A group of West Coast brandy
are catching up to the French
By Paul Franson
FOOD & DRINK CORRESPONDENT
Much like premium wines, California brandies are starting to challenge their
French counterparts in quality and reputation. Fine California brandy made like Cognac is starting to win kudos, in some cases even declared superior to its French antecedents.
Still a tiny trickle compared to mass-produced brandy, premium brandies occupy an expensive niche. Costing as little as $30 to a stratospheric $350 per bottle, they are made in very small quantity by only four producers — GermainRobin and Jepson in Ukiah in Mendocino County, and RMS Distillery and Domaine Charbay in Napa Valley (though Charbay’s main production facility is also in Ukiah).
All four producers use traditional copper alambic pot stills that look like museum pieces. The stills, along with the selection of grapes and aging, are key to producing fine brandy. All producers but RMS have one; RMS has eight assembled in one impressive room. Brandy is a spirit distilled from wine naturally fermented from fruit, notably grapes, and aged for at least two years in toasted wood barrels so it develops the characteristic brown color. Brandy made in the Cognac region of France is Cognac, just as brandy from the Armagnac region is called by that name. If it’s made from apples in Calvados, it’s Calvados brandy. California brandy, no matter how good, is still not Cognac.
The process of making brandy is straightforward but tricky. It takes years of experience to tame the giant stills with all their knobs and valves.
Producers start by making or buying wine; for fine brandy, they use relatively unripe grapes picked at less than 19 percent sugar, which makes a wine with less than 10 percent alcohol but retains desirable flavors. Making brandy from fully ripe grapes results in higher yield, but flat flavors.
In Cognac, producers typically use Ugrn Blanche grapes, which make an undistinguished still wine but grow well in the cool region. California producers, not being bound by restrictive laws as in Cognac, use a variety of grapes, including premium varieties. They claim this allows them to produce a superior brandy. "California brandies are softer and smoother than Cognac," claims Jepson’s Kurt Lorenzi.
Once the wine is produced, it is processed in small batches to extract the alcohol and flavors. A small quantity of wine is placed in the "pot," then carefully heated so the alcohol and primary aromas boil off. They are condensed in a worm cooled with water in a manner similar to that depicted for moonshine stills This liquid called broullis — contains about 30 percent alcohol. The original wine with its tannins, acids and so forth is discarded, then the broullis is distilled again, producing clear "eau de vie" (water of life) at 140 proof (70 percent alcohol).
The clear eau de vie is placed in new barrels made of expensive French oak. They’re traditionally large 92-gallon barrels (wine and whiskey barrels are 50-60 gallons) that have been "toasted" inside, not charred as for bourbon or whiskey. After a period in new oak, the eau de vie is transferred to increasingly older oak, becoming darker in color and more mellow as it picks up caramel and vanilla flavors from the wood. All the premium producers age the brandy a minimum of four years; it improves with age as long as it’s in oak barrels, but unlike wine, no longer chaiig~i~!gn1fl~antly once bottled. It takes 10 gallons of wine to produce one gallon of fine brandy, part of the reason for its high cost — as is the long aging in expensive wood barrels.
Mass producers use large column stills that can produce far more brandy than the pot stills, but these stills produce neutral spirits without the nuances of fme brandy. That doesn’t mean they’re not popular: E&J Gallo sells about 3 million cases per year, as much as popular brands of whiskey and vodka. Korbel and Christian Brothers (now a brand owned by Canandaigua Company) are also big brands. Cheaper brandies are typically made from ripe neutral grapes like Thompson seedless, aged in used charred American oak whiskey barrels and sometimes flavored an colored with caramel. These brandies are more suitable for mixing or flambéing than drinking neat.
Both Germain-Robin and RMS claim distinguished pedigrees.
Hubert Germain-Robin started Alambic, Inc. about 20 years ago with Ansley Coale, Jr., but his family made brandy in France for 175 years until they sold to giant Martell. Germain-Robin uses premium grapes to make his brandy, notably expensive Pinot Noir as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. He attributes much of his brandy’s excellence to these grapes. GR sells about 4,000 cases a year — but produces almost twice that much, building stock for aging. The "bottom" of the GR line is Fine (VSOP) brandy, and indeed it is fine even at the bargain price of $30. Unfortunately, it’s in short supply.
