What is a good substitute for cognac

 


Various cognac brands (from left: Otard V.S.O.P., Frapin V.S.O.P, Hennesy V.S.O.P.

General information about cognac

Like brandy (or brandy) or brandy, cognac is basically nothing more than schnapps distilled from wine that has been stored in oak barrels. Cognac is a protected name in France that only brandies from a certain area around the city of Cognac are allowed to carry and that also meet certain requirements that the BNIC (B.ureau Nnational I.nterprofessionel you C.ognac). Since the Versailles Treaty, this designation has also been protected in Germany and now in all EU states due to EU regulations. However, this trademark protection does not exist in all countries on earth.

The following explains what cognac actually is and what difference there is between cognac and brandy, spirits or brandy and what you should consider when buying.


Production of cognac

As you probably already know, cognac is made from wine. The grape variety Ugni blanc (known in Italy as Trebbiano) is used almost exclusively for cognac, while Folle blanche and Colombard are cultivated only to a small extent. The remaining permitted grape varieties Blanc ramé, Jurançon blanc, Montils, Sauvignon and Sémillon are almost not used. The grapes allowed for making cognac are used to produce very acidic wines, optimized for distillation, with ideally not too high an alcohol content. You cannot drink it with pleasure.

These wines are distilled in a two-step process, with an intermediate product called broullis with a relatively low alcohol content of just under 30% being produced in the first distillation process. This intermediate product is distilled again, resulting in the finished fine brandy called bonne chauffe with up to 72% alcohol. The distillation process and the size of the stills are regulated by law, as is the maximum alcohol content of the second distillation. Likewise, only fresh wine may be used, which must be distilled by March 31 of the year after the grape harvest at the latest.

Due to the double burning, the resulting fire is very pure and largely free of fusel alcohol. It is preferably stored in new Limousin oak barrels, in which it receives the desired aroma and also its brownish color. In order to force this effect, oak shavings can also be added to the barrels, which is almost always done. The wood of the oaks from Limousin is distinguished from oaks from other areas in that it is low in tannins, which would have a negative effect on the taste. During storage, the alcohol content slowly decreases naturally through evaporation, but at the end of the desired storage time it still exceeds the usual drinking strength, except for ancient fires. The cognac from the barrel is therefore diluted with water to almost without exception 40% alcohol before being bottled.

Unless it is a vintage cognac, it is often blended with cognacs from other batches and vintages before bottling in order to keep the typical taste of the respective brand constant over the years. This has been common practice for a long time, especially with the well-known brands. Up to 3 percent by volume of sugar and caramel can be added in order to obtain a standardized color. Other additives are not permitted. Unfortunately, caramel is often used to achieve a consistently darker color and thus optically simulate long storage.


Cognac qualities and types

The typical cognac taste develops particularly through the storage in the limousine oak barrels. Accordingly, it makes sense to store it in the barrel for as long as possible, i.e. the quality improves the longer it is stored. Depending on the quality of the starting product, a point is only reached after about 50 years of storage in the barrel, from which the quality does not increase any further or even decreases again with further storage in the barrel, which is why extremely old fires in large glass bottles after this time has elapsed be stored for sale. Unfortunately, storage is associated with costs, because on the one hand a significant amount of alcohol evaporates every year, on the other hand you need storage space with defined conditions, and a barrel means tied up capital for the manufacturer that is not available for new investments. As a result, the longer it has been stored in the barrel, the more expensive it is. However, on the basis of the real production costs, it is not really understandable why the sales price increases so dramatically with increasing storage time. These are pure market prices that result from supply and demand. In order to give the customer an indication of what he is buying, there are officially established quality / age classifications:

*** or VS   Stored in a barrel for at least 2 years (VS or V.S. = very special)
VSOPStored in a barrel for at least 4 years (VSOP or V.S.O.P. = very special old pale)
XOStored in a barrel for at least 6 years (XO or X.O. = extremely old or extra old)

The classification of blended cognacs is based on the most recent component. Cognacs with the VSOP classification from well-known companies are not exactly cheap, while those with the XO classification are usually already very expensive, as the manufacturers allow themselves to be royally rewarded for the storage time. There are also "cheap cognacs" with an XO mark, but it is quite possible that a VSOP from another manufacturer tastes much better. Storage time alone is not everything.

