The following is an alphabetical listing of all the entries on various brandies (armagnac, cognac, grappa, pisco, etc) which appeared in the 2nd edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine (1999).
You may remember that the publishers OUP were very concerned about the weight and therefore cost of the dramatically expanded subsequent edition and it was therefore reluctantly decided to omit the following from the 3rd edition of the Companion (2006) in order to allow us the extra space needed to make the wine coverage fully comprehensive and up to date.
It has at long last occurred to us that the super-elastic medium of cyberspace would be a particularly suitable place to make these entries available. The following is a list of the entries below. Clicking on the entry in the list will take you straight to that entry to save you scrolling down.
N.F. stands for Nicholas Faith, who wrote so many of them, and several award-winning books on the subject too.
aguardente, Portuguese word for high-proof grape spirit made in a continuous still. See brandy, Portuguese.
aguardiente, Spanish word for high-proof grape spirit made in a continuous still. See brandy, Spanish.
alembic, word for a pot still derived from the Arabic word al-anbiq for a still (just as the word alcohol has Arab origins; see distillation). Thus an alembic, and sometimes alambic, brandy is one distilled in a pot still.
arak, anise-flavoured spirit produced in the lebanon where it is considerably more popular than wine, from which it should be produced. Base wine is distilled three times, the third time with aniseed. The best may be aged in terracotta jars; the worst may be distilled from molasses. As Lebanese demand for wine declined during the turmoil of the 1980s, an increasing proportion of the country's vineyard was dedicated to arak, as well as dried fruit and table grapes. The spirit tastes similar to the raki of Turkey, rakia of Bulgaria, and ouzo of Greece.
armagnac, grape spirit, or brandy, distilled in the Armagnac region of Gascony, south west france. As the local Gascons will often inform even the most casual visitor, armagnac is at once the oldest and the youngest spirit in France. The oldest because it was first distilled in the 15th century and a still was set up by the Maniban family at their Ch de Brusca in the mid 17th century, youngest because the armagnac producers are still arguing over how to distil it. For armagnac, sometimes to an exaggerated extent, is a better reflection of French individuality at work than any other spirit. As a result it remains one of the least industrialized of spirits, the one where amateurs can most legitimately hope to find a neglected bottle which they can cherish because it offers unique qualities, probably not shared even by a bottle from the next cask in the cellar where it was lodged. At its best armagnac offers the drinker a depth, a natural sweetness, and a fullness unmatched by even the finest cognac. Armagnac is underrated, however, because far too high a proportion is sold young.
It is also underrated because, unlike cognac, it does not come from a region which has lived off trade for a millennium or more but from the depths of gascony, 160 km/100 miles south of Bordeaux, and away from navigable waters. Its rise to fame dates only from the middle of the 19th century when the river Baise was canalized and the Armagnacais gained direct access to Bordeaux for the first time. Geologically it is produced on the churned-up mess of sand and clay left behind by the ebb and flow of the sea that once reached the foot of the Pyrenees. But, curiously, the best is produced to the west of the Armagnac region, on the edge of the pine forests of the Landes. This makes armagnac one of the few distinguished alcoholic products from sandy soil, or rather from the alluvial deposits which cover a subsoil of sand and clay.
This western section is the heart of the Bas Armagnac, whose brandies evoke associations of plums and prunes. To the east is the Tenarèze district, whose soil, a mixture of chalk and clay, produces fine floral armagnacs that are often reminiscent of violets. Furthest east is the Haut Armagnac district, where the grapes are now used almost exclusively for wine, most noticeably vin de pays des Côtes de Gascogne.
Although cooled by breezes from the Bay of Biscay, Armagnac is warmer than the cognac region and its grapes ripen earlier and more fully, thus making them more suitable raw material for wine, and less suitable for distillation, than the more acid grapes of the cognac region.
The Armagnac grapes are also rather different. Although the dreary ugni blanc, which is ubiquitous in Cognac, is also widely planted in Armagnac, the region also retains a little of the decidedly superior folle blanche, a little also of the relatively aromatic colombard, and much more of the only hybrid allowed in any appellation contrôlée wine or spirit, baco 22A, whose parents are Folle Blanche and the infamous and over-productive noah. Baco 22A will have to be phased out by the year 2010, but in the meantime provides the older spirits with a unique combination: the florality of the Folle Blanche and the rather foxy strength of the Noah.
Until the mid 19th century armagnac was distilled in tiny pot stills. But when Edouard Adam of Montpellier invented a type of continuous still in the early 19th century, the Armagnacais immediately seized on its potential for producing greater, and thus more commercial quantities of spirit than their existing installations. It is this type which has come to be regarded as the traditional still in the region. Nevertheless armagnac is distilled today in a variety of ways: like cognac, twice in a copper pot still, in a number of different fashions in a Coffey still, each of them regarded as traditional: truly continuously; or semi-continuously, with the secondes, or heavier elements, returned to the still to be redistilled; or in a still with three or four plates which provides a semi-continuous flow, which is stopped only to enable the still to be emptied and cleaned.
In all the stills the wine is heated to between 92 and 93º C (199 ºF), the point at which wine of 10 per cent alcohol boils (to get a higher-strength spirit you allow a slightly cooler wine). The strength of the final spirit depends on the number of plates in the still. The maximum is, say, 15, which will produce a spirit of 70 per cent alcohol, while the traditional still, with five plates, will produce a spirit of below 60 per cent alcohol.
The older stills had even fewer plates. They were also small, and rarely cleaned, and the spirit they produced was heady with congeners, especially if the wine was distilled only to 52 or 53 per cent alcohol. This made an enormous difference. Wine distilled to 52 per cent contains twice as much of the congener-heavy queues, or tails, than one distilled to the 60 per cent or so that is normal in modern stills, a difference in potential richness (and potential impurities) far greater than that between spirits distilled to 60 and the 70 per cent that is normal in the pot stills used for cognac.
As with cognac, however, after armagnac is distilled, wood maturation (see oak and brandy) is the essential next step in production and the spirit is generally left to mature in cask until being bottled. Younger armagnac, like almost all cognac, is `broken down' with water to the commercial selling strength of 40 per cent, but some older armagnacs are bottled at cask strength.
Armagnacs made in the old form still were hardly drinkable under 10 years old and, in the view of the writer, are at their best after 40 years or so. Unfortunately, the producers often kept them in old wood too long, so many of the older armagnacs on the market are far too woody. But this is an uncommon problem with armagnac. By a quirk of French law, armagnac, which matures so much more slowly than cognac, can be sold even younger, from two years (as opposed to three for cognac), while five-year-old armagnacs can be labelled VO, VSOP, or Réserve, and six-year-old armagnacs qualify as Extra, Napoléon, XO, Vieille Réserve, or indeed any other name which takes the producer's fancy.
Unfortunately the fortunes of this incomparable spirit have suffered a number of set-backs in the century since it shared in the general popularity enjoyed by all French wines and spirits in the middle of the 19th century. First came that universal plague, phylloxera. In Armagnac the devastation was complete, the recovery minimal. By 1937, after the worst of the world economic slump, the region was producing a mere 22,000 hl/581,000 gal of spirit annually, a quarter of the pre-phylloxera level. There were two false dawns, after each of the two world wars. The recovery after the First World War was minimal, so the let-down was not too serious. But the surge of sales immediately after 1945 was dramatic—and dramatically short lived because too much young armagnac was sold in the immediate post-war years (inevitably at low prices). The result was to give armagnac a lasting reputation as a poor relation of cognac.
In the 1950s and 1960s a number of cognac houses established themselves in the region, took one look at the situation, and decided that the major problem lay precisely in the time it took for brandy distilled by traditional armagnac methods to mature. So, in the early 1970s, after a struggle with the authorities, they were allowed to introduce their own pot stills. As can be imagined, these do indeed produce a more acceptable, if rather characterless, armagnac which needs fewer years in wood. But because they are originally distilled to a higher strength than in the traditional stills, they do not develop the same aromatic complexity as traditionally distilled armagnacs.
The extent of this cognac-inspired experimentation was limited, and did not affect the bulk of armagnac production. It had the beneficial effect, however, of encouraging the native armagnac producers to experiment with their own type of continuous stills, trying to retain the characteristic richness of flavour, while losing some of the impurities traditionally associated with it. Such experiments can be conducted effectively on a limited scale because most armagnacs not made by the very few major firms such as Janneau, Sempé, and Clé des Ducs are actually distilled by a core of specialists who distil on behalf of individual growers. These specialist distillers are far more responsible for the style of the region's brandies than are the individual proprietors who mature and sell the resulting spirit. The more reputable houses naturally mature their brandies for longer than the legal minimum, but this does not help greatly. A more rational (if inevitably less immediately profitable) policy would have been to prevent the sale of armagnacs less than five years old.
In the 1970s and 1980s armagnac's reputation was greatly helped by Armagnac's ability to offer the single-vintage spirits that were not then permitted by the cognac regulations. Armagnac producers were able to offer a seemingly limitless supply of single-vintage brandies, most of which include a majority of spirits distilled within a few years of the date on the bottle. The cynicism of this judgement is justified because few producers have enough casks of any particular vintage to top up these casks through the years. The Armagnac authorities have been working on the sort of strict regulatory framework established in Cognac in 1989 for vintage-dated spirits. The fault may, however, lie more with buyers' insistence, say, on brandy from their birth year, rather than with the armagnacs themselves, which, in most cases, are worthy of the charming region from which they spring. N.F.
