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English Grape Brandy

Chapel Down, the highly successful English wine producer, has just released a 23-Year-Old Grape Brandy made from grapes grown in Kent. The spirit was distilled in 1992 and then aged in French oak. According to one spirits writer it has “all the hallmarks of a complex armagnac or calvados but with its own personality”. By definition brandy is a spirit made from a fruit. Just like Chapel Down, armagnac and cognac are brandies made from grapes but they each have to be made under very strict conditions. Most importantly the grapes must be grown in one of the designated cru regions before being distilled according to their respective regulations. Brandy made in the UK is therefore a rarity. All the cognacs, armagnacs and calvados that we supply are produced and aged entirely in France, with one notable exception – ‘Early Landed’. Some smaller houses ship their barrels of young ‘eau de vie’ to the UK to be aged in cellars here. British cellars are colder and drier than French ones so the barrels absorb more of the spirit but the system saves money and sees some fine products such as Hine and Delamain cognacs being bottled in the UK. Not sure that the Chapel Down Grape Brandy will be able to compete with these fine nectars but hopefully the British will support this initiative rather than see it shipped to China along with most other grape brandies.

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

David on Technical Topics – Pineau

Many of us travel to France in the summer holidays and diligently search out local products which are unique to the area we are visiting and Pineau des Charentes, with its rich and often sweet properties, is perhaps the one which interests us most.  We ask “what is it?” and the answer “Pineau” does nothing to reassure us.  We ask, “is it a wine or a brandy?”, ”is it like a sherry or a port?” and the answer still comes back, “Pineau”!

Pineau is unique as indeed sherry or port are in their respective countries.  It is a combination of freshly distilled Cognac, which we call ‘eau de vie’, and the indigenous grapes of the area and is available as either white, red or rosé.  It is made by Cognac producers, often to use up their excess of newly distilled eau de vie as there are strict limits as to how much can be aged to make Cognac. Pineau is a combination of 25% eau de vie and 75% grape juice which is then aged in oak barrels and in France it is consumed as an aperitif.

The Cognac production region is known as the Charente and Charente Maritime, a part of France which overlaps with some of the most famous wine producing regions.  As a consequence, it is not unusual to find grape varieties such as Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabinet Sauvignon and Cabinet Franc in addition to some of the cognac grapes such as Ugni Blanc and Colombard, being used in the production of Pineau.  The individual choice of grape can have a big inflence on the colour and taste of the final product.

Muost of the Pineau des Charentes produced is sold at the relatively young age of 3 – 5 years old.  However, some is aged for longer, up to 20 years, producing much richer and intense flavours and maybe sold as vintage Pineau. Indeed one red Pineau, produced near the Gironde estuary, has been compared to a fine cold port but this is unusual as most of the red is quite light in colour. The white Pineau will darken with ageing and is sometimes mixed with citric fruit juices and cognac, as in our Pineau Royale recipe, to form a delightfully fresh and cool cocktail.

Pineau des Charentes is a product of the cognac region but there are also similar drinks made in the Armagnac and Calvados producing regions. In Armagnac the product is called Floc and it differs in that it is not aged in oak whilst in Normandy, where Calvados is produced, it is called Pomeau and is of course made from apple juice.  Both of these are rarely seen outside of France and even in their respective regions can sometimes be very difficult to locate.

David on Technical Topics – The Traditional Christmas Spirit

Brandy has been the traditional spirit of Christmas since the sixteenth century and was immortalised by Dickens in Mrs Cratchit’s Christmas pudding, “blazing in half of half a quarter of ignited brandy”. But it is said that cognac was recognised in 1540 after a Chevalier du Maron took two casks of newly reduced or distilled wine to a local monastery near La Rochelle. The monks tasted one of them and found it to be fiery and tasteless so left the other cask unopened. Many years later they found the unopened cask, the contents of which had matured and were very fine. They named the drink after the town it had come from, Cognac.

Cognac has been used over the centuries in all sorts of ways including the preservation of food, in particular meat and fruit where the term “plumming” referred to soaking raisins in brandy. Both fruit and meat were often incorporated into puddings which were much admired by George I, also known as the Pudding King. So enthusiastic was he that in 1714 he demanded that “plum pudding” be served at his Royal Christmas Feast. Brandy was often used to flame the pudding before serving.

