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Brandy Education

  • The Role of Cellar Masters

    Probably only the big cognac houses have imported cellar masters.  Usually they are recruited from family firms whose skills and experience have, over the years, kept the industry in very good form.  Currently most cellar masters are male so, whilst explaining the role, I will use the pronoun ‘he’.

    Cellar masters

    In truth, the cellar master is a multi-skilled person whose understanding of the cognacs in his cellar starts with the fresh eau de vie. He needs to understand how it was made, including the quantities distilled, the distillation temperature and when the cut was made. This information will help him choose the correct barrels to use for both the initial storage and the long barrel ageing in his cellar. Most cognac houses have their own style of cognacs, normally recognisable by experts.  He will try to replicate that style throughout his cognacs.

     

    Modern cognacs are usually made for blending.  To do this they are poured out of their barrels into large wooden tanks which may hold as much 100,000 litres. Blending is a complex job and much emphasis is placed on the knowledge gained from the cellar’s historical background. Mixing cognacs requires a great deal of experience.  It does not follow that mixing two fine cognacs together will produce something of a similar quality. In some cases, especially when very high quality eaux de vie is used, the quality of the final blend is a total disaster.

     

    The cellar master’s role also includes an in-depth understanding of his barrels - their size, the oak used and what they have previously contained (the second stage of ageing is always in old barrels). He also needs to understand how much they were toasted and where he is going to keep them.  Many cellar masters move their barrels around the cellar to make full use of the humidity and to keep the cognac moving so it is exposed to every part of the barrel.

     

    Lastly, he tests the cognac by taking samples and checking the level of alcohol.  This is done by measuring the temperature and using an alcohol meter.  All official alcohol measurements are made at 20 degrees Celsius, so it is important to be able to calculate the actual strength at different temperatures. Small samples are taken to gauge the cognac’s maturity and balance at regular intervals as each barrel produces a cognac with a slightly different flavour and colour. The skill of bringing all these properties together takes many years to learn.  It is for this reason that the cognacs produced by family firms are often of a far higher quality than those from the big houses, which are highly blended.

  • Put A Cork In It!

    We tend to take the humble wine cork for granted but it is, in many cases, the critical factor in preserving our wines and spirits.  It protects them from the air outside their glass containers and preserves the qualities of the valuable nectars which are stored within. Many people will argue that synthetic or metal screw top closures are more effective and in the cheaper ranges, particularly of wines, they probably are.  Connoisseurs, however, still believe that natural cork has an important role to play.

    cork oak tree

    Cork is the bark of the Quercus suber or “cork oak” tree.  A medium-sized, evergreen oak that covers millions of hectares in Spain, Portugal and North Africa.  Unlike the frenzied yearly cycle of the wine industry, the evergreen oaks move like sloths, slowly expanding and growing the bark, known as orange bark. The cork oaks are first stripped of their bark 20 years after they are planted.  They are then shaved of their bark every 9 years after that for up to 200 years. The date of the last harvest is marked on each tree. The first layer is known as “virgin” cork and is used to make articles of home decoration and granulated cork for insulation. Only when the third layer is removed can it be used for making cork stoppers.

    corks

     

    On a cellular level, cork looks like a honeycomb of air pockets. These pockets make cork both watertight and fire resistant which is why it works so well to age wine.  Its molecular structure makes watertight seals easily but also lets tiny bits of air move in or out allowing the flavour and aroma to evolve and become more complex over time. This evolution can take many years but beware, whilst water molecules pass quite slowly through cork, spirit molecules are much smaller and pass through more quickly.  It is for this reason that many older cognacs always have a wax seal over the cork.  Natural ageing of cognacs must be in sealed containers as the gradual loss of alcohol can, over many decades, cause the spirit to degrade to such an extent that it can become completely undrinkable.

     

    The microcellular structure of cork enables it to retain its flexibility and elasticity so always remember to put the cork back in the bottle after use.  Also, never let the contents of your spirits bottle come into contact with the cork since this will degrade its structure more rapidly.