Faith, N., Nicholas Faith's Guide to Cognac & Other Brandies (London, 1992).
Samalens, J., and Samalens, G., Armagnac, ed. and embellished by J. Goolden (London, 1980).
brandewijn (brandvin, brandywijn), a Dutch word meaning literally `burnt', or distilled, wine. The word is derived from the German Gebrandtwein. The Dutch, the dominant western European commercial force in the late 16th century (see dutch wine trade), sought a cheap source of distilling material to provide their sailors with potable liquids. They imported huge quantities of wine, and later spirit, from various parts of western France, including the muscadet, cognac, and armagnac regions. So important did this trade become that brandewijn became the international term for the spirit produced by distilling wine, evolving eventually into the word brandy—proof that the Dutch were the pioneers of the commercialization of alcohol.
brandy, a much abused term whose proper meaning is grape-based spirit, of which the most noble and most famous forms are cognac and armagnac from south west France. Despite its etymologically vinous origins (see brandewijn), however, brandy can be made from a wide variety of fruits, as in peach brandy, apricot brandy, and apple brandy (of which the calvados of Normandy is the most famous).
In the 1970s and 1980s some distillers played the name false, however, by using the term for any distilled spirit, even those whose taste and character could not be traced back to the original raw materials subjected to distillation, including spirits made from industrial alcohol artificially flavoured to resemble a brandy made from fruit. Until more stringent European legislation was introduced in 1989 (see brandy and the european union), most so-called French brandy was nothing more than flavoured neutral alcohol, of negligible interest to connoisseurs. The commercially successful Greek spirit Metaxa is similar.
Nowadays, within the EU, at least, a spirit labelled brandy must be grape based and must have been aged for at least six months in oak. Any other products of wine origin, such as cognac or armagnac, may be added to this rather neutral spirit to improve its flavour and quality. See French brandy below.
Of more interest, and considerably more character, are those brandies technically known as pomace brandies, made out of the residue of wine-making. Such a brandy is called marc in France, grappa in Italy, and bagaceira in Portugal. Such brandies are distinctive, often noble, and almost always underrated.
Brandy has a long and not especially distinguished history in the USA, virtually confined to California. Until prohibition brandy formed a normal part of the range of most major wine-makers in California, along with `port' and `sherry'. But it was not generally thought of as a separate, quality product. Instead it occupied a fall-back position, made from wines which were not good enough to be sold as such. It was important, however, and when in the 1870s James Shorb, a typical pioneer, found that many of the million bottles of wine he was making every year proved unsaleable, he reverted to selling only brandy. (The same fate befell the grapes produced by Governor Leland Stanford at his Viña vineyard.)
But there were exceptions, like one Henry Naglee, who in the 1860s was making brandy from Riesling and Pinot Noir in the Santa Clara Valley south of San Francisco. He consistently won prizes, especially for the brandy made from Pinot Noir, which he called `Burgundy brandy'.
After Prohibition was repealed, brandy remained a relatively ordinary product although its commercial importance grew over the decades. Moreover the shortage of wine grapes ensured that most California brandies were (and are) made from two varieties, Flame Tokay and, above all, the prolific but neutral thompson seedless, grown and distilled not in a quality wine-making area but in the san joaquin valley. Although a few distillers use the pot still, most California brandies are continuously distilled and then immediately diluted to 50 per cent before being matured in casks made of American oak, generally ones which have previously been charred and used to mature bourbon whiskey, and so contribute to these brandies' richness.
The making of California brandy is regulated. Only California grapes can be used, and the spirit must be distilled to below a maximum of 85 per cent alcohol. The spirit can be flavoured by up to 2.5 per cent of what are confusingly called `rectifying agents', which include caramel, liquid sugar, fortified wines, and the juice of prunes and other fruit, fresh as well as dried. The result naturally tends to be brandy made in the Spanish style (see Spanish brandy below), although most of them are rather lighter, and are designed to be drunk, not neat, but as a mixer. Indeed the greatest success story of American brandies has been the brandy made by gallo, a light, unremarkable spirit made in continuous stills, and marketed specially to be drunk with orange juice. The longest established brand, Christian Brothers, is a much lighter and more characterful spirit.
But the future of good-quality California brandy lies with a handful of brave pioneers who are trying to make a quality product using fine wine grapes. The first was Russell Woodbury, who started distilling from Ugni Blanc, the cognac variety, in the early 1970s, producing fine, light cognac-type brandies. Another pioneer, RMS, wholly owned by rémy martin, uses a number of varieties, including the Colombard once used in Cognac, and others have decided that the Ugni Blanc does not provide enough character in California conditions and have reverted to Henry Naglee's ideas. Typically the brandy made with enthusiasm by Hubert Germain-Robin, a descendant of the Jules Robin family which was once a power in Cognac, is made from Gamay and Pinot Noir. The result is indeed complex and interesting enough to suggest a considerable, and highly individual, future for the new California brandies.
Australia has been producing brandy for over a century. For half a century before that the Australians were producing grape spirit to reduce a surplus of sultana grapes and then to provide spirit for Australia's fortified wines. The production of true brandy started in south australia, where a local coppersmith produced his own type of pot still. Brandy production is strictly regulated. The spirit cannot be sold until it is two years old; `old' brandies must be five years old and `very old' 10 years old. Some of the best Australian brandies, curiously underrated by Australians, are made by several major wine producers including Angoves, Mildara, and hardys and can be compared with a light cognac from the Fins Bois.
Cyprus brandy is rich and unremarkable, typical of the island's vinous products, and of the brandies made industrially in Germany and Italy. It is distilled on a large scale, either in old pot stills as at KEO, or in large continuous stills as by the SODAP co-operative winery.
Eastern European brandy
Traditionally, brandy has been made from grapes, and a wide range of other fruits, throughout Eastern Europe. Today the only wine-based spirit widely sold internationally comes from Bulgaria, where brandies are distilled from ugni blanc, rkatsiteli, and dimiat grapes. They are then matured for at least three years in oak casks. Attempts are also being made to sell traditionally made brandies from georgia, historically an important source.
Only the least interesting and cheapest French brandy is actually labelled as such. (The best are labelled cognac and armagnac.) It comes from a single, controlled source, the Société des Alcools Viticoles based close to pomerol in Libourne, and provides a useful outlet for some of Europe's wine lake. This neutral spirit must be aged for at least a year in wood and owners of the better brands may try to improve them by adding a small portion of a superior spirit. Packaging, marketing, and, sometimes, the sly insinuation of a connection with a superior sort of brandy are all in this sector of the market. In many traditional French wine regions, however, notably Champagne and Burgundy, some wine considered suitable for distillation is made into a local fine. Such spirits should be distinguished from pomace brandy which in France is called marc.
German brandies are almost invariably unauthentic and uninteresting, if perfectly wholesome and correctly made. Their lack of distinction derives from the fact that they are not made from the local wines, apart from the Pfalzer Weinbrand made by Pabst & Richarz in Pfalz. They are usually rich and sweet, rather heavy, and aromatic in a non-grapey way. They are a mass industrial product, made by a handful of major firms such as Asbach and Eckes, distillers of Mariacron, one of the world's best-selling brandies. Spirits for serious sipping they are not. They are made from wines imported from a variety of countries, mostly France and Italy. Some of these base wines, especially the considerable proportion from the Cognac region, are already fortified by the addition of spirit. This ensures stability, but removes the final product yet further from any of the tastes or aromas associated with the original raw material.
German brandies are strictly regulated. They can be distilled in either a pot still or continuous still. Standard blends must be aged for at least six months, and older brandies (Alter Weinbrand or Uralt, for example) for at least a year. Typical is the best-selling Uralt made by Asbach, which is aged for a year in small oak casks and for six further months in larger wooden tanks.
The distillation and sales of alcoholic beverages was one of the few trades permitted to Jews in the Russian empire so it was natural for even the earliest immigrants to what was then Palestine to set up stills. As early as 1882 Baron de rothschild imported French vines into the country and the first wine- and brandy-making co-operative was established under the name of Carmel. However, until the arrival of a mass of Russian Jewish immigrants in the last quarter of the 20th century, the industry remained relatively small (although the Italian brandy-makers Stock invested in a distillery in 1938). The range of brandies available widened considerably in the late 1990s, from traditional, rather sweet ones from Carmel to lighter ones from Segal Wines. Largely because they are the only available kosher brandies, these products enjoy a tied market in Jewish communities throughout the world.
Although the Italians claim that the word `brandy' is derived from the Piedmontese word branda, their heart is not with brandy, the distilled product of wine, typically preferring their distinctive grappa produced from grape pomace. Italian brandies are industrial products born not of native love or ingenuity but, like Spanish brandies, of the market opportunity which opened when phylloxera hit the Charentes and supplies of cognac dried up. Indeed until 1948 the Italians called brandies `cognac', not unreasonably since they make their brandies out of the same grape variety that is called ugni blanc in France but trebbiano in Italy.