In more recent times, Cognac was the favourite drink of Churchill who often enjoyed it with a cigar. It was said by the last French owner of the cognac house Croizet, that during the war, bottles of their cognac were smuggled out of France by submarine for Mr Churchill. He favoured the fine citrus qualities of their Grande Champagne cognacs.

Today, Hermitage Grande Champagne Pure Vintage Cognacs offer the finest traditional values at Christmas, but we do recommend you enjoy them as they are rather than set fire to them on your Christmas pudding.  Visit our Online Store to see the whole range.

David on Technical Topics – Cognac Distillation, The Wine Reduction Distillation – The Wine Reduction

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the brandies produced in the Charente were reduced by distillation as this made them easier to ship abroad.   The risk of low alcohol wines going off before they reached their destination was avoided and the intention was to cut them back with water before they were consumed.  But the Cognaçaise soon found that keeping the strong wines in barrels changed them for the better and so they started to learn the skills of distillation.

The basic concept of distillation is that you boil the wines, collect the vapours that escape and then allow them to condense back into a liquid. It sounds ridiculously simple but there are many things that can go wrong unless the process is carefully controlled.

Cognacs are double distilled, that is to say that after the first distillation the wines are re-introduced into the still to be distilled a second time.  During the process most of the chemical changes in the wine occur,  at a temperature of less than 40 degrees, during the first distillation.  Careful consideration must therefore be given as to that which is put into the still. Most modern day cognac distillations include the lees; this is anything but the juice.  Most lees used consist of the pulp of the grape.  In some cases the skin is also added but the pips and stalks are not as they will introduce an unacceptable bitterness.  Some purists will filter out the lees and distil just the juice but this provides a cognac with less flavour and ultimate complexity.  It is the yeast in the wine that contains esters which enrich the cognac and provide more flavour.

The first distillation is regarded by many as the most important as this is when the essential qualities of the fruit are extracted. The slower the cooking the more thoroughly the flavour in the wine is absorbed into the resulting brouilli (a cloudy and non-descript liquid at a strength of between 28 – 32 degrees). The brouillis is undrinkable and it is quite impossible at this stage for the distiller to determine the qualities of the final liquid.

The second distillation is known as the Bon Chauffe (good heating).  Not all the newly distilled liquid or eau de vie is used. The first quantity, of around half a percent, is known as “the heads” and is discarded as it is too strong and will probably clog with some of the solids. The last part of the distillation, “the tails”, will be too weak.  They can be re-introduced into the still but this is in itself a major decision.  If the tails are used they will be distilled twice more and will create a level of neutrality in the final spirit. The middle part, which is probably greater than 95%, will be stored in new barrels for a few months to provide the new spirit with an initial boost of flavour and colour. The distillation range of the second boiling must be between 67 – 72.4 degrees, above this range the spirit will be burnt and below it there will be insufficient refinement in the final cognac.

To read more Technical Topics go to our Brandy Education page.

David on Technical Topics – Cognac Distillation, The Still

Cognac Still
Cognac Still

The cognac distillation process is the most technical part of making the golden nectar. It is the stage where the wine is reduced to a spirit, which we refer to as ‘eau de vie’. Distillation is carried out twice. The first time it changes the wine to a ‘brouillis’, a cloudy liquid with a strength of around 27 – 30% alcohol, and then it is distilled again.   In this article we will consider the distillation equipment required and next month we will explore the process.

The complete distillation process is controlled by the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC) and every distiller must comply with the rules that protect the name of ‘Cognac’. The process usually starts at the end of October once the grapes have fermented and changed into a relatively low alcohol, acidic wine.

The bulbous, onion shaped, original design of the cognac still is largely accredited to the Dutch in the seventeenth century and has not changed significantly since. Sitting on top of this still is the chapiteau or still head. This is where the vapour rises after boiling and before continuing into the swan’s neck, an appropriately named pipe extending from the top of the still head. Eventually the vapour enters the serpentin, a large coil in a water tank, where it condenses before entering a tank ready for the second distillation.

