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Brandy Education

  • Drinking Cognac at Christmas

    Drinking CognacThere seems little doubt that alcohol can, in moderation, be good for you. It has been said that drinking cognac provides a greater benefit than other alcohol and scientists tell us that it increases antioxidant levels. These are beneficial substances that keep harmful free radicals from damaging our cells. According to a study published in “Cardiovascular Ultrasound” in 2008, this sort of damage can increase the risk of clogged arteries, heart disease, cancer and vision loss. Drinking alcohol may also help limit the risk of Type 2 Diabetes but beware, excessive consumption can increase the risk of cancer, heart disease and liver disease. Of course, moderation is the key, excessive consumption of any alcoholic beverage should be avoided.

    NelsonBrandy has been around a long time and traditionally has had many uses as it was available in large quantities from the French and Spanish naval vessels.  During the battles, which these navies fought, brandy was often used as an anaesthetic or antiseptic and in one particular extreme case as a preservative.  It is said that a whole barrel of brandy was used to preserve Admiral Nelson’s body until it could be returned to British shores. Hardly moderation but Nelson would probably have been pleased that he came home in a barrel of fine French brandy.

  • Tasting Cognac

    During an average drinking year, we knock back all manner of different beverages without giving thought to what we have tasted, or when.  Each drink we consume provides us with a completely different experience.  Most are as memorable as getting out of bed each morning but none are as exciting as the sheer thrill provided by a vintage brandy. Even when we drink a glass of fine brandy do we ever give any thought as to the glass and aroma of its contents? So often we hear the words “it tastes the same out of any glass” but the experience of using the correctly glass can be hugely different. Specialist glass manufacturers devote years of research to finding the right shape for our enjoyment, perhaps we should use their experience and try to understand more about tasting cognacs?

    cognac glassesThe ideal cognac or indeed spirit glass has a wide bowl which tapers at the top, we call it a tulip shaped glass. More than 50% of the enjoyment of any brandy is in the aroma which subconsciously enhances the taste. Having the correct shaped glass allows the cognac to be rolled around the bowl releasing aromas which are then concentrated at the top of the glass. This maximum sensory effect of the glass’ contents can then be enjoyed.

    Filling the glass to just over half way up the bowl is sufficient to allow the cognac to be gently rolled around the sides and reach as far up the glass as possible thereby exposing the greatest surface area. It is important however to remember that cognacs, like other spirits, are strong. Unlike wine they should never be swirled around the glass as this releases the alcohol which then sits on the surface of the brandy and blinds the very important aroma.

    Of course drinking the golden nectar is the all-important test of appreciation. Taste is improved slightly if the cognac is not cold but brandy warmers are completely unsuitable. They are shaped to accept a brandy balloon glass, which is not good for tasting, and they also drive the alcohol away from the brandy thereby spoiling the taste. Indeed, the ideal temperature of cognac for tasting is room temperature. Remember, we don’t take large mouthfuls of brandy as we would do with wine.  A small mouthful quickly reaches body temperature allowing the flavours to permeate all over the mouth.  A well-known cognac writer once said that he “chewed” the spirit, it was good advice since this helps to distribute the liquid around the mouth and determine the level of balance. Tasting great cognacs such as our Hermitage 43 Year Old or 1914, to name but two, in this manner would give a lasting memory of the skills and generations who have devoted their lives to making the King of all Spirits.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education Page.

  • Cognac Balance

    cognac stillThe process of distilling cognacs requires that the wines are distilled twice, the second distillation must be between 67-72.4 degrees. The spirit, known as eau de vie, is water clear and tasting it can render the tongue numb for several days. Little surprise then that young cognacs, aged for the minimum time, have to be reduced to a lower level of alcohol and additives used to colour and hide the aggressiveness of the spirit and so achieve some Cognac balance.

    The natural colour of cognac is derived from the tannins in the oak barrels. The use of new barrels after distillation to give the cognac a quick boost can actually provide a more aggressive fieriness in the spirit in the early stages. Whilst a level of colour will develop in the spirit during the first stages of ageing, nothing can overcome the huge imbalance between alcohol and taste until the cognac has been in the barrel for at least ten years. Both sugar syrup and caramel are therefore often used to help address the fieriness and lack of colour in young brandies, a process known as obscuration.