So Italian brandy is treated as an industrial product, and, fortunately for its reputation, its production is covered by the same, strict regulations as those which govern the pharmaceutical industry. The wines must come from strictly defined regions; they are analysed before distillation; and they can be distilled only to a relatively low strength to retain the fruitiness of the grapes. Additives are strictly limited to caramel and one per cent of a sweetening agent. To be sold as `brandy' the spirit has to be aged for a year. Younger than this, it can be marketed only as acquavite, distillato, or arzente. The Italian government encourages the ageing of brandies by taxing older spirits more lightly than younger ones.
But all these restrictions do not add up to a remarkable product. Italian brandies may be more authentic, less remorselessly sticky than their (equally industrial) German competitors, but they are still not great spirits. Rather, they are light, bland, relatively standardized, albeit agreeable, reliable, and easily quaffable brands, mostly from the two firms Buton (who market Vecchia Romagna) and Stock.
Latin American brandy
Wine-based brandies are produced in a number of Latin American countries. The most important producer is mexico, where the Presidente brand produced by a subsidiary of domecq is one of the world's best-selling brandies. Chile, Bolivia, and Peru produce their own type of aromatic brandy; see pisco and singani.
The Portuguese could make good brandy, and occasionally do, because they have a ready, cheap supply of sharp white wine, which they normally use for vinho verde. In reality most Portuguese grape spirit is simply that: distilled by the Portuguese government and then supplied to the port houses for use in port production.
Most commercially available Portuguese brandies are still made from baga, the thick-skinned, astringent black grape used for Bairrada and Dão wines. A few firms, such as Aveleda, Imperio, and Sogrape, are now using properly acid grapes to make brandies and also, in one or two cases, decent bagaceira, their version of pomace brandy.
South African brandy
Brandy has a long history in South Africa, with the first distillation being recorded in 1672. The Dutch, inventors of brandewijn, naturally brought their stills with them, although the resulting brandy was pretty rough. For two centuries the Dutch produced only a particularly fierce form of marc known variously as dop (short for dopbrandewyn, or husk brandy), Cape smoke, or witblits (an Afrikaans word meaning white lightning). The French Huguenot refugees (many from La Rochelle, traditionally a centre for brandy distillation) also lacked spare wine for distillation and so concentrated on marcs. In the 19th century came two boosts for the industry: first after 1815 when the British, who were used to drinking superior brandies, took over control from the Dutch and second, and more importantly, when gold and diamonds were discovered in the 1880s bringing thousands of thirsty miners into the hinterland, too far from the wine-making regions of the Western Cape for wine to be safely transported there.
During the 19th century a handful of more conscientious distillers tried to make better-quality Cape brandy, a natural step because Cape wines were then greatly prized in Europe. (King Louis XVI's cellar contained more constantia than claret.) A former cavalry officer of French origins, René Santhagens, imported the first pot still and he and Francis Collison, a noted wine-maker, began to distil fine brandies. Nevertheless the inhabitants—even Barney Barnato, one of the richest of the Randlords and a noted drinker—remained faithful to Cape smoke.
In the early years of the 20th century the industry saw considerable upheavals. The decline of ostrich farming led to a rush into grape production and a surplus of fruit. In the 1920s controls were imposed and distillation centralized in kwv, the dominant wine and spirits co-operative. Over the years the product developed with a balance between pot still and continuous still spirits, although the resulting spirits was almost invariably used as a mixer, usually with cola. In the 1980s there was a revolution in the business. Until then the only grapes available for distillation were varieties as unsuitable as palomino, sultana, and False Pedro (the Andalusian variety Pedro Luis). But since then a surplus emerged of more suitable varieties such as chenin blanc and colombard. Since 1990 three sorts of brandies have been distinguished: `pot still brandy' which must contain at least 90 per cent of pot still spirit matured for at least three years in small oak casks; `brandy' which must include at least 30 per cent pot still brandy and also be matured for three years; and `vintage brandy' which must also contain at least 30 per cent pot still brandy and be matured for at least eight years, three of them in small oak casks. Some of KWV's older spirits acquired a considerable reputation in Europe in the late 1990s.
Spain is a major producer of brandies, some of them very distinctive. The Spaniards are second only to the people of the Cognac region in the quantity of brandy they make, and they drink far more of their own brandy than the French do cognac—although steep tax increases and growing competition from other types of spirit reduced domestic consumption sharply in the 1990s: from over 100 million bottles at its peak to around 60 million in 1996. Large quantities are exported, not only to the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, but also to Germany and Italy. Most Spanish brandy is distinctively rich grape-based spirit matured in jerez in the far south of Spain and sold as Brandy de Jerez.
In Catalonia in northern Spain, however, two producers, torres and the much smaller but innovative Mascaro, produce often excellent spirits according to the normal formula for high-grade brandies (see cognac). They use local, acidic grapes (in this case the parellada), double-distil them—for better-quality brandies, anyway—and end up with brandies which have the same style as cognac, and show well in any comparative tasting.
But for most of the world (and virtually all Spaniards) the term Spanish brandy is confined to the rich, popular brandies matured and sold by the sherry firms in Jerez which bear little or no resemblance to cognac. Their history is one of the most curious in the world of grape-based spirits. Their generally rich, flavoursome warmth is underrated, largely because they do not conform to the norms imposed by Anglo-Saxon drinkers.
Thanks to their absorption of so much Arab culture (see spain, history), Spaniards were among the first Europeans to learn the art of distillation. They still use a number of Arab-based words, such as alquitara, meaning brandy. In modern times the Spaniards were content to provide raw spirit for the Dutch (hence the word holandas for one type of Spanish brandy—see below) until phylloxera hit Cognac in the early 1880s. At that point Jerez-produced brandy increased in popularity as a readily available alternative to French brandies. The Spanish brandy industry was given a further boost by the demands of troops in the Spanish Civil War, and by the needs of the industrial proletariat spawned by the post-war economic boom. As elsewhere, sales of basic Spanish grape spirit have dropped recently, but drinkers, and not only in Spain, continue to appreciate the better qualities on offer.
The success of Spanish brandy is due not only to its inherent qualities, but also to the fact that production is firmly in the hands of the major sherry producers. They are big enough, and proud enough, to ensure that the quality is regular and that the brandies are properly promoted, not only in Spain but, increasingly, throughout the world. Indeed during the 1960s and 1970s, when the Rumasa empire was rapidly built on selling huge volumes of sherry at uneconomic prices, many of the locally owned firms such as Bobadilla and Osborne survived only through the profits from their brandies.
The name Brandy de Jerez, used by most Jerez producers, is slightly misleading. The brandy is indeed matured in Jerez, in old sherry casks, or butts, using the same solera system used for sherry maturation. But the wine comes not from Jerez (which would be far too dear) but from the airén grape grown on such a massive scale on the dusty plain of La mancha 240 km/150 miles south of Madrid. Like the wines used for other fine brandies, Airén wine is acid and relatively characterless. It is higher in alcohol than most base wines for brandy, however, often reaching the still at over 12 per cent, heavily sulphured not only because of its strength, but also because much of it is stored for many months after fermentation. It was the opening of a railway line in 1945 which facilitated this business opportunity for the Jerezanos.
Spanish brandy is special in that it can be distilled in any one of four ways, although the word aguardiente may be applied to the products of all of them. The base wine may be distilled either once or twice in pot stills; or continuously distilled either up to the legal EU maximum of 86 per cent alcohol, when it is called destilados de vino; or to about 70 per cent alcohol, the same strength as cognac, in which case it is called holandas. The Spaniards are delightfully vague about all this; only a handful of technicians in each firm seem to know which method is being used.
But all the Jerez firms mature their brandies in soleras using American oak casks. What the locals call their `dynamic' system matures the spirit much faster than the `static' way in which other brandies are matured in a single cask. The brandy is cascaded down the casks in the solera at least three or four times a year (depending on the final house style required) and is therefore deliberately exposed to air several times annually. As a result a year-old holandas is already drinkable, while a two-year-old brandy matured in a solera is as mature as a three- or four-year-old cognac. As with sherry, the solera system also guarantees a consistent house style. In the late 1980s the Jerezanos codified the rules—which most firms were following anyway. To be called Brandy de Jerez Solera the spirit has to be matured for at least six months, Reservas for a year, and a Gran Reserva for at least three.
House styles start in the solera with the choice of casks (those previously used for oloroso sherry give a naturally rich final result). The house with the richest style is Osborne (pronounced Osbornay) which adds specially grown and macerated plums, almonds, and other fruits and nuts to its brandies at an early stage in the maturation process, and uses dry warehouses to retain the brandies' strength. At the other extreme is gonzalez byass, with light, often elegant, rather un-Spanish brandies. In the middle comes domecq, whose basic brand Fundador is synonymous with Spanish brandy outside Spain. It is a worthy ambassador, since Domecq is more sophisticated than its rivals. Even Fundador is mostly holandas, and Domecq also distils on the lees, using a hot water spray on them to boost the brandy's natural richness.
The firms' pride and joy are their luxury products. The Conde d'Osborne is chiefly remarkable for coming in the only liquor bottle ever designed by Salvador Dali, while the sweetness and richness of Domecq's Marqués de Domecq clearly comes from the grape and the wood rather than from any additive.