XO, made primarily with Pinot Noir, sells for a heady $100, and the top of the Germain-Robin line 17-year-old Anno Domini 2000, is suitable for the fanciest occasion. Each of the 1,200 bottles sells for $350. Distributor Eagle Spirits in Reno reports it received an allotment of only three cases for a! its retail and restaurant accounts!
RMS Distillery was created in 1982 by Remy Martin, the giant 250-year-old Cognac producer, and Napa Valley’s Schramberg, which is no longer involved. For a while, the distillery was called Carneros Alambic, but returned to the old name in 1998 under its owner, now Remy-Cointreau. Cellarmaster Rick Estes has studied with head Cognac master Robert Laéuté for a decade.
Like Germain-Robin, RMS uses premium fruit. It bottles Pinot Noir and French Colombard (a traditional component in Cognac) as varietals. It also distills Chenin Blanc, Palomino, Muscat and Folle Blanche, another traditional grape in Cognac; for use in blends. Its $30 basic SR (Special Reserve) is a 6-year-old blend of six varieties, but the real treasure is the 14-year-old QE (Quality Extraordinaire). It sells for $130, but may be the best brandy made anywhere. It doesn’t exhibit the harshness found even in some fine Cognacs.
A smaller producer is Jepson in Ukiah, which makes under 1,000 cases a year of brandy. It uses only French Colombard grapes from a single vineyard it ha found perfect for this use. Prices range from $34 for the 6-year-old rare to $100 for the 14-year-old Signature Reserve.
Napa’s Domaine Charbay also makes a variety of brandies, many varietal and some from fruit other than grapes.
There’s also a boom in premium American clear fruit brandies, variously called eau de vie, grappa and marc. Typically not aged, these potent beverages offer the distilled essence of fruit, not the complexity of old brandies. They’re the ideal end to a fine meal, often complimenting fruit desserts. These expensive treasures shouldn’t be confused with cheap American fruit "brandies," which are neutral spirits flavored with sweetened fruit syrup and best used in cooking.
St. George Spirits in Alameda across the bay from San Francisco was founded by Alsacian Jorg Rupf, whose family made distilled spirits in the Black Forest. He produces superb fruit eau de vies using a Holstein still, a batch still similar to those used for brandy but using a water bath instead of a direct flame for gentler extraction of the fruit flavors.
Rupfs spirits challenge European models (in parenthesis): pear (poire William), cherry (Kirsch), plum (Slivovitz or Pruneau) and raspberry (Framboise). He also makes sweetened liqueurs he calls Royale, and grappas from wine grapes, notably Zinfandel, Traminer and Muscat, and an aged Fuji apple brandy patterned after Calvados and called Coeur de Pomme. The eau de vies and Zinfandel grappa sell for under $20 for a half (375 ml) bottle, the other grappas $50 and the apple brandy $97. A few premium wineries sell eau de vies distilled from their wine; they’re mostly made by St. George. These products are available in high-end bars and retail outlets in the area. Clear Creek Distillery inPortland, Oregon, makes similar spirits, plus a flashy and expensive pear brandy containing a whole pear grown inside the bottle on the tree. And Domaine Charbay in Napa Valley makes eau de vies and other related spirits.
Where you can find good bottle of brandy
If you’re in wine country, the producers sell their products on site. Jepson and Germain-Robin allows tasting at their facilities in Ukiah for small fees. Domaine Chandon, the sparkling wine producer, sells premium brandy made from its wine by Charbay at its winery in Yountville in Napa Valley. It also has a restaurant and bar, so you can taste the brandy first.
Some ridiculous customs have arisen about drinking brandy, starting with the giant fishbowls sometime offered by pretentious hosts. ‘I love those glasses,’ notes Jepson brandy maker Kurt Lorenzi. ‘They hold lots of brandy so we sell more,’ he jokes.
In truth, these large glasses concentrate the alcohol, and that’s the major aroma you’ll encounter. The best glasses are modest 6 oz. glasses similar to small but slim wineglasses.
Likewise, don’t heat brandy, which also causes the alcohol to an unbalanced flavor. On the other hand, don’t serve good brandy cold or diluted with water, though a glass of cold mineral water or sparkling water is a good accompaniment. If you want a brandy and soda, there’s not much sense in using expensive brandy.
The average drinking age of even the finest brandies is usually 5-10 years, which means that older brandy, perhaps 15-20 years old, has been blended with younger brandy to achieve the cellarmaster’s signature taste and average out at about 10 years. Many of these fine brandies are on the list at Bistro Roxy.
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From Paul Franson's Travel Tastes