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Learning about Brandy

  • Cognac Classifications on Bottle Labels

    cognac classificationsThere are all manner of cognac classifications found on bottle labels, but what do they actually mean?  Most of the generic terms below describe cognacs made by blending hundreds, or even thousands, of cognacs together to produce a vast quantity of a homogenous product for sale on supermarket shelves.  As demand increases younger and younger cognacs are used in these blends so sugar syrup and caramel colouring are added to obscure the fieriness on the tongue and lack of appealing colour.

    VS stands for Very Special.  Also known as *** (3-star) or Premium, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be at least 2 years old.  Many of these younger cognacs are purchased by the ‘Big Four’ companies in order to meet their ever-growing demand.

    VSOP stands for Very Superior Old Pale.   The youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be at least 4 years old.  The colour of cognac deepens the longer it stays in contact with the wooden barrel.  Although described as ‘Pale’ these young cognacs can also have caramel added which provides a red glow.

    Napoleon.  Named after the very famous Frenchman, Napoleon Boneparte, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be at least 6 years old.  Up until April 2018, this was also the age of XO.

    XO stands for Extra Old and must be aged for a minimum of 10 years.  Although not official terms, Extra and Hors d’Age are often used to describe cognac of XO quality and age.  Some small producers sell XO that maybe up to 20 years old but, it is unlikely that this will be specified on the label.

    XXO is a new classification that stands for Extra, Extra Old and the youngest eaux-de-vie in any blend must have been aged for a minimum of 14 years.

    Other terms such as Reserve, Très Vieille and Heritage are often used to describe blends that are much older than XXO although none are official nomenclature.  They could be 15 or 50 years old.

    So you can see that it is very difficult to decipher exactly what is in your bottle of cognac with a generic label as only minimum ages are specified and they are highly blended.  Sometimes Single Estate is used to describe a cognac where all the eau de vie used has come from the same estate.  In this case, far fewer cognacs will be used to make the blend so the flavour should be more individual.

    cognac classificationsCognacs with Age Statements (eg 30 Year Old) are more precise as they list the youngest eau de vie used and may also comprise a blend of just one or two cognacs or indeed be Single Cask (unblended).  Vintage Cognacs also give you specific information.  The year on the label describes the year the grapes were harvested.  The cognac will be aged to perfection before being taken out of the wood and placed in glass when it will no longer mature.  Most vintage cognacs will tell you when the cognac was bottled and therefore, for how long it was aged.  This is the category that has the most information available to you, the customer.  They are expensive to produce as the casks are strictly controlled throughout the decades of ageing.  However, you can be sure that you are drinking cognac that has been matured to its optimum level, is unblended and has an unbelievable variation of aromas and flavours.  We call this complexity.

  • Should All Wine Brandies Be Regulated?

    Wine BrandiesThe term “brandy” refers to a spirit distilled from a fruit.  This includes armagnac and cognac as well as a host of other wine brandies made from the indigenous fruits of the region from whence they come. The rigorous controls produced by the various regulatory bodies of each of the two main French wine brandies mean that their products will always be of a recognised quality.  Unfortunately, this is not the case with grape brandies which have no rules to follow.  Most are distilled on large commercial stills from unspecified grape varieties and sold after as little as one year’s ageing.  In addition, their distillation range is not controlled, any grapes can be used and, in some cases, only the residue of the skins, pips and leftover flesh is distilled.

    Many years ago, brandies were made in the wine producing regions, around Bordeaux and Saintonge, where wines were plentiful. The resulting wine brandies were of lower strengths, as the grape varieties used lacked acidity, and they failed to meet with the approval of the traders buying for their European customers. Only the wine brandies from the Charente, ie cognacs, were of an acceptable standard as rigorous quality controls were already in place.  Over the years these regulations have been continued to be refined to meet increasingly higher standards.

    It is right, therefore, that Lucien Bernard, in his discussion with Vinexpo News recently, seeks to create standards that enable us to compare the quality of all wine brandies. We see in the marketplace many cheap grape brandies poorly made with all manner of different grapes, methods of production and storage. We also see some brandies being passed off as cognacs.  This is particularly true in China where counterfeit brandy is shipped in volume, mixed with small quantities of cognac and falsely labelled with respectable cognac producer’s names.  Sadly, we will never be able to control these rogues and it is down to local governments to bring them under control.

    However, there are also some very fine brandies on the market. Some of the Spanish brandies, made under the Solera system, a method which allows for the topping up of barrels which may have contained their famous sherries, are superb. Other good brandies, such as those from Greece and America and the Italian Grappa, also have production controls. Controls on the production of wine brandies is therefore both necessary and desirable as it will improve the quality of the brandies produced and reduce the rogues who seek to cash in on the market that deserves so much better. I’m with you Lucien!