Most of the others have names associated with the great age of Spain. The brandy most favoured by rich Hispanics (in Latin America as well as in Spain itself) is the rich, naturally sweet Cardinal Mendoza from Sanchez Romate which is double-distilled and kept in oloroso casks. It is named after the belligerent prelate who finally chased the Arabs from Granada. The rich but unremarkable Gran Duque d'Alba is named after the viceroy who butchered so many Dutch rebels. Bobadilla's rich and creamy Gran Capitan celebrates the memory of Pizarro, who conquered Peru, while Gonzalez Byass's Lepanto, Spain's most delicate and distinguished brandy, recalls the sea battle which dispatched the Turks from the western Mediterranean in 1571. N.F.
Faith, N., Nicholas Faith's Guide to Cognac and Other Brandies (London, 1992).
Gonzalez Gordon, M., chapter in Sherry: The Noble Wine (London, 1972).
brandy and the European Union. In 1989 the European Union promulgated a set of regulations covering the official definition of brandies within the Union. Spirits produced from the products of the vine were defined in one of three ways:
wine spirit, eau-de-vie de vin in French, is produced by the distillation (or redistillation) of wine, fortified or unfortified, to no more than 86 per cent alcohol by volume. For every hectolitre of pure alcohol, wine spirit also had to contain at least 125 g of volatile substances (other than ethanol and methanol), and a maximum of 200 g of methanol.
brandy, or Weinbrand in German, has the same specification as wine spirit except that it can be distilled up to 94.8 per cent alcohol. It has to be aged for at least one year in large oak containers, or for at least six months in oak casks holding less than 1,000 l/26,400 gal.
grape marc spirit, or grape marc, simply marc in French, has to be produced exclusively by the distillation of grape pomace, with or without added water. A percentage of lees may be added. The whole has to be distilled to no more than 86 per cent alcohol, so that the distillate retains the aromatic contents of the raw materials. For every hectolitre of pure alcohol, the spirit must contain a minimum of 140 g of volatile substances (other than ethanol and methanol), and a maximum of 1,000 g of methanol. The term grappa can be applied only to grape marc spirit produced in Italy. N.F.
calandre, a system of distillation in which the raw material is first heated by steam in three interconnected vessels each holding about 400 l/105 gal. The fumes they give off, which are about 20 per cent alcohol, are then distilled to about 70 per cent. The biggest installation is at the Distillerie Goyard at Ay, which buys all the surplus wine and lees from the Champagne region. N.F.
Coffey still, the model of continuous still used most commonly to produce spirits ever since it was invented by Aeneas Coffey, an Irish customs agent who patented his continuous still in 1831. Its introduction inaugurated a new era in the history of spirits involving a clear distinction between continuously distilled spirits which were mass produced, and those hand crafted spirits, described by the French as artisanale, which are mostly made in batches using the pot still. N.F.
cognac, France's and therefore the world's most prized grape-based spirit, or brandy, produced in a delimited part of south west France within the départements of Charente and Charente-Maritime. Cognac has held the high ground as the world's finest distilled spirit for over 300 years. This superiority is firmly based on the systematic exploitation by man of the Cognac region's natural advantages. As a result the little town of Cognac, which housed barely 5,000 souls at the time of its rise to fame towards the end of the 17th century, is probably better known than any other French place-name, Paris alone excepted. The town remains compact, its heart a picturesque huddle of lanes bounded by often rather dilapidated warehouses. These warehouses, like those of Cognac's sister town Jarnac, are recognizable from their roofs, blackened by the presence of Torula compniacensis richon, the mould, specific to the region, which thrives on the aromatic fumes from hundreds of casks of maturing cognac (see illustration).
All the brandy in these warehouses is capable of retaining more of the character of the original fruit, a crucial test of any product of the vine, than that distilled anywhere else in the world. But, naturally, Cognac's fame reposes most securely on its finest products, which represent a very small proportion of the total. After 30 years or more in oak casks (see oak and brandy), brandies from the semicircle south of Cognac known as the Champagnes offer an incomparable richness of fruit, balanced by an equally unique elegance and delicacy. But the Cognac region also produces two other brandies superior to any others made outside it (armagnac alone excepted): from the Borderies district to the immediate north and west of the town of Cognac, and from the Fins Bois district round Jarnac, a few miles further up the river Charente.
Cognac's exploitation of its natural advantages started centuries before its first wines were distilled. Its position on the Charente provided it with a major trade in salt, and then in the wine from the slopes above the town, wine which helped to satisfy the English thirst for wine during the medieval centuries when the king of England also ruled over Aquitaine. Politically Cognac was also lucky. The French king Francis II was born in the town in 1492 and naturally favoured his birthplace. Moreover Cognac was on the Catholic side during the wars of religion which raged through the 16th century (unlike Jarnac, which was a major centre of Protestantism).
But Cognac's breakthrough came thanks to the Dutch (see dutch wine trade), who wanted brandewijn, or distilled wine, rather than wine for their sailors, and it was they who first bought the wine for distillation at home and then installed their own stills in the Cognac region to distil the wine nearer the source. By the middle of the 17th century even the fine wines from the Champagnes were being used for distillation, because it had been realized that these wines resulted in pure brandies after only two distillations, while rival French wines also used for distillation needed many more passes through the stills to eliminate nauseous impurities, but these also removed their grapey characteristics.
Brandy from Cognac soon found a market which was to dominate the fine end of the trade for nearly three centuries, for it took only a few years for the London connoisseurs of the late 17th century to grasp the fact that brandy from Cognac, `Coniac', or `Coniack' (spelling has never been the strong suit of the British upper classes) was superior to that from bigger centres of the wine trade, such as `Nants', la rochelle, or bordeaux, the source of another newly fashionable drink, mature claret.
In the following century the trade attracted a number of notable entrepreneurs, most crucially a former smuggler Jean martell and Richard hennessy, a former officer in the French army. They helped to ensure that the basic quality of cognac has always been higher than that of any other distilled spirit—at the expense, perhaps, of a certain amount of the picturesque individuality associated with armagnac.
In the late 1990s, decline in demand for cognac, notably from asia, inspired a vine pull scheme and subsidies to convert to production of the local wine, vin de pays des Charentes.
Cognac's natural advantages start with its terroir. The basic league table based on terroir has an even firmer base in the Cognac region than almost anywhere else in the world of wine and spirits. Cognac is produced only in a strictly delimited region extending inland from the Gironde estuary north of Bordeaux and the Bay of Biscay towards Angoulême, 80 km/50 miles inland. But the town originally made its name from the brandies produced in an even more restricted area, a semicircle of slopes to the south of Cognac and Jarnac.
After a few years in cask, brandies made from the same type of wine but from different districts within the Cognac region, distilled in the same stills, being matured in the same casks, take on very different characteristics. The finest come from the slopes of Campanian chalk from the inner semicircle, the Grande Champagne. Then come those from the outer semicircle, the Petite Champagne, largely composed of Santonian chalk (a name derived from the old name for the region, the Saintonge). The Borderies, a small clay-chalk rectangle north and west of Cognac, produce an unmistakable brandy of their own, offering the same intensely fruity nuttiness found in fine tawny port. The best brandies from the Fins Bois which surround the Champagnes produce a light, flowery, elegant type of brandy, traditionally associated with the town of Jarnac.
The region is blessed with an equable climate. Long, but not excessively hot, summer days ensure that the grapes do not ripen and lose their acidity too quickly (which means that in cooler years Vin de Pays des Charentes, can be remarkably thin and acid). Ideally the grapes should be relatively fruity and contain between eight and nine per cent potential alcohol when harvested. If they are stronger then the final brandy tends to be flabby and does not contain nearly as strong a concentration of the qualities found in the original fruit (for the obvious reason that a wine of 12 per cent alcohol distilled to 70 per cent is only concentrated six times, whereas a wine of 9 per cent is concentrated nearly eight times). At the other end of the scale, grapes containing less than 8 per cent alcohol will simply be too green to have developed the right potential aromas.
The makers of cognac are working with a limited palette. In the 18th century much brandy was distilled from the colombard grape still extensively grown in Armagnac, and in the 19th century it was made predominantly from the particularly aromatic folle blanche. But this proved to be even more prone to rot when grafted after the phylloxera epidemic and today virtually all the wine used for cognac comes from the same, rather characterless, grape, known variously as the ugni blanc, St-Émilion, or trebbiano.
The wine is fermented without using sulphur, which would emerge as an undesirable element in the final brandy, and is distilled as soon as possible after fermentation—preferably during the winter months (unlike the technique outlined in brandy, Spanish). The copper cognac pot still and the distillation process have changed remarkably little over the years, except for the method of heating. By law, the heat source remains outside the still, but first coal, and more recently natural gas, have replaced wood, providing an ideal source of heat that is controllable and, above all, uniform, ensuring that the brandy is not burnt.
Crucially the distillation is in two stages. The wine is heated in a still that is now, as always, made of copper, and the lighter alcohol fumes are the first to emerge from the top of the still. To produce a raw cognac, which is about 70 per cent alcohol (nearly double the strength of the final, drinkable, spirit) the wine has to be heated twice. The first distillation produces what is known as the brouillis, which contains all the essential elements for the final product. The second distillation, in stills holding not more than 25 hl (660 gal or about 3,000 bottles' worth) merely concentrates and separates the essential elements.