  • Armagnac XO Definition Changed

    Armagnac XOThe Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIA) has increased the minimum age requirement for Armagnac XO from 6 to 10 years, in line with a recent change to the cognac definition (see previous news story).  The regulatory body said that it hopes the changes will help to raise the “value of the appellation” and emphasise the “real differences” between its classifications.  The minimum age of an armagnac (and cognac) is now as follows:

    VS                                                                3+ years

    VSOP                                                          4+ years

    Napoleon                                                  6+ years

    XO                                                              10+ years

  • Brandy Bottle Valuation

    Brandy Bottle ValuationWe often have requests to do a Brandy Bottle Valuation and whilst sometimes a bottle can have a high value, most brandy valuations will disappoint most people.

     

    The term brandy is generic and covers any alcoholic drink reduced or distilled from a fruit. This includes Spanish brandies, grappa, marc and grape brandy (which can be used for semi-production purposes, for example fortifying port or sherry). This group of brandies will usually include the name brandy on the bottle but by law cannot include the names armagnac, calvados or cognac. If no identifying descriptions appear on the label we can assume it is a grape brandy which is not controlled by an authority and has minimal value.

     

    The main French brandies have tight controls on their production and storage.  For this reason, we know that if a bottle is labelled cognac, armagnac or calvados it will have been produced and aged in the approved manner.

     

    Cognac ageing to its optimum quality in oak casks can take many years.  In the case of cognacs from the top crus this can be up to 90 years.  Armagnacs and calvados take rather less time. The requirement for this long barrel ageing increases its cost of production and therefore value.  New oak casks cost around 700 euros each and storing the older casks, used for extensive ageing, requires sizeable, quality cellars.  On the other hand, grape brandies may only be aged for a year and heavily diluted with water.  Consequently, even quite good grape brandies only cost a couple of euros per litre to produce.

    1887 Favraud

    A highly valued cognac, armagnac or calvados will have one of these appellations named on the label together with an age statement or vintage.  The level of the brandy in the bottle, the quality of the seal, the shape, size and type of bottle, the colour and the clarity of the spirit are also important. Then of course there is the name of the producer or negoçiant and the region where the brandy was produced.  Much information about its value can be gained by knowing how it was distilled, the quality of the strata and sub-strata as well as the cellar in which it was aged.  If the bottle owner can provide a provenance for it, that also helps.

     

    If, on the other hand, your old bottle of brandy that has been stored for the last 50 years, does not mention cognac, armagnac or calvados on the label and does not provide an age statement of any sort, I am afraid that your bottle will be virtually worthless. It is also worth noting that retail values of old brandies are more than twice the trade or auction values since it can take many years to sell even a top quality bottle of fine cognac.

     

    If you have a bottle of brandy that you would like valued, please refer to our Valuation Service which can be found on the home page of our website.

  • Hermitage Cognac Quality Control

    There are many producers of cognac in the legal production area of France known as The Charentes and Charentes Maritime. Each one of them, quite naturally, believes that their cognacs are the best. The truth, however, is rather different.  Producers don’t advertise their presence so most have probably only ever tasted different cognacs in bars and restaurants. Indeed, I have spoken to some producers who didn’t even know that they had a distillery next door.  This lack of local industry awareness has, over the years, resulted in the development of our own cognac quality control.

    There are of course standards to which all cognac houses must rigidly adhere.  Variations in the product occur naturally with changes in the terroir, vines, distillation, cellars etc.  These changes can dramatically change the quality of each cognac.  As a rule, the higher the cru, the better the cognac, but one cannot rely on this as a guarantee of quality.

    As negoçiants we try to limit the cognacs we buy to those produced in the top cru, Grande Champagne. Here, hundreds of cognacs are produced, and each has a different taste, age, style, colour, method of production, ageing process, strength and balance. On top of that, our customers have varying tastes and needs and we try to accommodate them all. Finding the right cognacs is objective since we have our own cognac quality control standards which we have developed over the years.  These standards are not necessarily subjective however, since more than a third of all our cognacs have won gold medals or above in cognac competition.

