Most cognoscenti think of Cognac when the word brandy is mentioned. While the word brandy captures all wine distillates. Each country, each region and even each distillery strives to achieve a unique style. Since grape flavour and aroma change pending on terroir, the resultant distillate of each wine ends up with a distinct flavour to which the type of still and aging add additional taste dimensions.
The Charentais (inhabitants of Charente Maritime the department of origin of Cognac) were able to sell their brandy first to the Dutch and then to the British navy merchants in the 16th century who in turn marketed it world wide. Undeniably, Cognacs are fine, refined and elegant products mainly due to the terroir, production techniques, care in aging, and expertise in blending.
Refined packaging coupled with superior marketing techniques contribute greatly to cogna’s worldwide success.
But Armagnac, from Gascony, also in France and located just south of Bordeaux pleases millions with its deep, spicy, robust, and rustic flavours. It is an excellent brandy to enjoy, particularly after a rich meal, but you can also mix it with water to enjoy as an aperitif or even in cocktails. Armagnac differs from Cognac in the grape varieties used, terroir and distilling techniques. Also, Armagnac is aged in Gascony oak barrels, whereas Limousin or Troncais oak barriques are used in Charente. If you like brandy, Armagnac might please you particularly if you taste V. S. O. P., X. O. or reserve personelle- quality products.
Other French regions produce brandy as well but most are either exported in bulk to be blended, or purchased by distillers within the country and blended. Some are good, even fine, at a fraction of the cost of Cognac or Armagnac, but they lack refinement in texture, depth in taste, and smoothness in the finish.
Any discussion of European brandy without mentioning Jerez from Spain would be incomplete. Today, the majority of Jerez brandy base wine originates in La Mancha, in the heart of Spain. The base grape is Airen, the most widely planted white grape on earth. Jerez brandies must be aged and blended in the the Jerez region. Some producers (most if not all are sherry bodegas) even use soleras to age and blend. The minimum aging period is three years but most are matured for more than 10 years and can be truly great. Some may contain a little more caramel than a few connoisseurs might like, but in general they are respectable brandies. Some are Llepanto, Cardenal Mendoza, Carlos I, Gran Duque d’Alba, Conde de Osborne and Lustau.
Portuguese bagaciera tend to be harsh, fiery, and spicy. They cost little, and if consumed with soft drinks or in cocktails, are fine. Of late a few distilleries started aging their brandies longer and manage producing refined products.
Best known for good-quality brandies like Branca, Oro Pilla and Stock (X. O. aged for nine years) Italy also boasts some small distillers like Buton famous for its Vecchia Romagna brand. The distillery employs both pot- and continuous stills and ages the distillates separately which are blended prior to bottling, Buton’s Vecchia Romagna Etichetta Nera (Black Label) is a blend of three year old pot – and continuous still brandies, whereas Oro (Gold Label) contains seven-year-old components. Buton has also extra old (25 and 35 year old) brandies marketed in very small quantities and specially designed bottles.
Villa Zari, a small Tuscan distiller uses Trebbiano grapes grown on Chianti Hills. Only free run juice wine is used for extra finesse. After an initial nine-month small new oak aging, the brandy is transferred to even smaller but older barrels to avoid excessive tannin absorption.
Germans consume substantial quantities of brandy and produce considerable amounts. Even then, base wine and/or finished product must be imported, mostly from France and/or Italy for aging and blending. Asbach Uralt, and Dujardin are two most famous brands. Both companies export to other European countries and North America. German brandies are light, fragrant and well-aged products with a fine balance. They can be enjoyed on their own, in cocktails and with soft drinks.
Greeks have been associated with winemaking for more than 2000 years; however, distillation seems to have been an after thought.
Sypros Metaxa was the first to distil wine in 1888 and the company he founded now sells over a million cases worldwide.
Metaxa is double distilled and aged for variable lengths of time pending the quality of end product desired. The company markets three to seven year old aged brandies distinguished by stars, each of which represents one year of aging. Metaxa adds a little Muscat wine for smoothness and extra aroma.
Extra old Metaxa brandies are marketed in handsome, painted, ceramic bottles.
Tirnavou is the other export-oriented Greek distiller with fine brands.
Greek brandies have gained worldwide popularity with considerable help from Greek restaurateurs in North America, northern European countries and Australia, and sun-starved northern European tourists visiting this sunny Mediterranean country.
On the Greek section of Cyprus, the wine growing Haggipavlou family imported a pot still from Cognac in 1868 that is still operational. This distillery’s brandy is popular among Cypriots and some even drink it throughout their meals.
Anglias, the first blended brandy of Cyprus (1930), is the most popular both in the country and Cypriot brandy exported to the U. K.
Cypriot brandies are well made and deeply flavoured with a sweetish tinge but a pleasant and lingering aftertaste many associate with quality.
Turkey produces significant amounts of grapes, most of which are fine for our-of-hand eating. Yet a portion ends up as wine and also as brandy called Kanyak. Distilling is a government monopoly and quality takes a backseat to quantity. Turkish brandy tends to be light, harsh, and generally insipid.
Israel – home of kosher brandies
Israel is the largest kosher brandy producer in the world. The first still was shipped from France, by the wine-branch of the Rothschild family. Kosher brandy must be distilled from kosher wine subject to many rules and regulations. They are: the vines must be at least three years old, grapes hand-harvested. Rotten grapes must be discarded prior to pressing. All musts must be fermented with indigenous yeast and the wine must be made in extra clean premises employing kosher-keeping individuals. All kosher vineyards fruit must be sold to gentiles every seventh year. Kosher bandies of Israel tend to have a sweetish edge preferred by locals.