In addition to the storage period, a distinction is made according to the origin of the wine from which the cognac is distilled. In the vicinity of the city of Cognac, the following areas, determined by the French government at the beginning of the 20th century, from whose wine Cognac can be made, are located in the order of quality classification (the best above):
  • Grande Champagne
  • Petite Champagne
  • Borderies
  • Fins Bois
  • Bons Bois
  • Bois Ordinaires
In France it is assumed that top-quality products can only be produced on certified top locations, but this is not always the case in practice. It is therefore better to talk about the historical value of the cognacs made from these locations. However, it cannot be denied that manufacturers with vineyards in the best locations usually strive to achieve the best possible quality in order not only to live up to the reputation of the location but also this reputation (and thus also the achievable price). to cement further. There is therefore actually a certain correlation between location and quality, although this system does not prevent clear outliers upwards and downwards.


Cognac, brandy, brandy and brandy

As already said, cognac is a protected name. Even if the same grapes and the same production process are used, the products may not be marketed as cognac if they do not meet the strict requirements for being allowed to be called cognac. They can be found in stores under the name brandy or brandy. A brandy or brandy does not necessarily have to taste worse than a cognac, because the protected and famous name is far from everything. A lot depends on the raw material, i.e. the grapes, the method of production and storage. In addition, tastes are different.

Because brandy or brandy and brandy are not allowed to be called cognac anyway, certain requirements are no longer applicable. This includes in particular the limitation on the permitted grape varieties: In contrast to cognac, they can be distilled from any type of wine. As a result, the result is an aroma that can differ significantly from the typical cognac taste (if one can even speak of it in view of the many varieties and qualities). For a number of years, brandies from the Jerez de la Frontera area (Spain), the growing area known for sherry, have been quite readily available in Germany. Due to the completely different grapes and the different production method (Solera process), a brandy from Jerez tastes significantly different from cognac. The Armagnac from France is still internationally known, while other growing areas are largely only of local importance. But one can assume that wherever grapes grow, wine is also distilled and brandy is made with it. Exotic example: Would you have thought, for example, that in Thailand, for example, brandy is produced on a not insignificant basis, which is definitely drinkable (Regency VSOP, left bottle in the photo)?


Brandy de Jerez

The Brandy de Jerez, which is produced as an outstanding feature in the Solera process, is a specialty. In the case of other brandies, brandies and cognacs, these are stored in a wooden barrel for a certain period of time and sold after the planned storage period has expired. In the solera process, which was originally used to make sherry, rows of casks are stacked on top of each other. These are usually oak barrels with a capacity of 520 liters, which were previously used to store sherry and thus transfer some of its taste to the brandy. In the Solera process with 3 rows of barrels, part of the content (max. 1/3) is taken from the bottom row of barrels for sale. The volume now missing is filled with brandy from the row of barrels above and the middle row of barrels then with brandy from the top row of barrels. Finally, the top row of barrels is filled with freshly distilled brandy, and the barrels are then left to rest until the next time they are taken out.

The name Solera process is derived from the Spanish name of the lower row of barrels, which is called Solera ("soil") and which contains the end product. The barrels above are called criaderas ("breeding ground" or "breeding"). In practice, especially for higher quality levels, far more than just 3 rows of barrels are used, which is why not all barrels can be stacked on top of each other due to the limited building height and the mechanical load-bearing capacity of the barrels. Therefore, some of the criadera barrels are stored elsewhere, often even in other buildings. This does not affect the process; you then only need a pump for decanting, which can be done by gravity when the barrels are stacked on top of each other.

