Spirited Grapes of Cognac

Tawny-hued spirits sipped fireside from elegant snifters — that was cognac's aristocratic image before pop-culture caught whiff of the luxury spirit. Now, cognac is showing up in the hands of hip-hop artists and celebrity clubgoers everywhere. Renewed interest in this well-dressed spirit is further fueled by cognac's mixability with tonic or juices.

Ironically, modern trendsetters are actually sipping a grape spirit that is steeped in tradition.

Naturally distilled from wine, all cognacs must come from the designated region of Cognac, France. Grape spirit made outside of Cognac is called brandy.

At harvest time, grapes are fermented into wine and heated in traditional copper-pot stills. Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, the alcohol vapors are the first to rise. These vapors are carried away through copper coils. As the temperature drops, the vapors condense back into liquid: the grape spirit. The new grape spirit is distilled a second time to increase its alcohol strength and purity. Brandy-laden casks are then placed in aging cellars. This is where life begins for a young brandy.

Over time, oxygen slowly creeps into the barrels and, together with the oak, mellows the evolving aromas of sweet vanilla and rich caramel, providing a golden amber color. Each year, a portion of the aging cognac is lost to evaporation. Cellar masters lovingly refer to these heady vapors as the "angels' share," whose loss helps to lower the alcohol levels in the spirit. The more time the cognac spends in the barrel, the richer it becomes both in price and flavor.

Young cognacs are labeled VS (Very Superior), while those with additional aging are VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale). Next comes XO (Extra Old), which is usually 15 to 25 years old.

Traditionalists will probably prefer to savor cognac neat in a snifter. Otherwise, try serving cognac as a refreshing summer apéritif on the rocks with sparkling water and a twist. Better yet, use cognac to spice up sangria or a juicy summer cocktail. Any way you sip it, cognac is back and in great spirits.

Marianne Frantz, CWE and founder of the Cleveland Wine School, is joined by Tyler Smith from Blue Point Grille in selecting wines for this month's spirited Cellar Notes.

Hine Rare VSOP ($55)
: Medium amber color with rich, earthy aromas of wood, spice and mushrooms. This has a smooth, complex, warm finish.

Martell XO ($140)
: Medium intensity of toasted oak, caramel, vanilla and spice. Its smooth, long finish is rich and meaty on the palate.

Rémy Martin VSOP ($50)
: Medium body with creamy texture. Pronounced caramel, hazelnut and spice. Mouth-warming alcohol supports a smooth, medium finish. It's great served neat or with a mixer.

Hennessy VSOP ($46)
: Golden amber with rich texture and intense aromas of vanilla bean, toasted nut and spice. Warm, smooth alcohol supports a long, balanced finish.

Courvoisier VSOP ($39)
: Lush, complex and dense with smoky, ripe, dried-apricot aromas and spice. Balanced mouth-warming alcohol and a long finish.

Courvoisier VS ($28)
: Pale golden amber with caramel and spice. Balanced alcohol with a long, clean finish.

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