    Cognac Quality ControlMaking sure that our customers really do get the best means that, after we have decided on a potential cognac, we still need to do several tests. The first is of course tasting. It is difficult to say how many cognacs we taste but on some days,  it may be twenty or even thirty, others, maybe only one or two.  One tends to gather considerable experience when tasting many different cognacs. Then we check the cognac for balance which means balancing the fieriness against flavour. Sometimes we need to reduce the cognac slightly which in some cases take quite a long time. We also check it for sediment as some distillers don’t filter their cognacs before we receive them at our bottling plant.  The alcohol level is also tested as legally, this must be quoted on the label.  This process also involves checking the level of obscuration (factors which mask the true alcohol content).  There is always some natural obscuration which cannot be avoided but in modern blends, the addition of sugar and caramel increases the level considerably.

    We really do try hard to provide our customers with the very best and we are proud of our collection of Hermitage Cognacs. Being a small, artisan producer is a huge benefit to everybody. If we were big, we would have to blend to supply cognacs with more commercial affordability.  Each cognac would lose its individuality and we would probably have to rely on younger cognacs to produce the required quantity.  We know Hermitage is always the best cognac available for our customers’ needs but it can be difficult to easily communicate that with every bottle we sell.

  • Why is the French 'Paradis' so special?

    Paradis gatesNot every cognac house has a Paradis – a designated area in the innermost recess of their cellar – but those that exist are steeped in history.  Back in the early eighties, having discovered a cognac which I really liked, I went to the Charente to try and discover its origin. I ended up in Cognac’s twin town, Jarnac, standing in front of an elegant wrought iron gate with an imposing key.  Behind it were about 100 very dusty bonbonnes, each with a chalk board describing what was in them.  What an eye opener - they contained cognacs which dated from as early as 1805. Each bonbonne (a sort of demijohn in a basket), contained about 30 litres of prized spirits and was sealed with wax to maintain its superior qualities.

    bonbonnes in a paradisMany cognac families select a few of their finest cognacs for storage in the Paradis.  The point when a cognac has gained all the benefit it can from the wood depends on many factors but ultimately, it is when the cellar master decides that it has reached its optimum quality.  At this stage the cognac is put into glass bonbonnes and sealed so that the generations of gentle maturation in the barrel are preserved. A cognac that has lasted in oak without deterioration for perhaps 60, 70, 80 or even 90 years is going to be good, very good and will have developed the much sought after rancio.

    There is little doubt that these cognacs will be superb masterpieces and truly exceptional amongst other cognacs, perhaps worthy only of paradise – the English translation of Paradis. I am sure that these fine old nectars should be preserved and locked away until their greatness can be recognised by true connoisseurs. The Angels have had their 'share', what’s left is worthy of far higher. If, when you next visit the Cognac region you visit an old cognac producer, ask if you can taste a cognac from their Paradis. If such a request is granted, savour it.  The cognacs in the Paradis will be the very finest that the house has ever made. If, on the other hand, your request is denied, try our Hermitage Marie Louise.  It’s a very fine example and has already won a number of very prestigious awards.

  • Super XXO Cognac Classification Approved

    XXO CognacThe big cognac houses are well aware of the similarity of their products so the need to spice up their ranges is always evident. We have seen recently the efforts by some to add a cask finish to their cognacs; sherry casks have already been used by one house.  But the latest craze is to try and produce a super XO cognac called XXO.  Hennessy, who have the biggest sales of XO cognacs, have already launched an XXO in the Far East.  They tried to register it as a Hennessy name thereby denying other houses the opportunity to use the term.  Unsurprisingly, other cognac growers were far from happy but after debate, an agreement has been reached allowing anybody to use the term for their super XOs.  Apparently, these new XXO cognacs will have to be aged for a minimum of 14 years. This seems a strange period to select since many of the smaller houses make XO cognacs up to 20 years old. It took a quarter of a century to change the XO definition from 6 to 10 years, perhaps it will take another 25 years to officially recognise this new, super appellation?  It’s an interesting point since many years ago, Brandyclassics negotiated with Otard to launch a super XXO cognac to the Chinese market.  It failed not because we couldn’t use the title, but because the Chinese customer thought it too flashy!