  • Sediment in Cognac

    The cognac industry is quite touchy about the appearance of a bottle of cognac.  In the world of high value spirits, sediment is not desirable as it can either lie on the bottom of the bottle or cause cloudiness of the spirit. But is it really a problem?

    sediment in cognacWell, we all understand that cognac is aged in oak casks.  Initially it is put into new ones and then, after about 6 – 12 months, it is transferred into old ones.  When the casks are new, they are toasted to destroy the harmful tannins in the wood.  At this stage, only the good tannins are available in the wood allowing the cognacs to develop their colour and flavour. Many cognac producers will ask for a specific grade of barrel toasting to suit the desired quality of the finished cognac. Repeated use of the new barrels means that over time, they will become old barrels and so used for long term cognac storage.  However, as the tannins in the wood are used up, the inside surface of the barrel will gradually degrade leaving a cloudiness in the cognac.

    The level of cloudiness will depend on the age and size of the barrel, the type of oak used and the level of toasting initially agreed between the cooper and distiller. The strength and cru of the cognac are also factors.  Cognacs produced from the Champagnes mature more slowly than those from other crus.  The spirit remains stronger in the barrel for longer, producing a cloudy effect and in some cases, containing minute particles from inside the barrel.  As a result, older cognacs, which may have been in their barrels for 40, 50, 60 or more years, may have levels of sediment in them and must be filtered. In most cases, sediment appears at the tail end of the barrel and because it can be very fine, can be missed when bottling. No producer wants to see sediment of any level in his cognac although it is harmless and will gradually settle in the bottle over time.

    When filtering is used to remove the sediment it can be costly as it is slow and some of the cognac is lost during the process. All cognacs do have a minute solids content which is not visible but is part of the cognac.  But remember, the longer it has been in the barrel the finer the cognac will be!

  • The Effect of the Cellar on Ageing Cognac

    CellarsWe place much emphasis on the ageing of cognacs as it is critically important that they gain the maximum maturity whilst in their oak casks. We have spoken before about the barrel size, shape and type of oak but the actual cellar chosen for storage is also vitally important.  The conditions of storage can make, or break, a fine cognac.

    French cellars used to house cognac are typically quite small, perhaps only housing a couple of hundred barrels.  Most are also old and damp, often old stores or farm buildings, perhaps old chapels or buildings that would normally be thought unsuitable for storing such valuable spirits.  Many do not even have a proper floor, just the earth, perhaps where animals have been kept during cold winter months, but it is these old buildings that provide the finest conditions for cognac ageing.

    Good barrel ageing extracts the useful substances from the oak barrels. Tannins form around 5% of these substances but others, including lignin and hemi-cellulose, are also useful.  As these substances gradually dissolve in the maturing spirit, they impart the agreeable sweetness found in some older cognacs. It is therefore very important that cognac spends as much time as possible in contact with these useful elements found in the wood.

    There is of course a limit as to how long these substances last in the relatively neutral oak barrels so it is important to ensure that the barrels are stored in the finest conditions.  The humidity of the old stores in the Charente ensures that the barrels are largely damp on the outside.  This prevents the smaller spirit molecules from escaping and retains them in the oak for a longer period.

    An agreeable climate in the Charente provides more suitable ambient storage in these old stores than in purpose made warehouses on other shores.  ‘Early landed’ cognacs are brandies which are stored in bonded warehouses abroad and have customs documents proving when they were made.  The provision of this additional storage may be an advantage but both the length of time the cognacs are stored and the conditions in bond may fall some way short of ideal.  Only by constant, expert monitoring can it be established when a cognac is ready for bottling and indeed if the storage conditions have allowed the cognac to gain the full benefit from the barrel.

    We hear of all sorts of ideas for brandy storage but whatever is happening on the outside of the barrel, there are only two factors which affect ageing inside: temperature and humidity.  It is the reaction of the old oak barrel and the cognac that will provide us with the finest cognacs.  It therefore seems strange to me that some brandy houses want to age their cognacs in unusual places. A rather well-known Norwegian house has chosen to age a barrel of their 40 year old cognac in a fort in the mouth of the Charentes for a few months “to see how maritime weather affects the finished product”. If the barrels are stored correctly and tightly sealed with a cork which is waxed over to prevent the ingress of air, what difference will the maritime weather make?

  • Cognac As A Digestif

    digestifBrandy has long been used for medicinal purposes, both internally and externally. We read that it was often used in Nelson’s Navy as an antiseptic, sometimes as an anaesthetic and even before then, as a digestif to sooth the effects of eating too much or too rich food.

