XO Marks the Spot
Napoléon, Réserve, Vieille Réserve, Extra, Extra Old, Extra Extra Old. It's madness, but it's important to understanding brandy.
In a world of bespoke barrel picks, this is maybe an unpopular take, but I don’t believe you’re a serious brandy person without an appreciation for at least a few XO bottlings.
With Cognac and Armagnac, the concept of blending is the most difficult for Americans to wrap their minds around. In the world of craft spirits — especially whiskey—the master distiller is the protagonist, the venerated hero of the show. We love to talk about singular things: single malts, single barrels, certain vintages singled out for their singularity. Blending? You may as well be speaking French. Most American drinkers don’t want to hear about blending.
If I’m being cynical, it’s likely because blending removes an age statement as the easy shortcut to connoisseurship. But perhaps this is ungenerous. Let’s just say that with Cognac and Armagnac, the master blender plays a much more important role than the distiller. Yet blending is probably the most misunderstood aspect of producing aged spirits, and it’s rarely discussed.
With Cognac, there’s always been the alphabet soup of classifications (VS, VSOP, XO) as well as several other nebulous designations. In VS (Very Special), the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be two years old. In VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be four years old. There aren’t many VSOP and below brandies I would recommend.
So let’s talk instead about XO (Extra Old). I’m finding that a lot of the current brandy discussion tends to ignore XO in favor of vintages and single-cask expressions. I get it. There’s skepticism from enthusiasts about spirits bottled at 40% abv, even if that is traditionally what Cognac has been bottled at. Certainly, reduction with “distilled or demineralized water” is permitted to bring down the proof. There’s also the sketchy issue of additives like sugar, caramel, and oak infusion “for final adjustment” (also permitted). A substance called boisé, a mixture of sugar, oak chips and lower-proof brandy, is often added to a young Cognac to intensify its taste and texture and to make it appear older than it is. It’s a topic that few people in Cognac are willing to talk about. Safer to stick with purists who bottle at cask-strength and follow a “triple zero” philosophy, amiright?
But I think we miss good things if we only focus on a number, whether it’s the abv or an age statement. There are plenty of fine brandies at all ages and alcohol levels. If you’re skipping XO altogether, you’re missing out on a lot of excellent value Cognac and Armagnac.
The fact is, XO quality is getting better every year. Both Cognac and Armagnac changed their XO rules in 2018. The youngest eau-de-vie in an XO blend for both must now be 10 years old. That seems straightforward enough, right?
Now comes the confusing part: Terms of art such as Réserve, Extra, Hors d’Age, and Napoléon. Without Googling, tell me precisely what each means. “Within the industry there’s an unwritten rule as to what they stand for,” according to Cognac Expert. This “unwritten rule” must be the most convoluted fiat ever established. For instance, according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), Réserve can technically used for brandies as young as four years, the same as VSOP. Très Vieille Réserve must be aged six years. Yet plenty of houses name some of their decades-old blends something like “Réserve Familiale,” which doesn’t have a specific age regulation.
Extra and Hors d’Age (meaning “beyond age”) are listed in the regulations under the same category as XO, meaning a mininum of 10 years. Extra is generally used for special blends, though there are no specific requirements. Hors d’Age has almost always been used to designate a bottling that was older than a house’s XO, generally at least 30 years old. Extra Extra Old or XXO, by regulation, must be aged at least 14 years.
Even more confusing is the murky, slippery term Napoléon, an old-fashioned name concocted in the 19th century to connote luxury. “When I first took over, I wanted to kill Napoléon,” Geraldine Landier of Rémi Landier told me. “But my father insisted, ‘No, we need to keep Napoléon.’ But fewer people are making it anymore.” Sometimes, Napoléon is used to label a bottling with 20 or more years of age. But other houses use the term for a sort of “tweener” Cognac that falls between VSOP and XO. In fact, just like Très Vieille Réserve (or Très Vieux or Très Rare or Héritage) it can be still used for Cognac.
In the regulations, the BNIC adds: “The labeling of the statements of aging and the methods by which it is carried out must not be likely to create confusion in the mind of the buyer or consumer.” LOL, ok.
Got all that? You would think this information would be easy to find online, but it’s actually not. So here are the regulations in French:
Confusion aside, let’s circle back to XO. Of all the hodgepodge label terms, XO is perhaps qualitatively the most consistent from house to house. In most cases, we’re looking at a bottle priced from $100 to $200 (or in some cases, even lower). We’re generally looking at blends with an age of 10 to 20 years.
So, to be clear, when we talk about XO, we’re talking about the category that’s most comparable to bourbon. I think this is significant for the enthusiast who’s moving from whiskey to brandy, and wants to understand key differences between the spirits. Open a good XO next to one of your quality 10-year+ aged bourbons and your appreciation for Cognac and Armagnac will swell.
Frapin Château Fontpinot XO ($170)
One of my favorite XOs, aged for 20 years in Frapin’s dry cellars, to highlight finesse and elegance. Made only from grapes harvested around Frapin’s Fontpinot castle, in Segonzac, the heart of Grande Champagne. Copper-orange in color, bright nose of fresh flowers and mint, along with richer aromas of dried apricot, pastry dough and a hint of rancio. The freshness carries onto the palate, where there’s great linear structure, nuttiness and attractive acidity, and the surprisingly intense grilled walnut finish. Lively, drinkable style of XO that offers excellent value. (41% abv)
With an average of 30-year-old Grand Champagne in the blend, this is a baller hors d’age. Shy at first, but as it opens there’s a complex nose of beeswax, plum tart, and a hint of antique furniture varnish. The palate is incredibly complex, delivering lots of bright plum, an almost slivovitz-like plum brandy note, then mature rancio notes of overripe papaya, and a spicy finish of anise, cardamom and ginger. Bottlings like this from Guillon-Painturaud might soon be nearly impossible to find. (40% abv)
A.E. Dor XO Fine Champagne, ($125)
Earthy, forest floor notes compete with swirling baking spices and dried flowers. There’s good structure here, and an appealing creaminess at the midpalate, and on the palate, it’s peppery and spicy, with warm apricot to balance, and a woody finish. (40% abv)
And one Cognac could be labeled as XO, but is not:
Rather than the traditional XO, the new generation at Pasquet has chosen to put numeric age statements on the labels of its younger bottlings. This one is a minimum of 10 years old, all from their estate in Grande Champagne. The intense nose offers alluring jasmine, smoked herbs, toffee, and an underlying aroma of Earl Grey tea. Full of juicy citrus in the mouth, balanced with notes of ginger and green tobacco. Pretty and powerful, and complex for its age. (40% abv)
Deep copper, full-bodied, and rich, this ten-year-old from Baco feels more mature than its age. Aromas of orange blossom, cinnamon, and apple with an expansive palate of toffee and honey, balanced by nutmeg on the finish. (41.2% abv)
Eric Artiguelongue XO ($65)
A 15-year-old blend made from the former cellar master of Château Laubade. From Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Folle Blanche, and Baco. Golden in color, with delicate citrus blossom, pear compote, and almond on the nose, round, full-bodied and fruity on the palate, with spicy finish of surprising depth. Solid, well-priced intro to XO.
And one XO Armagnac that isn’t labeled as XO anymore:
Château de Lacquy's used to label this as XO, but now uses an age statement. A mature, hard-to-find, 17-year-old that whispers instead of shouts. Gentle but precise throughout, with flavors of candied orange, prune, and chocolate at first, then finishing with tobacco and a hint of rancio normally found in longer-aged Armagnac. (43.5% abv)