Cognac is brandy, and is also called eau de vie. It is produced by doubly distilling white wines produced in any of the designated growing regions.
The region authorised to produce cognac is divided into six zones, including five crus broadly covering the department of Charente-Maritime, a large part of the department of Charente and a few areas in Deux-Sèvres and the Dordogne. The six zones are: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and finally Bois Ordinaire. A blend of Grande and Petite Champagne Cognacs, with at least half coming from Grande Champagne, is known as Fine Champagne.
Cognac-producing regions should not be confused with the northeastern region of Champagne, a wine region that produces sparkling wine by that name, although they do share a common etymology – both being derivations of a French term for chalky soil.
According to the interprofessional French institution BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac), the official quality grades of cognac are the following:
1. XO (“extra old”) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years but on average for upwards of 20 years. In 2016, the minimum storage age of the youngest brandy used in an XO blend will be set to ten years.
2. V.S.O.P. (“very special or superior old pale”) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least four years in a cask, but the average wood age is much greater.
3. V.S. (“very special or superior”), Very Special, or ✯✯✯ (three stars) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in cask.