    A ‘digestif’, taken after a meal to aid digestion, is widely regarded as a means of reducing discomfort. Indeed, good cognac, if consumed in moderation has many health benefits.  Cognac contains antioxidants which can lower cholesterol levels in the blood, thus helping to keep the heart healthy.  According to Lybrate, the online medical service, cognac contains polyphenol compounds which help to reduce inflammation in the cardiovascular system resulting in lower blood pressure. Unlike other alcoholic drinks, pure cognac such as Hermitage, does not contain any carbohydrates.  It does not cause bloating and can be safely enjoyed, knowing that it cannot be converted into fat. However, the same cannot be said of commercially blended generic brandies which contain additives, such as sugar.  It has been proven that cognac also has excellent anti-inflammatory properties making it effective in relieving respiratory issues and improving heart health. The absence of carbohydrates can help in weight management and its antioxidant properties are said to assist anti-ageing.

    When Admiral Lord Nelson was killed at Trafalgar they brought him home in a barrel of brandy, I still give him a wink as I go past his column in Trafalgar Square and I will now ensure I take a small measure as my digestif every evening.

  • Many Different Types of Brandies

    We all know that every cognac is a brandy but not every brandy is a cognac, well most of us do, but what different brandies are there out there and what are they like?

    Different BrandiesWell, cognac is the finest of them all and the best known.  It must be made in line with all sorts of regulations to ensure that quality is maintained and that it is properly distilled and aged. The other well-known French brandies are armagnac and calvados.  Armagnac is distilled on a continuous still as a single distillation and tends to be quite fruity in flavour.  Calvados on the other hand is made from a cider and can have quite a pear drop flavour as it is necessary to add pears for greater acidity to help the distillation.  However, there are other French brandies too.  One is from Alsace which is traditionally made from their Gurwüztraminer grapes and of course there is Marc made in the burgundy region usually from the heavy lees which probably include the skins, pips and any other leftovers.  A little less known is Champagne Marc. This is distilled from the champagne grapes which are pressed whole and distilled. It is quite fruity and distilled at a low rate of about 52 degrees.  It is quite normal to add sugar which of course can make it quite sweet. Other French Brandies come from the Cote-du-Rhône, Provence and Jura where there is a long tradition.

    Next best known is Spanish brandy. This is made in the solera fashion which is a top-up system of ageing. Producers can take up to 20% off the bottom of the barrel and replace it with new eau de vie on the top. Spanish brandies are also aged in casks that have contained other drinks, usually sherry. They are said to be the oldest brandies in the world using traditions passed on by the Arabs.

    The Italian brandies are relatively tightly controlled, and only specific wines can be used. They are distilled at quite low alcohol ranges to preserve the fruitiness of the brandy.  Italian brandies are not to be confused with Grappa, often referred to as the peasant’s drink. Grappa was traditionally taken with coffee and used for all sorts of medicinal purposes, even disinfectant.

    German brandies are made from grapes imported from either France or Germany, they often contain macerated fruits as well as caramel and sugar syrups. Probably the best known is Asbach.

    American brandies are generally thought of as a fall-back beverage from the millions of bottles of wines that are produced.  They are mainly made in Califonia from the generic grapes of the region and can include all sorts of additives including caramel, sugar syrup and prune juice.  Consequently, they are similar in flavour to the Spanish style brandies.

    In Latin America there are a range of brandies including Pisco, a pure brandy made from the indigenous grapes of the region. Pisco takes its name from ‘pisku’ which in Quechua, the language of the Incas, means flying bird.  This is a good description for this light and volatile spirit.

    Other brandy producing nations are Australia, South Africa and Greece (where Metaxa is produced).  Also, Israel who is the only producer of Kosher brandy.

  • Calvados - Apple Brandy - The Forgotten Treasure?

    calvados is apple brandy Calvados really is the finest example of apple brandy so it is a mystery that it isn’t more popular.  Traditionally rustic, being based on the common old farmyard apple rather than the noble grape, perhaps it is too old fashioned for the influential trendsetters?  And what about geography?  Normandy is poorer and more rural than the elitist areas of Champagne and Cognac. The region staged countless wars and its fields are the final resting place of thousands of young men.  But the trend is gradually changing.  New calvados embassies are opening across the world. Indeed, official figures show that in 2017, 57% of the 6m bottles of calvados sold were exported.  Its popularity as a cocktail ingredient has certainly helped.  One of London’s most stylish and up-and-coming bars, Coupette, puts calvados cocktails at the very heart of its menu.  What is a surprise though is that mixologists are using not just calvados from the top cru, Pays D’Auge, but aged and more expensive vintages too. Calvados is a delicious, versatile and refreshing spirit. It goes well with food, tastes good neat, and can be the base for sophisticated cocktails.

  • 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.

  • 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!

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