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Liquid Pleasures Beyond Wine: Brandy

March 5, 2015 16 comments

armagnacDuring 2011 I wrote a number of posts for the project called The Art Of Life Magazine – of course talking about my favorite subject, wine. The project was closed and  even the web site is down, but as I still like the posts I wrote, I decided to re-post them in this blog. Also, in that project, posts were grouped into the mini-series, such as “Best Hidden Secrets” and “Forgotten Vines”. The post I’m offering to you today was from the mini-series called “Liquid Pleasures Beyond Wine”, and the subject of this post is Brandy.

Also note that the series was written for a slightly different audience – I hope none of my readers will take offense in the fact that sometimes I’m stating the obvious…

As you could’ve expected based on the last post, we are going to explore the world of “liquid pleasures beyond wine”, the world of spirits. Let’s start with Brandy, as it is closest to the wine world. To be more precise, wine is a foundation of a Brandy.
Brandy is produced in many different countries, but we should start our journey in France, where it was originated. While Brandy is a generic name for any wine-based spirits, in France Brandy mostly exists under other noble (and protected) names, such as Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados.

Of course Cognac is the most famous French spirit, however let’s start our journey from Armagnac, as historically it was the first region to produce brandy, starting in the 14th century. Armagnac is a region in the south of France, which has a status of AOC – it means that similar to the French wines, production of Armagnac is strictly regulated from start to finish. Armagnac is made out of grapes (about 10 different grapes can be used in production). Once grapes are harvested, pressed and fermented, the resulting liquid undergoes a process of single distillation, and then the spirit is placed into the oak barrels for aging. Armagnac’s age designation is similar to Cognac, which we will discuss a bit later in this post. Taking into account single distillation, Armagnac initially is harsher than the cognac, but it mellows down as it ages in the oak barrels for a minimum of two years.

Similarly to Armagnac, Cognac is also produced from the grapes (mostly Ugni Blanc, but some other grapes are also used). History of Cognac started in 16th century, when it was distilled from the local wine in order to withstand long ocean journey to the destination. Initially it was thought that after the ocean voyage, addition of water will convert spirit back to wine, but then it was found to be quite appealing on its own.

Same as the French wines regions, Cognac is an AOC, which is divided into 6 different zones, with Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne and Borderies being located in a middle of the appellation, and Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire surrounding them from all sides. Zone is usually designated on the bottle of cognac. There is also an additional designation of Fine Champagne, which is used if Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne are blended together. Again, same as with wines, the smallest appellation is the most restrictive as to what grapes can be used for the production of the cognac – for the cognac to be called Grand Champagne, all the grapes should be coming strictly from the Grand Champagne region, where for the bottle just labeled as Cognac, the grapes can come from anywhere within Cognac AOC.

In order to make cognac, it is necessary to start with wine. The grapes are harvested, pressed and fermented exactly in the same way as they would be for the wine production. Wine is typically fermented for 2-3 weeks, after which it undergoes process of double distillation (which removes harshness), and the resulting spirit is placed into the oak barrels (Limousine oak is typically used in cognac production) for aging. Cognac spends at least 2 years in the barrel, then it is typically blended with the cognac from different barrels and different ages to achieve persistent taste (here blending process is very similar to the one for the Champagne), and then it gets bottled. Of course some of the cognac spends 10, 15 and more years in the barrel, yielding a more mellow, more aromatic and complex beverage.

Looking at the bottle of cognac, you can always have an idea as for how long the cognac was aging in the barrel. If the label has letters VS (Very Special), it means that cognac spent at least 2 years in the barrel. VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) means that cognac was maturing for a minimum of 4 years, and XO (eXtra Old) has spent at least 6 in the barrel (but on average, XO is aged for about 20 years). There are some other designations, such as Napoleon, which typically designates age between VSOP and XO. One more interesting fact about cognac is that while there are about 200 producers, about 90% of the whole volume of the cognac attributed only to the four companies – Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, and Rémy Martin.

calvadosOur next stop is Calvados, where brandy is produced from apples. About 200 different types of apples (sweet, sour, bitter…) are used to produce Calvados. Production of Calvados started in 16th century, and it reached peak of popularity in 19th century, when grapes in the other regions were devastated by Phylloxera.

Production of Calvados starts from the harvesting of the apples, then pressing them and fermenting into dry apple cider. After that the liquid undergoes a process of distillation (both double and single processes are allowed), and then distillate is stored in the oak barrels for the further aging. Calvados should age for at least 2 years in the barrel before it can be released. In many cases it ages for anywhere from 2 to 6 years, but can go for 10, 15, 20 years and longer. Good Calvados, like the one from Adrien Camut, is a wonderful and fragrant drink, with hint of apples both on the nose and the palate, very balanced and delicious.

Leaving France, we have many potential Brandy destinations to visit – however, nobody can really compete with the France for the top spot in Brandy production. Nevertheless, we should mention a few other examples.
Georgia and Armenia started producing brandy in the 19th century, and taste-wise they were quite competitive with the actual French cognacs. They lost some of their edge after both countries became independent and experienced a lot of economic and political issues, but now they are slowly restoring their brandies back to the world class level. In both countries brandies are produced from grapes (wine). Just in case you are curious, you can look for Sarajishvili (Georgia) and Ararat (Armenia) brandies – both should be available in the stores.

I would like to mention two more brandies. First one, coming from Greece, is called Metaxa. It is a wine-based brandy, which is aged similarly to the French cognac, in the limousine oak barrels, and then blended with aged Muscat wine to create final product, which is typically very smooth and mellow (might be a touch too sweet, depending on your preferences).
Second one is coming from Italy and called Grappa. Grappa is made by fermenting of the grape must (skin, seeds and stems leftovers after wine production). Grappas are typically very strong with 53%-55% alcohol (typical brandy is 40%). As of the last 5-8 years, single grape grappas became very popular – and they have distinctive and delicate taste, despite still high concentration of alcohol.

There are many more countries to visit in our brandy journey – however, I hope you got the idea already. Enjoy a glass of your favorite brandy tonight – but if brandy is not your thing, please wait for the next post, where we will be talking about Whisky. Until then – cheers!

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