Cognac and Sweet Wine

By / Magazine / February 25th, 2009 / 1

What’s the difference between brandy and Cognac?

As someone once quipped about a completely unrelated topic: “Location, location, location.” Think about it. If your unique plot of dirt earns a reputation for giving birth to the best of a particular something, it’s bound to set you apart from the pack.

Cognac’s cousins in Champagne like to tell those simple folk who try to compare their high-priced bubbly with plain old sparklers from elsewhere that all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.

The same can be said, with a touch of paraphrasing, about Cognac and brandy. Anyone who grows a grape can make brandy — it’s just the byproduct of wine (and in some extreme cases like grappa, the skins and other leftovers) meeting the distillation process.

Turning it into an art form is where the region around the French town of Cognac comes in. With the wine from that area being dodgy at best (who needs it when Bordeaux is just down the road?), winemakers in Cognac began double-distilling their juice in unique copper stills (single-malt-Scotch style) and then aging the outcome for varied periods of time (often for decades) before blending.

Their process yielded some very fancy booze with price tags to match. Not to say that other countries aren’t reaching Cognac’s height of heights. Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal all make some great brandies. As does the other French brandy region: Armagnac.

But when it comes to a classy spirit to fill your snifter, it’s hard to beat the liquid gold of Cognac.

I like sweeter wines. How can I tell which ones have more sugar when I’m at my local liquor store?

Where do I start? If you’re at a loss when it comes to understanding the personality of grapes (the most prominent word on most New- and, nowadays, Old-World wine labels) or the detailed terminology that many countries use to tip you off to taste, then just shop by the numbers.

All liquor retailers in our home and native land use some sort of sugar-index code that typically manifests itself on retail shelves as a number between 0 and 5 or, depending on how obnoxious they want to be, 0 and 10.

So what do the numbers mean?Well, you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to understand the math. Though they might pretend to identify the exact sugar content of each wine, the idea is that a zero indicates that your pick is one of the driest on the shelf, while a five lies at the sweet end of the sweetness spectrum (it might be a ten in those provinces that really want to carry things too far).

How scientific is it? Not at all. But at least it’s a bit of a directional indicator — for anyone getting his or her palate wet with wine — as to what should be perceived in the mouth as sweet or dry.

Why use numbers? Well, we’re talking bin tabs here, gang — not billboards. With space at a premium a simple number seems to be the logical choice of signpost on the sweetness highway.

Just remember that it is, after all, just a number and is only meant as a very basic guide. If you really want to know how to determine the sugar level inside a bottle of wine, do your research and keep reading as you’re drinking, for goodness’ sake.



Fresh, funny and down-to-earth, Peter Rockwell is the everyman's wine writer. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia he's worked in the liquor industry for over 30 years and has written about wine, spirits & beer since graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in 1986. His reviews and feature articles have been published in Tidings, Vines, Occasions, Where and on to name a few; he has been a weekly on-air wine feature columnist for both CBC-TV and Global Television and his wine column 'Liquid Assets' appeared weekly in two of Nova Scotia's daily newspapers, 'The Halifax Daily News' and 'The Cape Breton Post.' Today Peter's irreverent answer man column 'Bon Vivant' appears each month in Tidings Magazine and his weekly 'Liquid Assets' column is published across Canada in editions of the METRO newspaper. When not drinking at home, and at work, Peter travels the globe looking for something to fill his glass and put into words.

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