Since the Solera / Criadera process mixed different age groups, the end product naturally cannot be assigned to a year, which is why it is not possible to give an exact age. You can only specify the mean storage time of the mixture in the Solera barrel, which depends both on the amount withdrawn and the time between withdrawals. It does not make sense to state how old the oldest brandy is, because only a homeopathically small amount in the brine barrel has this age. The state control body Consejo Regulador provides 3 quality levels, all of which have in common that the alcohol content must be at least 36%:

Brandy de Jerez Soleramean age at least 6 months
Brandy de Jerez Solera Reservamean age at least 1 year
Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva   mean age at least 3 years

This is only the minimum requirement for the storage time, which surprisingly, however, is usually exceeded very clearly by the producers. At Osborne it is 3 years for the Reservas and at least 10 years for the Grand Reservas (mind you middle Age!). Especially with the Gran Reservas there is almost no upper limit for the manufacturers. However, like all spirits that have been stored for a long time, these brandies have their price. In comparison to cognac and whiskey, it should be noted that the brandy matures much faster in the barrel in the comparatively very warm area around Jerez de la Frontera.

Unfortunately, I must also issue a warning about the Brandy de Jerez: In the meantime, the simple Spanish brandies such as Veterano, 103 and Felipe II (Osborne), Soberano (Gonzales Byass), etc., which were once surprisingly good in view of their low price, have been changed so that their Alcohol content was reduced from around 2010 with unchanged bottle design from 38 or 36% to only 30%. They now taste very watered down and bland. No wonder: it's like mixing a 36% brandy with 20% water! Since the alcohol content is less than 36%, these products are no longer allowed to be called "Brandy de Jerez", but rather "Bebida espirituosa" (= alcoholic drink) on the label. I have no idea what induced the manufacturers to take this step, apart from cost savings (through a 20% lower alcohol tax), but it is certainly an excellent measure to gamble away your reputation, because you will only get something like that once and never again to buy. In order to avoid disappointment, do not forget when buying Spanish brandies (especially the cheaper ones) to look carefully at the label on the back, where the alcohol content is usually stated!

The Solera system has evidently become so popular that even whiskey and rum are produced using this or one of the (i.e. simplified) processes based on it. However, with whiskey and rum it is unfortunately often not clear what the striking number means. Is the average storage time of the mixture in the brine barrel correctly stated or that of the oldest fire (which is normally only contained in the brine barrel in a homeopathic dose) or something in between? Without further labeling what this age specification means, the numerical value is at least confusing. For example, with the Ron Zacapa Centenario Sistema Solera 23, only the oldest brand is 23 years old, while the youngest is 6 years old. Since the volumes of the different old fires are definitely not identical, you can determine the mean age Not calculate by averaging the youngest and oldest fire.


Recommended cognacs / brandies

Although there are upward and downward variations in cognacs with well-known brand names, by and large, the longer a cognac is stored in the barrel, the better. In addition, cognacs from top locations are usually better than those from peripheral locations, as every well-known manufacturer pays attention to its reputation. Unfortunately, this goes hand in hand with a high price, whereby there is no real competition due to the limited supply (the area is limited and therefore also the harvest volume), which leads to high - not to say overpriced - prices. There can therefore be no real insider tips. Since the tastes are different and the different cognacs have different characters, the advice can only be to try as many cognacs as possible and choose the one that suits your personal preferences and is still reasonably priced. From its own country, Armagnac forms the cheaper competition to cognac.

Those who do not focus on cognac and then perhaps also on a certain brand will find quite a few good alternatives among the brandies or brandies from other growing areas; I know people who prefer a good Brandy de Jerez to real cognac from the VSOP and even XO class from the Grande Champagne because they find the latter to be soapy. The tastes are just different. The really good brandies from Jerez are stored in the barrel much longer than affordable cognacs. The Carlos I pictured is 12 years old, while the Cardenal Mendoza is 15 years old (both Solera Gran Reserva with age information as the mean age). Nevertheless, they cost significantly less than the VSOP brothers of well-known brands made from cognac, which were considerably shorter in the barrel. In terms of taste, of course, they differ significantly from cognacs, as they are made from other grapes and in the Solera process (see above).