    About twenty years ago there was an unscripted charter between the big cognac houses that the maximum obscuration of cognac would be no more than 2%. The increasing demand for young (and cheaper) cognacs has meant that the big houses now buy their cognacs for ageing sometimes only eighteen months after distillation. Often they are bottled as young as 3 years old. This creates a massive problem especially when they are blended with cognacs from the Champagnes which age at a much slower rate than those from other crus. Inevitably, the younger the cognac the more sugar and caramel is needed to create an acceptable level of flavour and balance. As available cognacs become younger, the obscuration level has had to increase and it is now substantially more than 2%.

    Of course there is another element to balancing cognacs – dilution. Cognacs will gradually reduce naturally, however, nowhere near quickly enough for the big houses to sell profitably. Young cognacs between 60-65% abv will need more than 50% water adding to them before they can be sold. Water itself is difficult to add successfully though very quick chilling of the cognac can help.

    Perhaps the most accepted additive, and one that is far more natural than others, is the use of boisé. Produced by boiling oak chips over and over again in cognac, it is dark in colour and can be viscose. When added to cognac it can provide quite a bitter effect until it has had time to complete its accelerated ageing process. Some people refer to this as a “false ageing” but it is not. It uses exactly the same ingredients as occur naturally in cognac so in effect, it is an age accelerator. However, too much can provide an undesirable bitterness when used in young cognacs.

    Balancing the strength and flavour of fine cognacs is a great skill. There is a place for some additives but we avoid the use of sugar and caramel as we believe that any cognac from the Champagnes under ten years old is not sufficiently developed to ever create the truly memorable qualities found in Hermitage Cognacs.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • The Rancio

    Brandyclassics MDProfessionally, as an industry assemblage of blenders, cellar masters, connoisseurs, distillers and negoçiants, our aim is to provide the very finest cognacs we can for each market sector. We know that there is no alternative to long ageing in oak barrels to enhance the distillers’ skills and provide the flavour and richness (Rancio) that is so desirable. Perhaps it was by accident in the 16th and 17th centuries that the chemical changes taking place between wood and spirit were noticed. Over the centuries the effects of ageing have been recorded and gradually formed the criteria by which the standard of a modern cognac is defined.

    Cognac cellarsPerhaps also by accident, after discoveries of old barrels in the corners of family cellars, it was found that some of the oldest cognacs had acquired a sort of maderization and developed an interesting richness. This effect was noted in some cognacs after only 20 – 30 years of barrel ageing but those from the Champagnes took longer to develop it. Charles Walter Berry of Berry Brothers is said to have described this character of fullness and fatness in some brandies as rankness (rancio), an effect also noted by some tasters of Roquefort cheese.

    cognac ageingIt is the oak barrels which produce this most agreeable ‘rancio’. Oak has little or none of the resinous substances found in other woods (that can pollute the spirit with undesirable tastes) and it provides a number of useful elements: tannins the best known comprise a mere 5% and lignin, equally vital, a further 23%. Much of the rest is made up of the relatively neutral hemi-cellulose which gradually dissolves in the maturing spirit and imparts an agreeable sweetness found in older cognacs. The tannins and lignins dissolve at different rates so after 5 years 10% of the lignins and 20% of the tannins will have been absorbed. After ten years this will have doubled but in later years the rate of absorbtion will slow. Conventional wisdom says that in some cases it takes 50 – 80 years to absorb all the tannins in the wood.

    Chemically, rancio derives from the oxidation of fatty acids in the spirit into ketones which produce the richness felt on the palate. It is reminiscent of an old madeira wine, a sort of rich pineapple mustiness which we all hope to find when tasting old cognacs. But this is only one of many chemical reactions and their effect on the palate. One team of scientists, led by Dr Heide, detected 334 ingredients in cognac; 24 acetals (ethylates of aldehyde and alcohol), 27 acids, 63 alcohols, 34 aldehydes, 25 ketones, 77 esters, 19 ethers, 3 lactones, 8 phenols and 44 diverse substances. Many of these substances have still not been separated and analysed; some form an important part of the mix; some strongly influence the taste. For example, ethyl compounds are strongly reminiscent of rotten fruit. Finding the right combination of these elements in an old cognac does not always happen but when it does you will know that you have tasted a very fine cognac that may have started its life as much as a hundred years ago. Perhaps the very best example of 'rancio' we can offer is the Hermitage 1914 Borderies.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • Brandy Bottles

