A very fine variety of brandy named for the Cognac region in western France where it was first produced. Only cognac produced in this region can be labeled as "cognac". There are very strict standards and ratings relating to Cognac. A minimum aging of three years is required in oak barrels made from Limousin oak, which imparts a soft vanilla flavor to the beverage. The best Cognacs are produced from grapes grown in a small area of Cognac called Grande Champagne. The primary grape varieties used for making this brandy are Columbard, Ugni Blanc and Picpoul. When the grape juice is distilled, it goes through two distillations using an Alambic distillation process consisting of a copper pot and condensation coils. A similar brandy with an older history than Cognac is Armagnac, which is produced in a region of southern France. Despite being produced for many more years, Armagnac has never been as popular as Cognac and thus, remains less recognized when brandy beverages are purchased. Armagnac is aged from 20 to 40 years and as it matures both the alcohol content and the volume of liquid decreases, resulting in a deeper more intense liquid and flavor for this brandy.
Cognacs are labeled according to their age and quality. Cognac that has aged from 3 to 5 years, but may be as young as 2 years, are labeled with a "VS" for "Very Special" or "VSP" for "Very Special Pale". Cognac aged for 5 to 15 years, but may be a young as 4 years, are labeled with "VSOP" for "Very Superior Old Pale" or "VO" for "Very Old". Some cognacs that have typically aged for over 20 years are referred to as "XO" for "Extra Old" or are given stately names such as Napoleon, Vielle Reserve, Triomphe, Cordon Bleu, and other names to indicate that they typically have aged at least 6 years but most often considerably longer. If the label displays wording stating Grande Champagne or Grand Fine as an idication of quality, it is referring to the fact that all the grapes for the cognac were produced in either Petite or Grand Champagne region of France. Cognac is usually served as a final beverage for a meal or it can be added to desserts or elaborate entrees to add a rich flavoring and a finishing touch to the meal.