The stills may not vary much, but the distiller can control the quality of the brandy. The lower the strength of the raw brandy, the richer it will be in the delicious, fruity, hangover-inducing congeners which provide all spirits with their fundamental character. So a house like Bisquit, looking for a fruity style even in its superior VS brandy, will leave the tap running—and thus extract lower-strength brandy—longer than, say, Martell, which is looking for relatively neutral raw spirit. The difference is not great, a matter of half a degree or so, but it counts.
Newly distilled cognac, though aromatic, is pretty rough stuff, and not only because of its strength. It lacks a crucial dimension, which can be provided only by maturation in small oak casks which allow a subtle chemical process with the brandy slowly absorbing the tannins and vanillins from the oak (see oak and brandy).
The major cognac firms know this perfectly well and have taken care to control the manufacture of their casks very closely. All Cognac is matured in French oak, but the style from the tronçais forest in the very centre of France differs from limousin near Limoges. Rémy uses Limousin oak, rich in tannin, to accelerate the maturation of its `Champagne' brandies, mostly destined to be sold younger than purists would advise. Martell, by contrast, uses Tronçais oak, which is tougher and less generous with its tannins, in its continuing search for a certain austerity of style.
The choice between new and old oak is even more fundamental. Those houses looking for a light style, most obviously Delamain, use no new casks, but most other firms keep their newly distilled brandies in new oak for up to a year. At the other extreme Frapin, which sells mostly brandies from well-placed estates in the Grande Champagne, characterful enough to be able to absorb a lot of tannin, keeps its brandies in new wood for up to two years.
The maturing brandies are housed in hundreds of warehouses. For obvious reasons of transport convenience, the older cellars were all by the Charente river. These damp cellars favoured maturation by reducing the strength rather than the volume of the spirit. Evaporation is faster (and accompanied by a slower loss of strength) in a dry cellar, resulting in an undesirably harsh style of brandy. Even today all the Cognac houses avoid dry cellars. Indeed, when Bisquit moved from the banks of the Charente to a new site on the slopes some miles away, it ensured that the new chais were properly humidified.
The `early landed, late bottled' brandies sold to the aristocratic end of the British market in the early 20th century by traditional British wine merchants were matured in even more humid warehouses near the docks in London and Bristol (see evaporation). After 20 to 40 years in cask they were bottled and sold under the names of both the supplier and the merchant. This British cask maturation of cognac continues on a much more limited scale today.
The Cognacais take particular care in reducing their brandies to the 40 per cent strength at which they are sold. Distilled water (or a type of low-strength spirits known as petits eaux) are used and the brandy is then left for several months to settle before being bottled.
Styles of cognac
Over the years a hierarchy has emerged within Cognac, based on a combination of the geographical origin of the grapes and the length of time the cognac has spent in cask. Brandies from the Fins Bois or the Borderies districts are at their best after less than two decades and even those from the Champagnes do not develop any further after 40 years or so in wood (age snobbery is just that, snobbery). Nevertheless the finest cognacs need at least 20 years to develop the lovely ripe, rich qualities called in the region rancio.
Even the most basic cognac, the VS (better known under its historic name of ***, or three star), cannot contain any brandy less than three years old, while the VSOP (originally named after the Very Special Old Pale brandies sold in London in Victorian times) cannot be less than five years old. Although the authorities are gradually extending their controls over the ageing of cognacs, they still lose track of brandies over ten years old, and buyers have to rely on the reputation of the firm when choosing between the proliferation of superior grades—the Napoleons, the Extras, the XOs, and the like—for such names provide no stylistic guarantee and there is great variation in the age of the cognacs involved.
The duopoly created by Messrs Martell and Hennessy has been successfully challenged only by two other firms: courvoisier and rémy martin. Between them the Big Four now account for four-fifths of the cognac sold outside France. The French themselves are less concerned with quality than with price, buying mostly cheap, young supermarket cognacs. In the late 1980s even these rose rapidly in price because the growers, particularly in the outer subregions such as the Bois Communs, had taken such enthusiastic advantage of the premiums paid by the European Union for pulling up surplus vines. The resulting shortage, especially of mature cognacs, was exacerbated by the damage caused by the vine disease eutypa dieback.
For some houses, the most important stylistic weapons they wield are the additives they employ. They all use a small quantity of caramel to smooth out colour variations from cask to cask. Because caramel has no effect on taste, a dry, dark-brown brandy is certainly a theoretical possibility. But because buyers are conditioned to associate brown with sweetness, the houses use colour as a signal of taste—especially to the Chinese, great cognac drinkers, who love the cognac with which they accompany their meals to be dark and, by association, rich and sweet.
Sugar syrup is used to sweeten and enrich young cognacs, particularly by firms such as Courvoisier, which has a notably rounded style. Both caramel and sugar syrup are legal and freely discussed additives. But there is one unregulated, largely unmentioned, but extremely important shaper of cognac style, boisé, oak chips soaked in old cognac and left in cask for months or years. To cognac connoisseurs, the richness boisé imparts to the brandy is rather hard and tannic and cannot be mistaken for real rancio.
Recently brandies have reverted to their older, heavier, stickier, `browner' style in response to demand from the Far East, most notably from the Japanese and from the prosperous Chinese communities throughout south east Asia who drink cognac with water throughout their meals. Indeed more cognac is drunk per head in Hong Kong than anywhere else in the world, and the total consumption from the prosperous and thirsty Chinese in Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia makes them, collectively, the biggest single market for cognac.
Unfortunately the cognac producers have relied on glamour, mystique, their name, and the guarantee it provides of superiority over brandies from any other source. The dominance of a handful of firms, however reliable their products, has prevented cognac from developing the specialist appeal which it had, and which some armagnacs still have—largely because the armagnac producers have never had the same commercial sense as the cognac houses, so there are no mass-produced house styles of armagnac. As a result, outside the Far East, cognac has been in steady decline throughout the 1990s, not only because of the marked swing away from spirits in general and towards `lighter' spirits such as vodka and above all malt whisky, but because so few firms have managed to inject any excitement into the business of buying or drinking cognac.
For some years a few growers, notably the two branches of the Ragnaud family, had shown that there was a market for fine old brandies from individual estates in the heart of the Grande Champagne. Fortunately the cognac regulators have also recognized the need for single vintage cognacs, an important marketing point since British drinkers in particular attach great importance to the idea of a drink's vintage. New regulations, first introduced at the time of the 1989 vintage, allow vintage-dated cognacs. A few houses such as Croizet, Delamain, and Hine are now offering such brandies. N.F.
Faith, N., Cognac (London, 1986).
—— Nicholas Faith's Guide to Cognac & Other Brandies (London, 1992).
col, literally the neck of a pot still. It used to be straight, but is now elegantly curved into a col de cygne, or swan's neck.
continuous still, a still used for distillation of liquids continuously passed through it, as opposed to batch distillation in a pot still. It tends to produce more neutral spirits with much lower levels of congeners than those distilled in a pot still. By far the most common continuous still used for spirits is the coffey still.
The continuous still, while far more efficient than a pot still, is more brutal in its handling of the raw material. And in most continuous stills (although not in the special type used in armagnac) the hot wine is mixed with steam to help extract the alcohol, thus further coarsening the resulting spirit.
As the diagram shows, a continuous still uses two columns. In one, wine is preheated in a heat exchanger. It is then introduced at the top of a `fractionating' column, so called because it divides the contents of the wine into fractions, by encouraging it to trickle down through a series of perforated plates. The alcohol is released when the wine hits the hot plates in a cloud of steam rising from the base of the column. The (lighter) alcohol fumes then emerge from the top of the column. The aldehydes and other highly volatile elements pass to the very top of the column, while the undesirable fusel oils are concentrated about four plates from the top.
As can be imagined, there are numerous variants on the basic process. The most important is the number of plates in the distilling column. The more there are, the more highly purified (`rectified', in the language of distillation) is the spirit and the fewer impurities it contains. At the limit, a spirit of 100 per cent alcohol would be totally characterless. But even a spirit which emerges as 95 per cent pure alcohol has a surprising amount of character. At the other extreme, the brandies distilled to a mere 52 per cent in traditional armagnac stills retain a disproportionate percentage of the chemical ingredients, notably the congeners, in the original wine.
The actual percentage of these impurities may be very small (a maximum of two per cent of solid matter) but the difference in the character of the spirit, the extent to which it needs long maturation, and the resulting complexity of the mature spirit are striking. Inevitably complexity brings its own risks in terms of impurities, which are the more obvious and concentrated through the process of distillation. For this, the lower the percentage strength of the wine used as raw material the better, since the greater the volume of wine needed to produce a cask of spirit, the greater the volume of essential, flavour-making ingredients. N.F.
distillation, the separation of the constituents of a liquid mixture by partial vaporization of the mixture and the separate recovery of the vapour and the residue. When applied to wine, or any other fermented liquid, the result is a considerably stronger alcoholic liquid: brandy in the case of wine and other fermented fruit juices, calvados in the case of certain apples from northern France, whisky in the case of fermented barley.
The processes which preceded the distillation of alcohol were the practices of medieval alchemists which reduced solids to fine powders. The Arabs recognized and refined these processes in the early Middle Ages, using them to make elixirs, perfumes, and medicines by extracting the essences from fruits and flowers. The distillation of drugs was already known in the Arab world of the 10th century. As a result, we still use words of Arabic origin for the still and distillate: alembic (al-anbiq) and alcohol (al-kuhl) respectively.