    Glass containers and bottles are believed to have first been made around 1500 BC but serious use of containers made out of glass probably did not occur until around 100 BC. More practical applications for glass were established with the advent of glass blowing, probably around a thousand years later. Modern glass bottles are made in commercial moulds and most bottles that contain alcoholic beverages, including brandy bottles, are made of clear glass.

    That however has not always been the case. The traditional brandy bottle started life as a green or, as in the case of cognac, black glass container. The dark colour may have been chosen to hide any sediment that had been left in the bottom of the barrel.  Modern glass however is pure and bright which enhances the cognac in the bottle to the highest level. Today we use a wide range of such bottles, many of which are produced from recycled glass.  Although the quality of the glass used varies considerably, we choose to buy all our bottles from Saverglass who have a large depot in Cognac.

    Hermitage 1947The size of early hand blown bottles often depended on the quantity of glass the blower had on his pipe and so the quantity each bottle held was largely guess work.  It has now become tradition that the cognac bottle is an upright 70cl size but the volume only became metric in the mid-1950s. Before that, all spirits were measured in imperial measurements.  Strangely, European spirit bottles are now all 70cl whereas in the USA they opt for the slightly larger wine bottle size of 75cl.

    Today, there is a general consistency of bottle shapes havingBaron de Sainte-Fauste developed from region to region and beverage to beverage. For cognac the very basic upright bottle shape is known as the “Cognacaise”.  At Hermitage, we use the “Exception” bottle but also a range of carafes to which many customers are attracted. The traditional bottle shape for armagnac is the “Basquaise” which is round with flat sides and for calvados the longer necked “Normandy” bottle is still generally supplied in bottle green.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • The Difference Between Armagnac and Cognac Production

    The difference between armagnac and cognac production is considerable.  Originally the predominance of Ugni Blanc and to a very much lesser degree, the Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes in the vineyards of Cognac provided a basis for Armagnac production. Now the use of Folle Blanche is considerably greater and another grape variety is also allowed. Known as Baco, it is a cross between the Folle Blanche and the Noah, a grape not known for making quality wine but in many ways ideal for armagnac since it crops relatively late and in good quantities.

    As with cognac the winemaking is relatively basic using natural yeasts to eschew sulphur dioxide, sugar and other additives. The process is designed to produce an acceptably neutral raw material for distillation. There is, however, one crucial difference. The Armagnaçais are allowed to use the continuous presses (forbidden for use in Cognac) which often include the pips, skins and other impurities that further increase the potential richness of the spirit.

    Armagnac production

    This richness is also intensified by the use of a special type of continuous still. Developed during the nineteenth century it is now known as the traditional armagnac still. The ‘jet continu’ (flowing continuously) method of distillation has been responsible for the region’s fame and fortune since the end of the nineteenth century. The wine, 'chauffe-vin',  is heated in a cylinder  by the pipes containing hot alcoholic vapours from the still. The wine, now heated to 80 degrees, then runs into the upper half of a double still (see diagram). In the old days this would enter from the top but on more modern stills it enters below the top plate.

    The clash allows the vapour to absorb some of the qualities and congeners of the incoming wine. The lower the plates the hotter they are thereby ridding the descending wine of an increasing proportion of its alcohol content. As it reaches the lower still the wine is boiling at just over 100 degrees Celcius. The solid residue of the distillation, known as ‘vinasses’, is evacuated through a pipe in the lower half of the still; the ‘têtes’ can then be taken off from the head of the 'chauffe-vin'. The armagnac method of distillation is potentially richer in congeners and fruity and ester-ish flavours, than the stronger spirits made in orthodox pot stills. Even today the armagnac spirit can emerge from the still as low as 52 degrees, a good 15 degrees lower than cognac. This partly explains armagnac’s fruity and slightly coarser qualities.

