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Everything you need to know about this aged, white-wine spirit. 

A Course in Cognac

'Tis the season for cognac, when hearty winter meals call for an intensely flavored liquid finish. Although cognac can be enjoyed on the rocks with tonic, soda or ginger ale as a cocktail before dinner, this topaz-colored drink is most popular served without ice, as a postprandial libation.

Cognac is a civilized finale to be enjoyed in front of a blazing fire with a good book, good friends, or — for those who like them — good cigars. But what exactly is cognac? How should it be served and where does it come from? The primer below is designed to help beginners select a bottle, and to inform cognac experts about the new, single-district cognacs now on the market.

What is cognac? Cognac is a spirit made from white wine. Unfiltered white wine is distilled twice — a long and delicate process — to result in a highly alcoholic liquid called eau-de-vie (French for "water of life"). This liquid is then aged in oak barrels, which impart the characteristic amber color to the liquid as well as tannins and an array of aromas and flavors, ranging from cinnamon to prunes to chocolate.

Where is cognac made? Cognac is made in the region of Cognac, in southwestern France. By law, if the label says "cognac," it must come from the region of the same name.

What's the difference between cognac and brandy? All cognacs are brandies, but not all brandies are cognacs. The word brandy comes from the Dutch brandjiwin ("burnt wine"), and simply refers to a distilled spirit. There are three basic types of brandy, categorized according to what they're made from: grape brandy (such as cognac); pomace brandy (such as marc); and fruit brandy (such as eau-de-vie de framboise, or clear raspberry brandy).

What are the regions of cognac? Cognac is divided into six growth areas, each with a distinctive characteristic based on the region's climate and soil. The growth areas (also known as "crus") are: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fin Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires. (In this context, the word Champagne does not refer to the region where sparkling wine is made, but nods to the Latin word, campus, meaning "open field," from which the word champagne derives.)

How do you read a cognac label? V. S. (Very Special), also called three stars, is at least 2 « years old. V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale), also called reserve, is between 4 « and 6 « years old. And Napoleon, or X. O. (for Extra Old) is at least 6 « years old. It is also called Hors d'ge.

What kind of glass should be used? Pour cognac into either a classic, short-stemmed balloon-shaped glass (sometimes called a brandy snifter) or use one with a slimmer, tulip-shaped bowl made specifically for cognac.

Whichever you use, fill it only about one-fifth full and never warm it over a flame, which can destroy the cognac's aromatic nuances. If you want to warm your cognac, do so by placing the bowl of the glass in the palm of your hand for a few minutes.

How do I store cognac? Stand the bottles straight up; the liquid should not come in contact with the cork.

How long does cognac last? Unopened, cognac lasts indefinitely. Once opened, it may lose some of its nuances over time. Some aficionados say an open bottle of cognac only lasts a few weeks; I believe it retains its character for many months. If you are concerned about deterioration, decant the cognac into a smaller bottle so it has less contact with air.

What's the newest in cognacs? About a year and a half ago, cognac producers Gabriel & Andreu released single-district, unblended cognacs. These cognacs are made from base wine from one district only, so the resulting cognac retains a distinct, regional character. These single-district cognacs are a delightful change from single-malt Scotch. They range in price from $30 to $100 per bottle.

Hennessy also offers three new "single distillery" cognacs, which — although the base wines may not all be from a single region like the single-district cognacs — are made from eau-de-vie from a single distillery. Look for Hennessy labels with the following names: Le Peu, Camp Romain, and Izambard. They range from $47 to
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