It is unlikely, however, that the Arabs used it as a method to isolate the alcohol in grape wine. The earliest documentary sources describing the practice of distilling wine originate from Italy and date from the 12th century. Stills used before this time left too much water in the wine. The use of more sophisticated equipment eventually enabled alchemists to produce aqua ardens, `burning water', or an alcohol and water compound that would burn, and aqua vitae, `water of life', or alcohol. Alcohol was also known as `quintessence', the fifth element.
Initially distillation was practised almost exclusively by alchemists, doctors, and apothecaries. Alcohol was prized for its medicinal qualities as the writings of arnaldus de villanova (13th century) and other famous doctors attest: `It prolongs life, clears away ill humours, revives the heart, and maintains youth.'
During the course of the Middle Ages alcohol distilled from wine developed a wide popularity and its manufacture passed increasingly into the hands of specialist `water-burners' and vintners. It was recognized as a beverage, particularly in Germany, where it was known as Gebrandtwein or `burnt wine', a term adapted by the Dutch into brandewijn (subsequently corrupted into the English brandy).
Grains were distilled later than wine, and in any case brandy was perceived as superior. This did not mean that good-quality wines were used. For centuries distillation was seen primarily as a means of using up old wines, or a too-abundant harvest. Pressed or trodden grape skins and lees were also conveniently distilled to produce pomace brandy.
The turning point in the history of distilled wine came in the late 17th century, when it was recognized that the wines of the cognac region of western France produced a better-tasting brandy, particularly when aged. During the course of the following century the cognac industry developed as price differentials between specific areas became apparent and merchants committed themselves to greater investment. H.B.
Enjalbert, H., `Aux origines du Cognac', in A. Heutz de Lemps and P. Roudié (eds.), Eaux-de-vie et spiritueux (Paris, 1985).
Forbes, R. J., Short History of the Art of Distillation (Leiden, 1948).
Sigerist, H. E., The Earliest Printed Book on Wine (New York, 1943) (contains Villanova's Tractatus vinis).
Modern wine distillation
However distillation is carried out, it remains essentially a simple process, physical rather than chemical, separating the alcohol and other impurities in the wine (or other ferment) from the water which forms its bulk. The principle is simplicity itself: alcohol, and many other impurities, boil at lower temperatures than water. In particular, ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, boils at a 78.3 ºC/173 ºF, considerably cooler than the 100 ºC boiling point of water. Distillation consists merely of heating the wine, or any other fermented liquid, and then capturing the fumes. Of course an infinite number of slightly different forms of distillation have emerged in the course of history. These have something to do with the type of still—the traditional pot still or the more industrial continuous still—which themselves entail innumerable complexities.
The variation in character between the host of wine-based spirits such as armagnac, cognac, and the very different sorts of brandy are in part a reflection of differences in distillation techniques.
It gradually emerged that there was a crucial balance to be observed: the more complete and thus theoretically efficient the distillation process, the less interesting the resultant distillate since, by definition, it contained fewer of the impurities which alone give spirits their character. Indeed cognac's fame came about because the grapes grown on the slopes round the town had only to be distilled twice to produce a wholesome and drinkable spirit, whereas those from rival French wine regions had to be distilled six or more times. In the process of losing their unpleasant (or simply poisonous) impurities, they also lost almost all their original character.
At the (relatively) low strengths at which brandy is distilled in Cognac (up to 70 per cent alcohol) or Armagnac (where it can be as low as 52 per cent) the concentration which is at the heart of the process uncovers all the features of the original raw material. (Most brandies, like most other spirits, are `broken down' by the addition of water to the more palatable alcoholic strength of 40 per cent before bottling.) The `impurities' include hundreds of different ingredients, and the use of chromatography has revealed not only their number, but the very different relative importance they can enjoy—a high concentration of one substance need not change the perceived taste or aromas of the brandy, while a minuscule amount of another can have the most extraordinary effects, for good or ill.
The speed of distillation is also important, and brandies distilled in a pot still enjoy an enormous advantage, since, by varying the rate at which the wine is heated, the distiller can maximize the length of time required and thus extract the greatest possible proportion of the desirable ingredients in the wine. In that sense distillation is like stewing fruit, where the longer and slower the cooking process, the more concentrated and flavourful the final product. Pot stills also enable the distiller to control the process more accurately.
But choice of raw material is also crucial. Grapes are complex fruits, and brandies can be made either from the wine or from the pomace. A wide variety of grape detritus can be employed effectively for pomace brandies, including black grape skins, whereas the wine suitable for distillation has to fall within certain clearly defined parameters, largely because the wine should be relatively acid. Ideally the acidity should be balanced—as it is with the folle blanche grape—by a certain concentration of fruit. Nevertheless modern cognac is almost invariably distilled from the ugni blanc, one of the most neutral of all white grape varieties. None the less it contains enough congeners, fatty acids, and other impurities to produce the finest of all brandies.
But of course distillation is only the first stage in the production of a fine spirit (as opposed to an industrially produced alcohol such as gin, vodka, or grain whisky). The more interesting, chemical reactions occur when the raw spirit is matured in wood. See oak and brandy. N.F.
early landed, term used for cognac which has acquired special properties by being aged in the damp British climate (see evaporation).
eau-de-vie, French for brandy or other distilled spirit, meaning literally `water of life'. For details of a more precise official definition, see brandy and the european union.
fine, a French term for a brandy made by distilling wine, as distinct from marc, which is a pomace brandy made from grape pomace. Fine is made in small quantities in many French wine regions, most notably in Burgundy where it is called Fine de Bourgogne.
When applied to cognac the term is much abused, and really rather meaningless. Legally fine is an abbreviation of Fine Champagne, which denotes a cognac from the Champagne districts of the Cognac region of which at least half comes from the Grande Champagne.
grape brandy, a spirit made by distilling wine. In Europe at least this should have become a tautology since the introduction of regulations governing use of the word brandy (see brandy and the european union). Nevertheless the term is still used for a number of `brandies' made by adding flavourings to neutral grape spirit.
grape spirit, term sometimes used for the neutral alcoholic spirit of vinous origin used in fortification, or as a base for grape-flavoured spirits such as the Greek branded spirit Metaxa. It should now be used only as exactly defined in brandy and the european union.
grappa, Italian pomace brandy, the equivalent of France's marc. Until the early 1990s grappa was unjustly despised by most non-Italian drinkers, who were acquainted only with the fiery and unremarkable grappas mass produced from a wide variety of grape varieties by firms such as Nardini, although even some of these are perfectly agreeable, if a little petrolly, once they have been aged in wood for a year or two (see oak and brandy).
Of much greater interest are the hundreds of grappas marketed by individual producers who have reverted to the spirit's origins as a prudent use of the waste from wine-making. Like their forebears, they employ the lees of the grapes from the fermentation vat. To retain their freshness and fruitiness, the lees (vinacchia in Italian) must be distilled when they are are as fresh as possible and so are generally entrusted to specialists rather than wine-makers who have other, more pressing concerns. Once distilled they are not usually matured in wood (except for some specially made for the German market) but stored in glass containers.
These varietal (monovitigno) grappas, of which there are scores if not hundreds, more or less accurately reflect the relevant grape's character. They are increasingly sold in elegant (and expensive) clear glass bottles and have a cult following not only in Italy but abroad.
The best come from friuli, trentino, and piedmont where the climate is relatively cool and the grapes, and therefore the lees, retain the acidity that is vital for the production of any serious brandy. See also Italian brandy. N.F.
heads, known as têtes in French, the first spirit to flow from the pot still during distillation. In practice it is generally discarded, or simply redistilled, because it is too high in alcohol and thus too neutral. This first fraction can, however, be useful in a year when the base wine is too alcoholic, lacks acid, and is liable to produce brandies which are bland and characterless. N.F.
Although wines used for distillation are in general low in alcohol and high in acidity, they contain the normal complement of aldehydes, esters, and other compounds produced during alcoholic fermentation. Several of these compounds boil at lower temperatures than either water or alcohol, and many of the substances in wines when mixed together combine to form an azeotrope. acetaldehyde, acetic acid, ethyl acetate and the fusel oils all tend to form azeotropic mixtures with the water and ethanol of the wine. The heads, or low-boiling first distillate, contain these compounds and others in various proportions, together with higher molecular weight aldehydes and compounds with particularly low boiling points such as sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide.
Both the continuous still and the pot still produce heads, but they can be very different in character. When the most basic wine is distilled in a continuous still, the heads fraction contains many more decidedly unattractive components, particularly aldehydes and low-boiling esters, than are found in pot still heads fractions. The former should certainly be discarded rather than added back for redistillation, as it can be with the very different heads produced by a pot still. A.D.W.
Hennessy has been one of the dominant forces in cognac since the business was founded in 1756 by Richard Hennessy, an officer in the French army of Irish Catholic émigré stock. Hennessy flourished during the French Revolution, emerging as `Citizen Hennessy', and it was during this period that his family established the duopolistic control of the market which they shared with martell, which was usually a rival, sometimes an ally, often connected by marriage.