But other mothers also have pretty daughters: There are a number of countries in which wine is grown, and so it is not surprising that distillates are also produced and stored in these countries, both of which are produced and stored in a wide variety of ways. What these brandies have in common is that, in contrast to real cognacs, the demand for them is considerably lower in most cases and therefore the price / performance ratio is significantly better.


Enjoy cognac / brandy

For cognac, the glass manufacturers offer special cognac swivel. These are relatively voluminous, strongly bulbous, thin glasses with a short stem. You take the glass in your hand so that the palm of your hand embraces the glass from below. The handle is located between the middle and ring fingers. The warmth of the hand warms the cognac to almost body temperature, releasing its fragrances and aromas. This is accelerated by swiveling in the glass. The tapered glass prevents the aromatic scent from disappearing immediately. So you can first enjoy the scent of the cognac before drinking it. The disadvantage here is the relatively large volume of the cognac swivel, which leads to drinking more cognac than you would actually like from the connoisseur's point of view.

Even if the scent created by the warmth of the hand is very pleasant, it is not for everyone to drink lukewarm cognac.So it is not surprising that the cognach makers sell special glasses with their brand emblem that look completely different: They are strikingly similar to the nosers or special grappa glasses that are common with whiskey, which are gripped by the style so that the contents are not heated by hand . Such glasses are about the size of a sherry glass and taper a little towards the top so that the bouquet does not, so to speak, "go with the wind". Due to the lack of warmth, the cognac does not develop the same bouquet as in a cognac swivel, but it is still strong enough. In addition, this prevents important fragrances and thus also aromatic substances from evaporating in excess and then no longer available when drinking.


Other spirits made from grapes

Pomace / grappa

As with cognac and brandy, you can first make wine from grapes and then distill it. However, you can also use the pressed grape skins, which still contain remains of fermentable material, for further use by fermenting them in a similar way to the production of fruit schnapps and then distilling them. This is how you get so-called pomace. Storage in the barrel is not mandatory for him, but it is just as good for him as most other spirits. Accordingly, it is either water-clear or slightly yellowish or brownish when stored in a barrel. Its taste has nothing to do with cognac or brandy due to the different raw materials and the different production methods. It depends on the type of grape used, the care taken in distillation and, if necessary, storage. Pomace has a rather bad reputation, which was probably due to the medieval and, to put it mildly, improvable production method and the fact that it is basically a waste product. This bad reputation is sustained by some poor quality marc. However, a good marc can be a real pleasure.

In Italy, by the way, this spirit is not only widespread, but is also considered a national drink, where it is called grappa. In French wine-growing regions, pomace is also known; there he is called "Marc de <Traubensorte>". But also in most of the other wine-growing regions of the world, the production of pomace is anything but unknown, although it has its own national name in almost all countries.

Metaxa

Another spirit made from grapes has a tradition in Greece: Metaxa, which is made from brandy but is not allowed to be called brandy or brandy. Unfortunately, not all details about its manufacture are publicly available. What is certain is that it consists of several components. One component here is a mixture of brandies made from several rather sweet grape varieties. The grape skins are used to produce pomace. Metaxa is obtained by mixing brandy, pomace and specially produced, very sweet nutmeg wine, as well as adding a secret blend of herbs. One of the well-known ingredients of this herbal mixture is an extract from rose petals. Unlike most Spiced rums, however, is a subtle and harmonious influence on the taste. Other sources say that Metaxa consists only of brandy and nutmeg wine that has been flavored with said herbs. Maturation takes place in oak barrels, as is usual with cognac.

The storage time of the Metaxa is indicated on the label with stars, which is very consumer-friendly because each star stands for one year of storage in the wooden barrel. Metaxa is readily available in Germany with 5 and 7 stars, while those with 12 stars are much more difficult to obtain. The even longer stored Metaxa Grand Fine and Private Reserve are more or less only available through specialized mail order companies.