brands to indicate that the Cognac had been aged beyond official scale.
XXO and Extra Extra Old was introduced in 2019 for 14 year old Cognacs.
So many Cognac producers age their eau de vie for much longer than the rules require (or, more likely, blend eau de vie of various ages) that these terms are mainly for theoretical interest. However the words are used by brands to indicate quality and value within their ranges.
Age Statements and Vintage
Vintage, age statement or ‘millesime’ Cognacs are not common as they are subject to many BNIC rules.
In fact, between 1962 and 1975 single vintage Cognacs were banned completely with the exception of those ‘early landed’ Cognacs aged in England.
Today, any reference to the age of a Cognac on the label refers to the youngest eau de vie in the blend.
Some brands, for example Hine and Frapin, specialise in age statement Cognacs but the ageing must take place under the regulatory control of the BNIC.
Brands can also release products containing multiple age statements (multi millesime), as long as the above rules have been adhered to during ageing.
Early Landed Cognac
Since the 1800s casks of Cognac have been shipped to England to be aged in UK cellars and bottled in UK. These Cognacs are referred to as Early Landed.
Due to the different conditions and maturation processes, as well as humidity levels, Early Landed Cognac can have finer, more delicate, less rich characteristics to ‘Jarnac aged’ Cognac.
This is now the only exception to the rule that Cognac has to be aged in a specific area of France.