    Armagnac, once distilled, requires careful handling. Made in the traditional way the spirit retains more of the original wine. This is partly due to the impurities which render the spirit unappetizingly raw for a longer time than spirits distilled by other methods. It is these impurities that make armagnac interesting and provide a wealth of different flavours and qualities often dominated by prune flavours.

    Read more about Armagnac in Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • David on Technical Topics - The Growth of the Armagnac Industry

    armagnac regionThe growth of the Armagnac industry has taken a long time from its very early beginnings.  At the turn of the twentieth century the French boundary commission decided to follow local customs and divide the Armagnac region into three, The Bas Armagnac, Ténarèze and Haut Armagnac, each one corresponding to a geological, geographical and commercial reality. The finest of the armagnacs come from the Bas Armagnac region whilst at the other end of the scale, very little is produced in Haut Armagnac, having never really recovered from the Phylloxera outbreak at the end of the nineteenth century.

    The outbreak affected the whole of the Armagnac region and by 1937 it was producing only 22,000 hectolitres of spirit, less than a quarter of that produced in the cognac region. The German occupying forces during the second World War were largely unaware of the spirits’ qualities and left most of the locals’ stock intact.

    grapes for armagnac

    After the War, some cognac houses invested in the area seeing an opportunity for obtaining additional grapes to be used for making cognac but the quantities available were too small to be of real use. Even so the general quality of the brandy, especially in the east of the region, was poor and there was little or no commercial infrastructure in place.  In the late 1940s trade had slowed to the point where many of the smaller growers, short of cash, simply gave up.

    armagnac bonbonnesEven with this reduced vineyard area, demand and production in the 1960s started to grow again.  Sales in the domestic market grew faster than exports and mainly comprised young, cheap brandies.  This resulted in little being left in the barrels to sell in later years as vintage armagnacs but interest in the fruity brandy had begun to develop.  By the start of the 1980s production had risen to nearly 35,000 hectolitres of pure spirit, a level that by 1990 had nearly doubled to 60,000 hl pure. The Armagnaçais had started to realise the many benefits of their spirit over their competitors.

    Although cognacs continue to outsell armagnacs by a huge factor, the biggest benefit the Armagnaçais have over their rivals in Cognac is that they can offer so many vintages.  Janneau, who started to market vintages in 1973, claimed that it was their biggest weapon against the Cognaçais as it created an image of quality.

  • David on Technical Topics - Armagnac, A Brief History

    There is something unusual occurring in the region of armagnac, the people are Gasçons but the closer you get to the centre, around the small town of Eauz, the more they refer to themselves as Armagnaçais. But whatever they call themselves, they are warm and friendly, lovers of rich food and drink especially truffles and ‘foie gras’, and inhabitants of a rural paradise unspoilt by urban sprawls. The region is tucked away about a hundred miles south of Bordeaux. It stretches back from the sands of the Landes through a series of gentle valleys, which have none of the grim monoculture that marks other vineyards, and provides a most agreeable and varied vision of rural bliss.

    Armagnac in southern France

    However good the area and people, the region is far from the ports and unsuitable for an internationally traded spirit. Armagnac was and remains a reflection of French individualism where its merchants are united as a community and unlike the Cognaçais, still regard themselves as the same class as the growers. By itself individualism would not be of sufficient interest to them but when teamed with a drink as exciting as Armagnac, a unique situation is created. At its best armagnac offers a closeness to nature, a depth of fruit and warmth and a range of vintages that even the finest cognacs cannot match.

    In all probability the Armagnaçais were distilling brandy two hundred years before cognac was made, the process being brought over from Africa by the Moors who had used distillation for making perfumes. The spirit produced around the towns of Auch and Bayonne was a local speciality which by the 16th century, had become known as armagnac. But the Armagnaçais lacked the spirit of openness and commercial aggressiveness that those making cognac further north were already exploiting in their trade with the Dutch, English and Irish from the port of La Rochelle. As a result, armagnac did not compete as a rival to cognac in the market that counted - the fashionable society of ‘Restoration’ London – and so it became submerged in the mass of brandies from Bordeaux and Nantes which were considered inferior.

