Cognac, a variety of brandy, is a French alcoholic beverage produced in a specific region of western France. For a beverage to be properly labeled as cognac, its producers must also operate within regulations regarding ingredients, distillation, and aging as required by French law. In order to determine quality, French cognac is split into very special (VS), very specal old pale (VSOP), and extra old (XO) grades, depending principally on the length of time spent aging in casks. Other quality categories do exist, but these three are the important standard on which to base quality.
To be sold as cognac, the brandy must be aged for at least two years. After at least two years of aging, the drink may be sold as VS cognac. With more than four years of aging, the cognac is labeled as VSOP. A cognac may be labeled as XO after at least six years of cask aging. Most cognacs are aged for longer periods, some even much longer than the legally required minimum.
Aging is very important in the development of cognac flavor. XO-grade is considered the best tasting cognac. Many cognacs from respected blenders have blends have dozens of different XO cognacs. Blending in this manner can produce powerfully complex aromas and flavors as well as a smooth finish.
Price is another consideration. Many XO cognacs are packaged in bottles that themselves are quite valuable, including bottles studded with diamonds or other precious stones or metals, which adds to the cost. These bottles do not improve the cognac contained within, and may increase the price unnecessarily.
One way to find the most premium French cognac, regardless of packaging, is to follow the results of international spirit competitions which incorporate blind taste testing by experts. The most notable category is the Extra aged/Vintage category, a category reserved for XO cognacs that go far above and beyond the aging requirements of XO cognac. Due to the amount of time required to properly produce French cognac, some find that it is easiest to first find a highly regarded producer, distiller, or a particular vineyard or family name. Publications that focus on wine and spirits can also provide valuable guidance and information. Online tools, such as blogs, personal rankings, and travel guides, can also serve as a helpful tool in exploring the world of French cognac.