By Tim Korby
Brandy can help you get warm on a cool night, help you chill during a balmy sunset or draw you out onto the dance floor, even though you can’t dance. Brandy goes by many aliases: Applejack, Armagnac, Calvados, Cognac, Eau de Vie, Grappa, Kirschwasser, Pisco, Poire Williams, Rakia and Slivovitz.
According to U.S. regulations, brandy is defined as a distilled spirit made from fruit; either whole, pomace (the leftover skins, stems and seeds after pressing) or wine, which is then aged for at least two years in oak. Every country or region has its own specific rules pertaining to the production of its unique brandy. To narrow the scope of this article, I will focus on brandies produced in France.
The most famous brandy is Cognac, which comes from a specific area in western France surrounding the town of Cognac, just north of the wine region of Bordeaux. Cognac is obtained by double distilling white wine made most often from Ugni Blanc and possibly Colombard or Folle Blanche grapes harvested in the Cognac region. The wines produced in this region have a high acidity and a low alcohol content that leads to the greatness of Cognac. After its first distillation, the slightly cloudy liquid has an alcohol content of only 28 percent to 32 percent, so it is distilled a second time to increase the alcohol and to refine the product. After the second distillation, only the best and purest brandy is transferred to oak barrels, where it will stay for a minimum of two years for VS Cognac, four years for VSOP Cognac and at least six years for Napoleon or XO Cognac. These amazing products don’t come without a high price, as Remy Martin Cognac ranges from about $40 for VS to $2,700 Louis XIII brandies (yes, available at Julio’s Liquors).
Armagnac is produced south of the region of Bordeaux in Gascoigne, which is famous for its gastronomic delights. The differences between Armagnac and Cognac are many but often subtle. Bacco is the main grape used to produce Armagnac, but Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche may also be used. Armagnac is broken into three distinct sub-regions: the Bas-Armagnac, Tenareze and Haut-Armagnac, with Bas Armagnac producing the highest quality Armagnac. Whereas Cognac is distilled twice to an alcohol content of 68 percent to 74 percent and diluted with water to 40 percent before bottling, Armagnac is distilled only once to a lower final alcohol content of 52 percent to 55 percent and aged in barrel and bottled at cask strength. Bottling without adding water results in a richer flavor and more body. Also unique to Armagnac is that it can be vintage dated, which makes it the perfect gift for those big birthdays.
Calvados (produced in Normandy) is a brandy made not from grapes but from apples (and sometimes pears) that have been pressed into juice and fermented into a dry cider. The cider is then distilled into eau de vie, which is left to age in oak barrels for a minimum of two years, after which it officially becomes Calvados.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the types of brandy available, so I’ll have to revisit the topic down the road. In the meantime, when next you are out to dinner, order a snifter of Armagnac, Calvados or Cognac to finish off your night.
Tim Korby is the director of Julio’s Liquors’ the-AngelShare.com online wine store. He started in the wine industry in California in 1976 and moved to the Boston area in 2000. In addition to being a retail wine buyer, he has taught wine courses since 1984 and has regularly written newsletters, articles and blogs since 1981. Korby travels the world several times each year to find just the right wines for his customers and to learn the true romance of the wines he sells.