Different still designs can influence the cognac’s final flavour. Firstly the size of the still is important. The smaller the still the more distinctive the cognac it produces whereas larger stills tend to provide more neutral flavours. The problem of neutrality is also created by the shape of the still head. Large, wide onion shaped stills allow the vapour to drip back into the still, a process known as rectification, and so the spirit is re-distilled. Conversely, narrow, shallot shaped heads allow the vapour to leave the still faster, with less risk of it condensing, before it has rounded the swan’s neck.

The other choice distillers must make is whether or not to use a chauffe-vin , a type of heat exchanger which sits between the still and the serpentin (condenser). This enables the warmth of the hot vapour to warm the wine before it enters the still for boiling whilst the initial temperature of the wine cools the vapours to initiate condensation.

Next month I will look at the Distillation Process.  To read more Technical Topics, go to our Brandy Education page.

Pineau is the taste of summer

Sitting outside on a warm, balmy evening is the perfect time to try Pineau des Charentes. Made in the cognac producing region of France, newly distilled eau de vie is mixed with grape juice before being aged. The result is a wonderfully fresh, fruity flavour and with an abv of 17 – 18%, it is perfect for every occasion. Serve cold as an aperitif, or a dessert wine, or if you’re looking for a longer drink, it is the ideal base for a summer cocktail – try our Pineau Royale recipe for something truly sumptuous. Most of our wonderful selection of white, rosé and red pineau have age statements and remember, the older the pineau, the more intense the flavour. So celebrate the warmer weather with a taste of summer with Pineau des Charentes – view the whole range here.


Old Brandy Bottle Valuation Service

We are pleased to announce the introduction of our new Valuation Service. In response to an increasing number of requests for Old Brandy Bottle Valuations we have formalised the service that we offer.

If you would like to know more about the history and value of an old bottle of brandy, just send us the information requested on our Valuation Service page. You will then receive an indication of its worth – over or under £250 – and whether or not a detailed, historical valuation is recommended. If the latter is required you will be able to purchase your Valuation online.

Sometimes rare bottles can be worth substantial sums of money – take a look at our Very Old Cognacs.

If you would like to learn more about cognac and other brandies, subscribe to our newsletter here.


David on Technical Topics – How Long Does a Bottle of Cognac Last?

It is surprising how many times we are asked this question.  The answer is, of course, completely different from wine, as the distillation process reduces it to a spirit. There is nothing in cognac which can effectively reduce its life providing air cannot get into the bottle and of course, the spirit cannot get out. Cognac bottles are sealed with a cork and a metal or plastic cap shrunk over the top. On some more expensive bottles a wax seal is used to ensure that the bottle is airtight.  Once a bottle has been opened, the level of cognac becomes significant.  The more air that is in the bottle, the more space there is into which the alcohol can escape.  It is the alcohol that preserves the flavour of the cognac so as the a.b.v. reduces, the flavour changes and eventually it will become undrinkable.  Bottles should not therefore be left containing just a small quantity of cognac nor stored above 25 °C.

The Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac tells us that all corks should be changed every ten years since the cork will taint the cognac in the bottle.  At Hermitage Cognacs our experience tells us that with modern corks there is no perceptible change in flavour of an unopened bottle of cognac after twenty years but we do advise that corks are changed at this point.  We also advise that with an opened bottle the cork should be replaced after pouring and the bottle should be stored in an upright position; otherwise the strong spirit will attack the cork and the flavour will be affected.

So, although the flavour of cognac can change over a long period of time, if stored correctly a half full bottle of cognac will not show any perceptible changes in quality for at least ten years.  Happy Cognac Drinking!

To read more Technical Topics go to our Brandy Education page.

The Rise of the Single Estate Cognac – a 2015 Trend?

In January of this year we commented on Ed Bates’ presentation – ‘Cognac houses should be different, not follow the crowd’.  It is a view we have always held and now it seems that the Cognac Expert Blog concurs.  They predict that one of the trends of 2015 will be the rise of the Single Estate Cognac.  Recently advocated by Hine, with its newly released 2005 Cognac, it is highly likely that this trend of making the terroir the signature point of the cognac will become more widespread.  Single estate cognacs have distinctive characters and exceptional ones are produced by the best distillers who are able to combine specific viticulture, viniculture and complex ageing procedures.  These are the cognacs we have always sought for our Hermitage range; they are hand picked and we know precisely from where each one originates.