  • The XO Definition Has Finally Been Changed

    XO Cognac DefinitionWith effect from 1 April 2018 any cognac classified as an XO must have been aged for a minimum of 10 years.  This change of XO Definition means that in the case of a blend, which many are, the youngest cognac used must now be at least a decade old.  This is a 4 year increase as previously only 6 years of ageing was sufficient for a cognac to qualify.  Regulatory body, the BNIC, comments that the change is designed to extend the quality positioning of XO cognacs and align them with market reality (some XOs are aged for 10 years or more anyway).  First announced in 2011, the industry has been given plenty of warning to mature their stocks however, an interim measure has also been put in place.   XO cognacs aged for 6, 7, 8, and 9 years and packaged by 31 March 2018 may be labelled and sold as XO until 31 March 2019.  Thereafter, all XOs must be at least 10 years old and no doubt the price will increase accordingly.

  • The Ancient Art of Tasting Armagnac

    Armagnac is probably the oldest known wine spirit in the world but the art of distillation was introduced by the Arabs between 1411 and 1441.  In the department of France known as the Landes, they produced an agua ardente, or fire water, which was used initially as a therapeutic cure.  Tasting Armagnac for pleasure ensued when it was established that storing the spirit in barrels developed desirable flavours.

    Armagnac productionArmagnacs are the earliest examples of distilled wines known in France.  Traditionally they are made using the Folle grape although others, including Colombard, Ugni Blanc and even more recently, the Baco all contribute to its flavour.  Initially distillations were on a pot still but by the 19th century the continuous still was more highly favoured. The distillation process of armagnac allows the spirit to be distilled at a much lower alcohol content range than that of its big brother cognac, produced 100 miles to the north.  The lower range produces a greater fruitiness (but less refined) flavour in the spirit.

    It is this process that produces the major differences between armagnac and cognac.  Armagnac can be distilled between 52 degrees and 72.4 degrees alcohol whilst the lower end of the cognac distillation range is 67 degrees.  Armagnacs distilled at the lower end of their range have a distinctive prune flavour which gradually turns to a more crystallised fruit flavour if the alcohol content is nearer the top of the range.

    Armagnac

    There are no major producers of armagnac and even the largest firms only produce around 1 – 2 million bottles per annum.  The highest quality, most refined and complex armagnacs come from the Bas cru where the spirit ages much better.  Most of the production occurs in the Tenarézè cru where armagnacs with a more perfumed style are made.  It is the least industrial of all French spirits so much of the joy of armagnac comes from the variety produced by its highly individual peasant roots.

  • The Different Tastes of Calvados

    In many ways calvados is the newest brandy of France.  It only became recognised as such in 1942 when the appellation controleé regulations officially gave calvados a protected name.  The area around the Valley d’Auge and the land extending east past Lisieux became the principle production area.  Here, the Jurassic limestone soil is ideal for growing the various apples required to make calvados.

    A range of different apples are used initially to create the finest cider - bitter, bitter sweet, acidic and sweet.  These apples have low levels of acidity so a small, firm, Perry pear is also added.  This addition, usually 12 – 15 % of the total, is essential as it increases the acidity of the cider to the level required for distillation.  Consequently, calvados can often have a pear drop taste which many people dislike.

    Of course, the flavour of calvados from each distiller will differ.  The distillation techniques, apple varieties, condition of apples when harvested and ageing process will all have an effect.  Sometimes a finish is also added.  This term describes a process where, in the latter stages of ageing, calvados is stored for a limited period in a barrel that has previously held another spirit or wine.  However, many producers find this technique abhorrent as it masks the true identity of their spirit.

    The pear drop aroma and taste is most noticeable in young calvados.  With long barrel ageing it is significantly reduced because the calvados builds a richness which masks the pungency of the Perry pear.  One of the best examples of this is the 1969 vintage by Dupont, a firm that has worked hard to nurture quality in their fine spirits.

    calvados tasteThe firm of Chateau du Breuil has developed a different method of masking the pear drop effect. They only harvest naturally fallen apples which have started to go brown.  At this stage the water content of the apple has dropped and the sugar content is at its highest.  These apples produce a sweeter cider and ultimately a sweeter calvados with baked apple aromas and flavours.  The period required to age in the barrel for the flavours to mature is therefore reduced.  A fine example of this type of calvados is the Chateau du Breuil 15 Year Old.

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