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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!

Long Overdue–Notes From Michal Skurnik Wine Tasting

April 13, 2011 1 comment

Yes, this post is long overdue, as I hinted that it’s coming a while back. Better late than never, right? Here it is.

Let’s say you are in a wine store. Bottles, bottles are everywhere. Sometimes you know exactly what you want. Sometimes you don’t – and this is when it becomes challenging. How do you know if that bottle of wine is any good? Price is really not an indicator of quality. You can’t try the wine ( at least in the majority of cases). Yes, you can ask for the advice – then it really depends what store you are at (some of the store advice should be avoided at all costs). So, what do you do? Of course, using your iPhone is always an option, but this is not where I’m going right now. One possible solution is to look at the back label, which all the wines in the US have to have. Look for the name of the importer. And if it says “Michael Skurnik” or “Kermit Lynch”, you should smile, because you just learned that chances this bottle of wine is good just increased dramatically.

Why you are asking? Michael Skurnik Wines is so-called “importer” (they are also a wholesaler, but this information is typically not advertised on the label). It means that Michael Skurnik Wines company (MSW) works with thousands and thousands of wineries and other wine merchants all over the world to find the wines which will pass through their rigorous selection process and will be represented by Michael Skurnik Wines.

The wines chosen to be carried in the portfolio might not be all your favorite – but they all will be quality well-made wines. It means that MSW folks are doing all the hard work of selecting the best wines for you, and all you need to do is to enjoy the fruits of labor.

Few times a year wine importers and wholesalers organize special wine tasting events to present their portfolio to the trade. I was lucky to attend Michael Skurnik Wines Spring Grand Tasting, and I would like to share some of my personal highlights.

First and foremost, my personal “Best of tasting” is Peter Michael wines. Four 2009 Chardonnays were presented in the tasting (“Mon Plaisir”, “La Carriere”, “Belle Cote” and “Ma Belle-Fille”) – tremendous, all four are the best Chardonnays I ever tasted. Finesse and absolute balance – vanilla, toasted oak and butter all being present, but in absolute harmony with bright acidity, fruit and silky smooth tannins. I would put drinkability for all four at 9+. Just so you know, these are the cult wines, which affects the pricing and availability. These wines are available only through the mailing list or through select merchants – you might be able to find them at Wades Wines and Benchmark Wine Company.

The next highlight was an amazing line of Barolos. A mix of 2005, 2006, 2007 Barolos from Azella, Manzone, Renato Corino, Marengo, Altare, Clerico, Cavalotto – one was better than another, all beautiful and powerful wines. Anyone of the names I mentioned is worth seeking.

While the Barolos were great, they had a group of contenders, which were literally as good. Wines of Aldo Rainoldi come from the area in Lombardy region called Valtellina. These wines are produced from the same grape as all Barolos – Nebbiolo, with all the vineyards located at the very high altitude of 600+ meters (1800+ feet). I tried four different Aldo Rainoldi wines – 2007 Sassella, 2005 Crespino, 2006 Inferno Reserva and 2007 Sfursat Classico – all were truly outstanding and very comparable with great Barolos, but at the half price as the least.

In addition to all the wines in the tasting (about 700), there were some stronger spirits as well. One of the surprises was Calvados I tried. Calvados is a brandy which is made out of apples in the Calvados region of Normandy in France. Typically, I can drink it, but it is not something I would be seeking out. However, two of the Calvados presented at the tasting – Camut Calvados 6 years old and Camut Calvados Reserve 12 years old were simply incredible. Soft, smooth, elegant, great aroma of fresh apples, very delicate balance. They will not be easy to find, but I would highly recommend you will make an effort. You can try your luck at D&M, and believe me, you will not be disappointed.

That’s all, folks. There were many many more great wines, but you got to stop somewhere, right? Until the next time – cheers!

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