What Does ‘VSOP’ Mean? | Wine Enthusiast
Like bourbon or Scotch whisky, Cognac is a highly regulated category of spirits that has a strict, long-standing legal definition. It’s a brandy at its core, but like Champagne or Armagnac, which must be produced in the regions for which they’re named, it must be produced in the eponymous Cognac region of France (or Appellation d’Origine Controlee). And, like many of these long standing French regional traditions, there are strict rules that govern its production.
To earn the moniker Cognac, this eau-de-vie must be distilled from grapes and aged in French oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Of course, the classifications go even deeper with a number of terms that indicate the minimum age of the brandy that you find inside a bottle. One of the most popular is VSOP.
But what exactly does this ubiquitous acronym mean? We’ve got you covered with the full details—and which bottles to buy.
What Does VSOP Stand For?
VSOP is an acronym that means “Very Superior Old Pale,” and it indicates that the eau-de-vie has been aged for a minimum of four years. There can be much older eau-de-vie in the blend, but the youngest must have spent at least four years in oak barrels. Some people mistakenly believe that VSOP means “Very Special Old Pale,” according to Alexandre Gabriel, Ferrand Cognac owner and master blender. That’s untrue.
“It became part of French regulation in 1983 [with] the Cahier des Charges, the official AOC Cognac regulation,” he says. “The reason it’s in English is because in the 19th century, the first market for Cognac was Great Britain.”
You May Also Like: What You Need to Know About Cognac vs Armagnac
But the abbreviation and designation came about well before it was regulated by the French government. According to Bénédicte Hardy, international brand ambassador and fifth-generation family member of Hardy Cognac, the term VSOP was first recorded in 1946 but indicated a younger age then. “At the time, three years old was the minimum age,” she says. “Slowly but surely, between 1946 and 1983, VSOP evolved to be what it is today: minimum age of four years.”
Does VSOP Indicate Quality?
In American whiskey, the bottled-in-bond designation means that the liquid meets specific criteria including a minimum age (four years), specific proof (100) and place and time of distillation. With Cognac, a designation like VSOP is a similar assurance of the quality.
“The very precise specifications for Cognac govern each stage of its production, guarantee and protect its quality, and the name of the product which alone has the right to call itself Cognac,” says Dan Nicolaescu, certified Cognac educator with the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC).
Hardy adds that strictly enforcing age designations was an attempt to put Cognac at the forefront of the brandy category by indicating that it stands out in terms of regulations—making this French spirit a benchmark of quality. While the term “VSOP” also appears on some American brandies, there is no actual law governing its usage.
How Does VSOP Cognac Differ from Other Cognacs?
Taste is entirely subjective, but most experts agree that VSOP Cognac is more refined than VS (“very special”), which is aged for at least two years. That’s because with VSOP, that extra time spent in the barrel really starts to show itself in the eau-de-vie, bringing richer, more complex flavors to the palate–especially given that many VSOP Cognacs have been aged for longer than the minimum requirement of four years.
You May Also Like: U.S. Cognac Sales Are Plunging—Here’s Why
Just like whiskey or wine, the more time Cognac or any other brandy spends in a barrel, the more color and flavor the wood imparts to the spirit. Gabriel says that while each Cognac house is different, overall VS has a more straightforward character, while VSOP starts to develop complexity.
“You have a hint of dry fruit that [shows on the] nose,” he says. “You don’t have that fresh grapey-ness as much, [which is] delicious in VS. You’re going to have slightly dry raisin notes starting to show, and then vanilla from the barrel… and beautiful floral notes.” Hardy adds that VSOP Cognac has a longer finish, along with a fuller mouthfeel and notes of sweet almond and dried apricot.
How Should You Drink VSOP Cognac?
Like any other spirit, you should drink VSOP Cognac any way you like. That being said, VSOP has enough age on it to enjoy sipping neat or over a large ice cube, but it also works wonderfully in classic cocktails like a Sazerac, Old Fashioned or sidecar.
8 VSOP Cognacs to Drink Right Now
Normandin Mercier VSOP Cognac
Golden and light in the glass, this Cognac offers rich, powerful aromas of caramel, dulce de leche and ripe banana. The buttery palate opens with vanilla cookie and tropical fruit, finishing with sprinkles of cayenne and cocoa. Petite Champagne region, minimum seven years old. 93 Points — Kara Newman
Mission Wine & Spirits
Godet Cognac VSOP
Nutty, honeyed tones perfume this Cognac. The palate echoes honeycomb and roasted nuts, layering that with a whiff of toasted brioche and a zippy lemon-peel note, before finishing with gentle baking spice. 93 Points — K.N.
Cognac Frapin VSOP
Initial caramel and oak aromas open to a more red-apple scent. The brisk palate shows some vanilla, but it’s light, underscored by another red-apple note. Vanilla treads lightly on top. A quick baking-spice finish suggests nutmeg, cinnamon and clove. There’s also apple butter, with a vanilla-cream exhale. 92 Points — K.N.
International Wine Shop
Why You Should Trust Us
All products featured here are independently selected by our team, which is comprised of experienced writers and wine tasters and overseen by editorial professionals at Wine Enthusiast headquarters. All ratings and reviews are performed blind in a controlled setting and reflect the parameters of our 100-point scale. Wine Enthusiast does not accept payment to conduct any product review, though we may earn a commission on purchases made through links on this site. Prices were accurate at the time of publication.
Published: January 16, 2024