The Hennessys remained true to their rather careless, Irish, aristocratic background, relying largely on the English—and Irish—markets and ignoring French buyers. They also failed to patent their ideas; they pioneered the use of three stars to identify the cheapest brandy in their range, and were the first to call their better brandy `XO'.
At the beginning of the 20th century James Hennessy, disheartened by his wife's death, moved to Paris and the firm lost momentum. In 1922 his son Maurice, a friend of the Firino-Martell family, engineered a 25-year pact between them. They already set the price for young brandies, and they set about dividing the world, with Martell taking England, while the Hennessys took the United States and the Far East.
In the long run this benefited the Hennessys, as these latter two markets proved to have the greatest potential after the Second World War when the pact ended. The firm has remained dominated by the family even though it merged with moët & chandon in 1971 and became part of the giant lvmh-Moët Hennessy group in the late 1980s.
For the past 200 years the firm's brandies have been blended by successive generations of the Fillioux family, who have maintained the same style, round and fruity, helped by the firm's tradition of owning the biggest stocks of old cognac in the business. N.F.
marc, the general French term both for grape pomace and, more widely, for pomace brandy. It is used to distinguish the product from a fine which may be made by distilling local wine. Most traditional wine regions make marc from the pomace, grape skins, and pips left after pressing. This was rarely for financial gain but often because peasant wine-growers hate to see anything they have grown go to waste.
The biggest distillery making marc is owned by the firm of Jean Goyard in Champagne, which takes in the pomace from all the region's wines. It distils the marcs using a system of small, steam-heated vats (see calandre). The marcs are then aged by individual champagne houses who sell them under their own names. Marc de Champagne is far more aromatic than most of the Marc de Bourgogne made in Burgundy, since the pomace from the grapes which have been pressed whole, as for champagne, contains high levels of sugar and virtually no alcohol, in marked contrast to typical burgundy pomace, which is what is left after destalking and fermentation.
The production of Marc de Bourgogne is in the hands of two specialist distillers as well as a number of mobile stills. A handful of négociants and individual estates proudly offer their own oak-aged marcs that are aromatic, rich, powerful, and the ideal conclusion to a gigantic Burgundian repast for gourmands not overly interested in extending their lifespan. The only other French region offering marcs in any quantity is Alsace, where the merchants and co-operatives sell Marc d'Alsace alongside their equally potent and delicious eaux-de-vie, brandies made by distilling the fermented juice of other fruits. Marcs are also a by-product in other wine regions, notably Jura (where they also make brandy) and Provence.
In Italy such brandies are called grappa, in Portugal bagaceira. N.F.
Martell, the oldest of the major cognac firms. Indeed its origins date back to the very first brandy merchant in the town of Cognac, Jacques Roux, since his descendant, Rachel Lallemand, was the second wife of the firm's founder Jean Martell, who had come to Cognac in 1815 from the Channel Islands, then a major entrepôt for smuggling brandy into Britain.
Despite its British origins the firm emerged as one of the dominant forces in Cognac, together with hennessy, during the French Revolution and received a boost in the middle of the 19th century, when control passed to the Firinos, who had married into the Martell family and adopted the name of Firino-Martell. They built a complex of stills, warehouses, bottling plants, and offices that almost constituted a town-within-a-town and was regarded as one of the industrial marvels of late 19th century France.
But the phylloxera epidemic so damaged the cognac trade that in 1922 Maurice Hennessy, a friend of the Firino-Martell family, engineered a 25-year pact between the two firms. They already set the price for young brandies, and they set about dividing the world's markets, with Martell taking England, while the Hennessys took the United States and the Far East.
Partly as a result, the Martells gradually lost market share after the Second World War and in 1986 sold their firm to the giant Canadian liquor firm Seagram. Although some of their newer brandies are rich, bland, and well suited to and specifically aimed at the oriental palate, most of their classic brandies retain the traditional house style. The Martell style is relatively dry and nutty, helped by the presence of a lot of brandy from the Borderies district, and by the use of tight-grained oak (see grain) from the Tronçais forests. This allows Martell cognacs, which are distilled rather dry and strong, to mature relatively slowly. N.F.
oak and brandy. Ageing in oak, while optional in the production of many fine wines, is a crucial element in the production of fine French brandy, and brandies made similarly elsewhere. Although oak was used originally for purely practical reasons (oak being the most impermeable wood grown near the cognac and armagnac regions), it remains the ideal container for maturing spirits. As for wine, oak not only imparts some specific qualities as extractable substances (see wood flavour), it also allows slow oxygenation of the spirit (see wood influence). Indeed the balance between the original spirit and the qualities imparted by the oak is important in determining the quality of the final product. The balance is a delicate one: obviously, the newer the wood in which the spirit is stored and the longer it remains in wood, the greater its influence. To maximize the wood's influence on the spirit, most serious brandies are matured in relatively small oak casks. Typical cognac casks, for example, hold 350 l/92 gal.
To achieve a balanced result, young French brandy is typically, although not invariably, put into new oak for up to a year immediately after distillation. During that time it will absorb the oak's extractable substances. It is then transferred to older casks for the rest of its maturation process during which the character of slow oxidation may eventually dominate the extractable substances. This period of oak maturation can vary in total from two years for the youngest armagnacs (three for cognac) to ten times as long for the finest brandies.
Oak is valued, as it is in wine production, because it is hard, supple, and watertight—thus making it suitable for storage and transportation. It is particularly useful for the maturation of spirits because its density allows only a slow evaporation, which ensures that none of the precious aromatic qualities in the spirit are lost in the process. French oak, especially Limousin, Tronçais, and other oaks from central France, is particularly popular for brandy maturation. American oak has too obvious a flavour and can impart bitter tastes, to cognac anyway, while Slovenian or `Trieste oak' can be too hard.
But inevitably the evaporation involves loss, at a rate which varies with the humidity prevailing in the cellar. After 15 years in cask, even in a damp cellar, over half the original volume (and a mere six to seven per cent of the original alcoholic strength) is lost.
The focus of research into oak constituents and oak maturation for the brandy business differs from the wine-maker's view of oak because fine brandies are kept in cask many years longer than wine. Experiments with brandy as well as wine, however, demonstrate the superiority of air-dried over kiln-dried wood for barrel staves. During proper seasoning in the open air, most aggressive elements are leached out. (See barrel making.)
Oak's phenolic compounds, of which tannins are the best known, are important in brandy maturation. Although they rarely comprise more than 10 per cent of oak by weight, they are easily absorbed by spirits. The phenolics impart colour to spirit which was colourless when it emerged from the still, and at first they increase its bitterness, but after a few years the molecules agglomerate and the flavour mellows (see polymerization).
Lignin, which comprises between 25 and 30 per cent of oak, is also believed to play a part in brandy maturation, even though the spirit absorbs a much lower proportion of it than of oak's available phenolic compounds. The process of heating the staves (see toast) is thought to break down these lignins. Their first impact is to bring an aroma of balsam wood, but when they break down they create the lovely vanilla and cinnamon overtones detectable in some brandies (see wood flavour).
Even the supposedly neutral cellulose, which is oak's major constituent, is useful. As it gradually dissolves in the maturing spirit it imparts the agreeable sweetness found in older brandies.
The processes are slow, in cognac especially. The tannins only really start to build up after eight or more years, and although the brandy has absorbed the vanillins within a few years, it takes 30 years for the aldehydes to reach their peak and for all the tannins and lignins to have been absorbed. The volatile acids build up over the full 50 years that the best brandies remain in cask. N.F.
pisco, aromatic brandy made in Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, mainly from Moscatel (muscat) grapes.
Although the Spanish colonists had been making aguardiente (grape spirit) in both countries since the 16th century, the name `pisco' was not current until the 1870s, when, according to Chileans, it was used to describe a good-quality aguardiente shipped from northern Chile to the Peruvian port of Pisco.
Production centres on the warm Andean valleys of Chile, lying between Santiago and the deserts of the north, mainly in the Coquimbo region. The most important grape variety is moscatel de austria, together with pedro gimenez, Moscatel Rosada (the pink-berried form of muscat blanc à petits grains), Moscatel de Alejandria (muscat of alexandria), and torontel (Argentina's torrontés Riojano). The first two of these are relatively neutral while the latter three, especially Moscatel de Alejandria, add grapey, Muscat aroma. A total of more than 10,000 ha/25,000 acres of vineyard is devoted to pisco production.
The grapes are destalked and crushed, and the skins briefly macerated to preserve as much as possible of the aroma and flavour of the grapes during fermentation. Distillation of the wine is carried out in proper copper pot stills, the sort used for cognac. Only the middle fraction of the distillate is used for pisco, the heads and tails being blended with fresh wine and redistilled. The young distillate is diluted and then held in old rauli (local beechwood) vats to eliminate the more obvious distillation aromas. A few of the best piscos are aged in small oak barrels.
There are four grades of pisco: Gran Pisco at 43 per cent alcohol; Reservado at 40 per cent (the strength at which most spirits are sold in Europe); Especial at 35 per cent; and Selección at 30 per cent. The stronger the spirit, the longer it spends in wood. Selección should have a deliciously fresh aroma and a taste of Moscatel, while the stronger grades are oakier and drier with more elegance and overtones of plums and bitter almonds. All are colourless (the oak casks in which they are matured being too old to tint the spirit) and differ from cognac in their marked fruitiness. Pisco has its own controlled appellation.
