The rookies guide to grape spirits


What are grape spirits?

Wherever you find vineyards and grape growers in the world, you’re bound to find enterprising vignerons operating some kind of still to make use of excess grapes. While cognac is probably the most renowned of the grape spirits, there is also Armagnac, marc, brandy, grappa, and pisco.


Given we’ve grouped a pretty diverse range of spirits under the one umbrella here, we’ll just outline a few production techniques for a couple of the majors.


Armagnac: 10 grape varieties are permitted in Armagnac production, but the most common used are ugni blanc and Baco 22A (Baco produces a more fully flavoured spirit). Most armagnac undergoes a single distillation in a column still, to an ABV between 52 per cent and 72 per cent. Three star or VS armagnac is aged for between one and three years; VSOP between four and nine years; Hors d’Age or XO for between 10 and 19 years, and XO premium is aged for 20 years plus. Vintage armagnacs must contain spirit from the year that is labelled and is quite common in armagnac.

Cognac: Made mostly from colombard, ugni blanc (otherwise known as trebbiano), and folle blanche grapes picked by October. A high-acid low alcohol wine is made, and double distilled in copper pot stills called the Charentais still.  Must be aged in French oak barrels for a minumum of two years (and often longer). It is then labelled as either VS (youngest spirit in the blend is 2 years), VSOP (youngest spirit is four years) or XO (youngest spirit is 6 years).

Other grape spirits are made in a similar fashion however marc and grappa are known as pomace brandies. This means that they are distilled from the leftovers of the winemaking process (the skins and pips).

Hine Cognac

How to serve it

Tradition would see you drinking cognac from a snifter glass — that is a big double brandy balloon, but often this kind of glassware does nothing but concentrate the alcohol vapours in the glass. Far better to use a dedicated glass or in a pinch, a white wine glass.

Did you know?

One of the chief reasons behind the development of these spirits happening in Armagnac and Cognac was their location on the River Charente. As trade passed went along the river they were important places for selling the local wines; by concentrating the wines (i.e. distilling them) the merchants could save space on the boats.


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