    continuous stillBy the nineteenth century armagnac was rescued from its rural seclusion by two dramatic developments. The first was the invention of the continuous still which was essential for extracting armagnacs’ particular qualities from the sandy soil and the second, was that many canals were opened enabling the wines to be transported to the port of Bordeaux.

    continuous armagnac stillThe continuous still, perfected by a peasant by the name of Verdier, retained more of the essential elements in the wine than did the orthodox small pot stills used in cognac. Perhaps more importantly, this still was more easily transportable from one grower to another. Since many of the growers owned only a few hectares of land and simply couldn’t afford to have their own still, this was a necessity. The continuous still provided the Armagnaçais with a raw brandy which was capable of development, in time, into an even more complex spirit than cognac. Although the new still created some initial roughness and woodiness, these effects were overshadowed by the more defined fruity flavours that emerged from using a lower distillation range.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • Amazon's Sommelier by Phone Service

    David Baker is our resident expertOnline retailer, Amazon, has just launched a new Sommelier By Phone Service in Japan.  Prospective purchasers can leave their phone number on the purchasing page of a specific bottle; they will then be telephoned by a sommelier who will answer questions and advise on flavour and alternatives; more information will follow by e mail. Another great innovation by Amazon – or is it?

    Here at Brandyclassics we have been offering this service since our inception, a quarter of a century ago. Always happy to talk and advise about our handpicked products by phone or email, we think our experience and expertise provides an even better service than Amazon. So, if you have a question about our products, please contact us on 01225 863988 or cognac@brandyclassics.com.

  • David on Technical Topics - The Cognac Wines

    For many years, cognac quality has centred mainly on the distillation process and the basic needs of providing a relatively acidic and low alcohol wine. After the Phylloxera, in the late nineteenth century, viticulturists started to recognise the need to control the wine, harvest and production methods to a far higher level. The St Emillion (Ugni Blanc) grape, favoured for its resistance to disease and greater cropping, became the dominant variety and a key part of modern cognac wines.

    The increasing demand on the industry for more cognac created further demands on the viticulturist to provide greater quantities of clean (low in sulphur dioxide), low alcohol wines fordrum press distillation. Regulations introduced in the 1930s banned the use of continuous wine presses that crushed the grapes since the additional pressure produced an undesirable stream of tannic and oily substances from the pips. In their place, modern rotating drum presses gently release the juices from the undesirable pips and skins.

    Although climatically the Charente region is better suited to growing cognac vines than its surrounding regions, sun, rain and occasionally frost can have a severe effect on the wines produced. The Ugni Blanc matures late and is often not ready for harvesting until late October. In exceptionally cold conditions, when the grapes are picked cold, difficulties with fermentation occur creating a wine that is both thin and flat and which develops further difficulties in distillation. Perhaps a bigger problem with the weather, especially with more recent climatic changes, is the warmer autumns that create greater sugar levels in the grapes thus making a stronger and sweeter wine. The fully ripe Ugni Blanc grapes will produce a wine around 11 percent abv so the trick is to harvest just before they obtain maximum ripeness; an ideal strength is around 9 percent abv. The vintages of 1976 and 1989 are a case in point - wines often exceeded 11 percent abv making the fermentation too quick and the ethanol produced too great. This can create a cognac that is flabby and generally tasteless. Rain can also create problems especially in the summer when the grapes are filling out. The damp and warm conditions will allow fungus and rot in the tightly formed clusters so regular, preventative spraying is critical.

    Even today wine making skills are still fairly basic. The wine is usually transferred into concrete, cognac wine tanksor in some more modern cases fibreglass lined metal tanks, for a quick malolactic fermentation. Special yeasts developed by the Station Viticole, the technical division of the BNIC, are used to encourage faster fermentation, a process that should take about six weeks. The longer the period of time between the fermentation and distillation the more the valuable esters that react with the tannins in the oak are lost. Many distillers will use the lees, in effect the pulp of the grape, to add further individuality and flavour to their distillations. A director of the Station Viticole once pointed out that it relies on nature, “We adapt our wine making skills to the needs of the still”. For all they are doing, he says, is preserving the interesting elements in the juice. The better the wines produced the greater opportunity there is to make the finest cognacs, like Hermitage.

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