France, Italy and the U. S. A. also produce kosher brandy. In fact some mashgiachs (religious supervisors) accept all distilled products as kosher so long the distillery is known to follow strict hygienic rules and regulations.
Armenian brandy has always been the preferred distillate of U.S.S.R. diplomats. The Yerevan Brandy factory, in the capital of this tiny republic in the Caucasus Mountains, is now owned and managed by Pernod Ricard, a huge French beverage alcohol conglomerate.
Yerevan Brandy Factory markets its products under the Ararat brand available in three, five, eight, 12, and 18 year old, all of which are aged in oak barrels of Krasnoyarsk oak. The young (three to five year old) brandies tend to be somewhat rough on the edges, but those eight, 12 and 18 year old exude fine apricot and vanilla aromas much appreciated by connoisseurs and particularly Russians. Russia is stil the best market for Armenian brandies.
Texturally Armenian brandies trend to be refined, light and smooth.
Packaging has been improved and Pernod-Ricard instituted ambitious export campaigns to increase volume. Most Armenian brandy is exported to Russia and a little to western countries.
Georgia, located just north of Armenia, has been distilling brandy for centuries. They tend to be flavourful, but display a rustic texture mostly due to short aging in inappropriate casks and limited blending expertise.
Brandy is the national South African distillate mostly produces for the mass-market palate by KWV, however this huge winery-cum-distillery markets also a 10 year old well blended international-award-winning brandies at extremely attractive prices.
Boplaas, in the Klein Karoo issue a five-year-old Colombard brandy, whereas Clos Cabriere uses Chardonnay, and Paarl Rock Muscat d’Alexandrie, and Backberg Chenin Blanc.
South African distillers make and market a wide range of appealing brandies well worth looking for.
Australian brandies can be quite pleasant, but much of it is consumed within the country. Brandy has been distilled and aged in Australia for long time, but only recently have some producers attempted to export.
Contrary to wide-held belief Mexicans prefer brandy to tequila and other distillates. Presidente and Don Pedro are the largest selling brandies in the world (5.8 and 3.5 million cases respectively). Both brands are sweetened with syrup but solera aged and blended.
Mexicans like to drink their brandy on the rocks with Coca Cola.
The U. S. A.
Although brandy has been distilled and aged in California since mid 1800’s for the most part Americans treated them as second-class products. Most were used in cocktails, such as brandy Alexander, Sidecars, Brandy and coke and cooking.
With the relatively recent explosion of California wine profile. Connoisseurs are starting to take a second look at American brandy, realizing their unique taste and smoothness.
Korbel, Christian Brothers, P. Masson’s Grande Amber, and E and J Gallo’s E and J are market leaders. Recently small, quality-oriented batch distillers such as Germain Robin, R M S Distillery (both in California) and Dry Creek Distillery in Oregon have been gaining market share. All cater to a small, sophisticated niche markets that value quality over price.
RMS, located in Carneros (Sonoma) and Germain Robin in Mendocino County stand out with fragrant, smooth and light brandies much in favour today. Both use a range of grape varieties including Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Palomino, Muscat, Folle Blanche, Viognier, Chardonnay and Semillon.
RMS’s QE (Quality Extraordinaire) consists of six brandies derived from Chenin Blanc, Palomino, Muscat, Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche). The fruit is picked at low Brix levels in an attempt to obtain enough acidity, which ultimately ends up rendering the product light, fragrant and very appealing.
Germain Robin uses Charantais alembics (a tulip shaped still with a swan neck, hand-made from thick copper) for a rare Pinot Noir brandy using 12 different grape brandies, and X O aged in Limousine oak barrels. Both are of outstanding quality, clarity, smoothness and fragrance.
While high quality American brandies are distilled in French alembic-style stills, large plants like Jepson in Ukiah, prefer efficient continuous Coffey stills (Columnar stills, named after an Irish liquor inspector stationed in Scotland and who invented the device) that triple-distil in one process.
Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon and St George Spirits in Alameda concentrate on fruit brandies, but also produce some grape brandies of high quality.
American brandy producers prefer Limousin oak barrels for aging although Rupf, owner of St George Distillery swears by Nevers oak from Burgundy and believes his Chardonnay brandy to taste as good, if not better, than nay in Cognac and/or Armagnac.
All American brandy distillers have come to the conclusion that aging and blending constitute the most important processes, a fact their French counterparts had discovered centuries ago.
All age their varietal brandies separately and blend to achieve balance, elegance, smoothness, fine bouquet and depth of flavours. Pinot Noir provides complexity and depth, Colombard freshness, Palomino muskiness, Chenin Blanc nutiness, Semillon fruitiness, Sauvignon Blanc exotic, grassy flavours and delicacy along with floral tones.
Fine American brandies tend to be as refined as any from Jerez, Cognac, Armagnac or Germany.
Canada’s Kittling Ridge, in Grimsby, Ontario is well known for its Ontario small cask oak-aged brandy that exudes stone fruit aromas, possesses a refined texture and lightness few other brandies can hope to achieve.
Cheminaud, Barclay, D’Eaubonne are other blended brandies from local and imported base material
Brandy, in particular Cognac, has been very popular in Hong Kong but when the city started losing financial clout after it was taken over by China, and due to the 1997 recession its importance has suffered among Cognac exports. However, Cognac exporters have been able to open two other lucrative Asian markets: Taiwan and Japan.
Brandy has been the preferred distillate of millions for centuries, and is likely to stay that way, even though its popularity may have suffered somewhat lately!