In Chile pisco is drunk as a liqueur after meals but a pisco sour, sometimes sold in bottled, pre-mixed form, can make a refreshing aperitif.
Pisco is the port at the mouth of the river of the same name 160 km/100 miles south of the capital Lima. The Pisco valley has a long history of grape-growing and distillation may have been an early answer to problems of transporting the produce of Pisco and other valleys to Peru's centres of population in Lima and Cuzco.
The brandy made in the Ica valley to the south, today regarded as the country's finest, was already celebrated by Franciscan missionaries as early as 1651.
Pisco is now the Peruvian national drink and, as in Chile, is produced according to strict regulations in four different grades. Pisco Fur is a single varietal pisco made from Quebranta, Quebranta Mollar, or Negra Corriente grapes. Pisco Aromático is made from moscatel, Torontel, albilla, or Italian table grapes. Pisco Cuivré is made mostly from Quebranta, possibly blended with other grape varieties, while Pisco Verde is made by distilling either Albilla, Moscatel, Negra Corriente, or Quebranta, but before fermentation is complete.
See also Bolivia's singani.
pomace brandy, spirit made by distilling grape pomace. In a well-established example of vinous recycling, reconstituted and fermented grape skins and pips, and sometimes lees, are distilled rather than the more usual wine. This gives a particularly distinctive flavour that is fiery and uncompromising rather than elegant, but not necessarily the worse for that. Such a brandy is called marc in France, grappa in Italy, and bagaceira in Portugal.
pot still, the original form of still in which individual batches of wine or some other fermented liquid are subjected to the process of distillation, in contrast to the continuous still. The pot still is an essential element in the production of cognac and other fine brandies. It is filled with wine and then heated, relying on the simple physical fact that alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water. The alcohol fumes are then trapped at the top of the vessel and cooled. Until the development of the continuous coffey still in the 19th century, it was the only type of still available. It is less efficient than a continuous still because each batch has to be heated, thereby using far more fuel. Furthermore, the raw material has to be distilled twice to produce a properly concentrated spirit. Yet the ability to control the process and retain the congeners, the precious substances which will give body and flavour to the final product, means that virtually all the world's finest spirits (apart from armagnac), including calvados and malt whisky, are produced by pot stills.
Inevitably in a piece of apparatus invented at least 700 years ago, certain elements have been standardized, while others have developed local variants. The vessels are almost invariably made of copper, which is virtually neutral (although it also helps to fix the fatty acids in the wine, as well as any sulphurous products in the alcoholic vapour that would harm the quality of the spirit). For the production of grape-based spirits, pot stills are heated from outside, although gas, which provides the desirable qualities of uniform and controllable heat, has usually replaced wood or coal as a fuel.
The differences appear most obviously in the size of the vessel and the mechanisms used to trap the fumes. The size has increased over the years—although the size of stills used in the second distillation (deuxième chauffe in French) in Cognac are strictly limited to 25 hl/660 gal, a tribute to the role it plays in concentrating the inherent qualities of the base wine, qualities which would be somewhat lost in a bigger vessel.
The shape of the head and the duct leading to the cooler also have a part to play. The traditional Moor's head (tête de maure) shape, suggestive of some sharp-beaked cartoon animal, retained more of the impurities and thus produced a richer, less uniform brandy than the modern swan's neck (col de cygne) shape, which provides an infinitely smoother path for the brandy than the older, more angular designs (see diagram above). Control is largely exercised in the decision as to when to start to use the spirit, i.e. at what point to stop discarding the relatively high-strength heads (têtes), the first drops to flow, and when to cut the tails (queues). The tails are richer and contain more of the desirable congeners but, as a natural corollary, they also contain more impurities. There are many other variations. Should the wine be preheated? Should it be distilled on its lees? Modern chemistry is only now beginning to grapple with the complexities involved, thus ensuring that the personality of the product, and thus of the firm selling it, is retained, a guarantee enhanced by the pot still. N.F.
Rémy Martin, important cognac house constituting the most extraordinary success story in the modern spirits industry. The firm was founded in 1724 but was virtually dormant when it was taken over exactly 200 years later by André Renaud, himself a local vine-grower who had married into the Frapin family, which owned large estates in the Champagne districts of the Cognac region.
Renaud's first success came in the 1930s through Otto Quien, a Dutch-born sales genius living in what was then the Dutch East Indies and is now Indonesia. Quien persuaded Renaud that Rémy Martin should concentrate on cognacs from the Champagne region which he sold to the quality-conscious Chinese market in the Far East. After the Second World War the firm exploited these advantages, using its much-imitated frosted bottle with a map of the Cognac districts on it, emphasizing the uniqueness of the firm's product.
In the 25 years following Renaud's death in 1965 his son-in-law André Hériard Dubreuil exploited Renaud's initiatives to such good effect that he transformed Rémy Martin into a major force in the world drinks market. In doing so he had to fight a prolonged legal battle with his brother-in-law Max Cointreau, whose wife had inherited just under half the shares in the company (her sister, Mme Hériard-Dubreuil, had the other half). In the event HériardDubreuil outmanœuvred his in-laws by setting up a separate company to distribute Rémy's brandies and thus retain much of the profits from the parent. In the last half of the 1980s he consolidated his position, merging with the Cointreau family firm (where Max had previously lost control) and adding to his portfolio of drinks companies, most notably in the champagne sparkling wine region of north east France, where he had bought krug in 1973, by acquiring Charles Heidsieck and the quite separate firm of Piper Heidsieck. Rémy Martin sold its extensive international cooperage business, Seguin Moreau, in the mid 1990s.
And the brandies in all this? Rémy Martin cognacs are invariably smooth and fruity, as befits their provenance, and scrupulously made, but the younger ones in particular are not as subtle as the finest brandies. N.F.
singani, aromatic grape-based spirit rather like pisco in that it is high in terpenes and made under a strictly controlled regime, principally from Muscat of Alexandria grapes. A speciality of bolivia.
tails, or queues in French, the end of the run of spirit through a pot still. The lower the strength of the final spirit, the richer it is in congeners and other aromatic but sometimes undesirable elements. Distillers wanting a richer final product have to risk these impurities in order to preserve as much of the characterful aromatic matter as possible. N.F.
tasting brandy. A proper appreciation of a spirit depends very much more on the nose than on the palate. This is just as well considering the average alcoholic strength of 40 per cent in most brandies in commercial circulation and up to 70 per cent in cask samples of some young cognacs.
Only a few professional tasters can actually taste, in the sense of rinse the palate with, more than half a dozen spirits at any one go. The others need a break between flights, accompanied by copious draughts of water and black coffee, and even then can manage only three flights of five or six samples in a morning. That said, the tasting of spirits can be a most satisfying business since a fine brandy will have considerable depths to be plumbed, if only because its constituents are so concentrated—distilled in the popular as well as the technical meaning of the term.
In the past the tasting of brandy was bedevilled by the mystique of the enormous balloon-shaped ballon glasses traditionally used. These were disastrous: socially because they lent an air of absurdity and snobbery to the drinking of fine brandy; and technically because their very size precluded proper appreciation of the aromas. Large glasses mean large surfaces and considerable evaporation, which emphasizes the alcohol at the expense of the brandy's fruit. Professional and modern specialist brandy glasses have tulip-shaped bowls rarely more than 10 cm/4 in deep. This allows the aromas to expand in the glass—albeit far less than in the traditional ballon—before being concentrated in the neck, where the human nose can best appreciate them.
The appreciation is greatest if the brandy is the right temperature, about 18 ºC/64 ºF, since too warm a brandy evaporates too quickly, and thus tastes too alcoholic. Indeed it is not a bad idea to start with a cold brandy (and a cold glass) and allow the warmth of the taster's hands to bring the spirit slowly up to the right temperature. (And if the brandy is already at the right temperature it is better to hold the glass by the foot or stem to avoid overheating.)
With brandy, as with wine, an amateur's tasting process usually starts with colour appreciation. Professional brandy drinkers know, however, that this can be deceptive, so they often use blue glasses to prevent a brandy's appearance from influencing their judgement of it. Although in theory the darker and more viscous the spirit, the more richly mature it will be, even the most reputable houses unsettle this general rule by adding a neutral-tasting colorant to standardize the colour of their blends. Nevertheless all the finest brandies, however old, have a certain golden luminosity, and a lack of the treacly viscosity that is a sure sign that boisé, the macerated oak chips additive, or too much caramel, has been added to the brandy.
The nosing of a brandy, as with a wine, should be done in two stages to try to separate the more volatile constituents from the heavier ones. So the brandy should first be smelled without swirling the glass and with the nose slowly approaching the rim of the glass, which should then be rotated slowly rather than swirled, to capture the variety of aromas which should be emanating from the spirit. After a short pause, the nose should enter the glass in order to capture the less volatile, more alcoholic components. Only then should the brandy be tasted, after another swirl, to check the same aspects as in a wine: the fruit, the balance, and the after-taste, which, thanks to the higher alcohol level, is usually much more persistent than that of a wine. Indeed the aromas of the best brandies can linger for days, leaving a magical sweetness in the glass. N.F.
têtes, French for the distillate known as heads.
VSOP stands for `very special old pale' and is used as a designation for superior cognac.