[C]laret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy. In the first place, brandy is most grateful to the palate; and then brandy will do soonest for a man what drinking can do for him.
Dr. Samuel Johnson
I recently attended a tasting of some exceptionally old Cognac and Armagnacs, (which were sublime, by the way) with the owner of the estates where these brandies were made, a fifth-generation Cognac producer who had a few decades ago also purchased an Armagnac estate. Though he spoke through an interpreter, there was something interesting about his choice of words. While we would generally describe to these products collectively a “brandies”, he (and his interpreter) consistently referred to them as “wines”. This is perhaps indicative of the way he thought of them. Grape spirits are nearly unique in the way the notion of terroir is considered an inextricable part of their identity. For example, even the finest single malt Scotch these days is made from imported barley, but is no less Scotch; the origin of the barley is not central to its identity. Cognac, however, must be made from grapes farmed in the designated area. Using grapes from elsewhere… well, there’s a name for that: fraud.
The story of brandy begins in the days before wines were customarily bottled for storage, before sulfites and chaptalization and modern driven corks, when very few wines made it far from their place of origin. When they did travel widely enough to acquire a worldwide reputation, it’s hard to imagine in what condition they arrived. Brandy, from the Dutch gebrande wijn (“burned wine”) was invented by the wine trade as a way of preparing and preserving product for transport from areas that had lots and lots of wine (France, among other places), to places that had very little (the frozen north). This new product was easy to store and transport, and found a receptive market, instigating the vast planting of grapes such as Folle Blanche and Melon de Bourgogne. Thin, high acid, aromatically bland grapes such as these are preferred for brandy production, lest the grape’s aromas, concentrated by the distillation process, become coarse or excessively pungent.
Until recently, brandy is the popular consciousness was either Cognac or Armagnac. Now there are quality brandies distilled around the world. South African brandy owes its lack of a worldwide market only to the country’s economic isolation under the Apartheid regime. Armenian brandy is well-known and loved in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The production of Brandy de Jerez (from sherry country in southeast Spain) eclipses that of sherry itself, and the Germans and Americans are very fond of their respective domestic brandies, of which many are quite excellent.
Cognac, the world’s most famous brandy, is made from grapes grown in the chalky soils of a large, vaguely circular area surrounding the city of Cognac. The vineyard area is divided into crus, the three most prestigious of which you might see on a label: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, and Borderies. The first two of these are responsible for the most complex, balanced and ageworthy eaux-de-vie. The Borderies are possessed of a unique terroir, with a high proportion of flint and clay that gives its spirit a distinctive and intense floral character. Cognac is the product of two distillations with an alembic charentais (pictured, above), a very ancient type of pot still that has hardly changed in four centuries.
It is important to note that Cognac did not always carry the air of luxury that it does today. For most of the 19th century, Cognac was an everyday drink, frequently used in cocktails or consumed with water or ice. Many of our classic American whiskey cocktails, like the Sazerac and the Mint Julep, were originally made with Cognac. Western France was one of the first areas in Europe to be devastated by phylloxera, which completely changed the landscape of grape growing worldwide. With the area’s vineyards laid waste, it didn’t take long for the supply of product to dry up, once winegrowers had figured out a way to save themselves (by grafting new vines onto pest-resistant American rootstocks), much of the market had moved on to other drinks, so they found themselves supplying a much more limited clientele.
Cognac production, then and now, is dominated by merchant houses, some of which are owned by huge luxury conglomerates, who buy grapes, wines, and eaux-de-vie in various stages of maturation. In this way, it mirrors champagne, with grand maisons blending the produce of various vintages and terroirs to achieve a consistent house style, in contrast to the more Burgundian farmer-driven ethos of their neighbors to the south. However, like grower champagne, single-grower or “estate” Cognac is on the rise.
The blender has a variety of additives at his disposal, ranging from innocuous to dubious. Water is used to bring the spirit to the desired bottling strength and is almost universally used. Sugar is permitted to increase viscosity and round out the acidity in the final product. Spirit caramel, basically burned sugar, is used, as it is in the Scotch whisky industry as a color correction. Boisée, the most controversial addition, is a wood extract made by boiling wood chips in water and reducing the resulting liquid, used to enhance the perception of age in a younger spirit. All of the above products can be mixed with eaux-de-vie and aged in barrels in order that they might blend more seamlessly into the final spirit. The presence of any of these additives does not automatically signal a low quality spirit, but consumers should insist on transparency on the part of the producers.
Armagnac, France’s other famous brandy, is altogether a far more rustic affair. From grapes grown in the sandy soils of Gascony a bit further south, it is unique among the world’s quality brandies in that is typically the result of a single, continuous distillation, in a very old-fashioned type of column still. Here small family estates predominate, and generally consider themselves vinegrowers first and foremost; in many cases they do not even conduct the actual distillation themselves, instead relying on specialist distillers using portable equipment (pictured). The stylistic differences between the two spirits are due to differences in climate and soil types, but also in part a reaction to the present and historical characteristics of the markets for these two products. The lack of large firms that dominate the packaging and distribution of Armagnac historically mean that it has less visibility on the export market, catering instead to restaurants and experienced connoisseurs in its home market. This situation is changing somewhat with the rise of boutique importers specializing in artisanal spirits from Europe (a trend that has benefitted small-production estate-grown Cognacs as well).
The historical grape of Armagnac was Folle Blanche, also grown in the Loire (under the name Gros Plant) and as a minor component (less than 2%) in Cognac. Having to start from scratch after their vineyards were wiped out by phylloxera, the region’s vignerons largely bypassed this grape in favor of others that gave higher yields and didn’t have Folle Blanche’s notorious susceptibility to rot and mildew. Of these, Ugni Blanc is the most significant, comprising about 55% of plantings. The hybrid grape Baco Noir accounts for 25% but is in the process of being phased out. Most of the rest of the vineyards are planted to Colombard (mostly used for table wines instead of Armagnac) and Folle Blanche. Traditionally, these spirits began their maturation in a 400-liter pièce armagnacaise made from local oak, but without the benefit of the careful forestry of Central France’s forests, the supply of this wood is dwindling, and producers are slowly transitioning to using more of the Limousin oak typically used in Cognac. The additives mentioned above in relation to Cognac are also permitted in Armagnac, but are much more seldom used. Even water is not typically used in the vintage Armagnacs; the lower distillation proof means that the producer can generally rely on evaporation to bring his products to the ideal alcoholic strength.
Buying Cognac and Armagnac
I think there is a tendency of many of us in the trade to be coy about whether we have a favorite of these two categories, like a parent insisting they love all their children equally. But even a short conversation reveals that most of us have a preference.
Cognac tends to be softer, more primary in its youth, and have a more balanced integration of wood. The notes of an aged cognac tend toward butter, spice, ripe citrus and eventually tropical fruit. Armagnac takes longer to really harmonize with the oak, so can be somewhat tannic and shy in its youth, but finally blossoms into an intoxicatingly intense spirit redolent of tobacco, leather, and dark fruit. It is the earthier, the more pungent, and the more masculine of the two. Both Armagnac and Cognac cease to benefit from further maturation in wood after about 50-70 years, so what little is left by that age is generally transferred to large glass demijohns (pictured) if the producer does not want to bottle it immediately. This is important to note an age designation (more common in Cognac) refers to the minimum number of years spent in wood. Similarly a bottle with a vintage date (more common in Armagnac) will also carry a bottling date in order to help the consumer determine the actual maturity level of the spirit within.
To find out more, stop by this Saturday for our weekly tasting! We’ll be pouring four artisanal brandies from estate distilleries in Cognac and Armagnac. It’s sure to be a blast!