The Renaissance of American Brandy
Although brandy has been distilled and aged in California since the mid 1800s, for the most part American brandies have been relegated to rather pedestrian use—as a tool in cooking, or in cocktails and mixed drinks such as Brandy Alexanders or Sidecars. But more recently, American brandy has begun to catch on with serious spirits consumers.
Brandies such as Korbel, Christian Brothers, Paul Masson Grande Amber, and Gallo's E. & J. brand are staples at many hotels, bars, restaurants and homes. Cooks have long utilized these brandies in their kitchens. But now there are some fresh faces that are being noticed. Upscale American brandy, made by some of these companies as well as a handful of smaller, artisan distilleries, has really come into its own, so much so that brandy connoisseurs are savoring American brandies that, in many ways, rival their counterparts from Cognac.
When it comes to the new breed of American brandies, there's no avoiding that increasingly popular term, terroir. In California, terroir is where it's at. For instance, Hubert Germain-Robin, partner and master distiller at the California distillery that bears his name, points out that in the Cognac region of France, October marks the last chance for grape harvesting. After that, because of the climate, the grapes just won't ripen further. But in California, grapes can be picked more or less according to the distiller's whim, and this allows brandymakers to be fussy.
According to Germain-Robin's partner, Ansley Coale, the Germain-Robin distillery orders wines made from grapes picked at between 18 and 20 brix, grapes that contain a lower sugar content and higher levels of acidity than would be used for making table wine. For brandy distillers, this is a very desirable trait, since the acidity keeps the wine in good condition until the distillation process begins. "Also, if the sugar content is too high, the brandy won't age well," adds Germain-Robin.
Microclimate also plays an important role in a brandymaker's product. The RMS Distillery (previously known as the Carneros Distillery) in Napa, for instance, was built by its parent company, Rémy Martin, in the Carneros region specifically because of the cool, humid climate. Like Germain-Robin, Rick Estes, the distiller and cellar master at RMS, subscribes to the theory of harvesting at low sugars. He prefers his brandy grapes to be picked at the relatively low brix of 18.5.
Perhaps the most important aspect of American brandies is the bounty of grape varietals at the disposal of the distiller. Whereas the brandymakers in Cognac are restricted by law to using only a few varieties of grapes—all white grapes, with Ugni Blanc being most predominant—in the United States brandymakers can pick and choose whichever grapes they please. And this is a freedom they enjoy.
Estes distills wines made from six grape varietals—French Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Palomino, Muscat and Folle Blanche. Germain-Robin makes brandies from Pinot Noir, Colombard, Palomino, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Sémillon. The resultant aged brandies are then blended together to produce different bottlings at each distillery. The QE (Quality Extraordinaire) bottling from RMS, for example, is a blend of five of their six brandies (Folle Blanche being the one not used), whereas the RMS bottle bearing the XO label contains brandy made entirely from Pinot Noir. "California brandies, when compared to Cognacs, are similar in character to California wines being compared to their French counterparts," says Estes. "They tend to be fruitier—just like California Cabernets."
Similarly, Germain-Robin, based in Mendocino County, issues a single-barrel, single- varietal brandy that's normally a Pinot Noir bottling, but some of its other brandies, such as the XO, contain 12 components, seven of them being brandies made from different Pinot Noir base wines.
"Cognac isn't aged, it is brought up. Just as one would bring up a child," says Maurice Hennessy, head of the Hennessy Cognac family. But before a child can be raised, it must first be born. In the case of brandies, not all come from the same proverbial womb.
While some American brandies are being made in French stills, the most reasonably priced bottlings are usually made in cost-effective continuous stills. But at the Jepson distillery in Ukiah, California, as well as both the RMS and Germain-Robin facilities, the traditional French Cognac still—Charentais alambic—is what's used to make their superlative products.
Although it's a pot still, the French type of alambic is far different in design from the pot stills used to make single malt Scotch. But it's just as work-intensive, and just as difficult to master. Indeed, it's akin to nurturing the baby in utero before the rearing process begins. First the distiller must make sure the temperature of the chaudiere (basically the belly of the still) is just right so that the vaporous spirit can rise gently through the head of the still (the chapiteau). It then wends its way up through the swan's neck (col de cygne), then through the large dome-like réchauffe-vin (where the next batch of wine is gently warmed by the vapors passing through), and finally, after meeting the cool temperatures of the serpentin (a zigzag of copper pipe), the vapors condense into a liquid known as the brouillis. The brouillis is low in alcohol content and must be redistilled in exactly the same manner to produce the eau-de-vie, or "water of life," a very apt name for a newborn spirit.
Both the Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon, and St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, concentrate more on fruit eaux-de-vie than aged grape brandies. And both use European eau-de-vie stills to make all their spirits. Jorg Rupf, owner/distiller at St. George, believes he can capture the true essence of the grapes this way. "I'm not as great a genius as the people who make Cognac—they can make a great product from mediocre grapes. I, on the other hand, have to use the best grapes, and I try to get them to show through in the spirit," he says.
American distillers quickly turn very French when it comes to aging their brandies. With only one exception, all the new-age distilleries mentioned here use barrels made from Limousin oak, the same wood used in Cognac, to rear their babies.
Rupf, however, is the dissenter here—he uses barrels made from Burgundian oak, which, according to Rupf, is much favored by winemakers. The Chardonnay wine that Rupf distills is delivered in these barrels, so they are convenient vessels for him to use, but more than this, he claims that the wine takes the "green" character out of the oak, thus making the Chardonnay barrels perfect for aging his brandies.
All of these distillers, though, agree on one fact that's long been known in France—and parenting circles the world over: It's of tantamount importance to keep your eye on your children as they mature. Often the new spirits are initially entered into brand-new barrels, where they will take on quite a lot of tannins during infancy. But these brandies are constantly monitored, and as soon as the distillers deem fit, the brandies will be transferred to older barrels that have already lost most of their tannins. This process can be repeated several times, and each time the brandies are moved to older, more neutral barrels.
Steve McCarthy, owner/distiller of Clear Creek, is far better known for his grappa and eaux-de-vie—his pear brandy being his "baby"—but he's been producing grape-based brandy in his German eau-de-vie still for some years and aging it in used Cognac barrels.
Although Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Muscat and Chardonnay wines are all distilled and aged separately at Clear Creek, all the brandy McCarthy has issued until now is a blend of just the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay distillates. The others haven't yet matured to fit the profile he wants. "After I've blended the brandies, though, they have to go back into the wood for another year before I can think about bottling, and even after the brandy is bottled, it isn't sent to the distributors straightaway since it goes through bottle shock, just like wine."
Just as with Cognac, it's difficult, if not impossible, to generalize about fine American brandies, since styles vary immensely from one distillery to the next. But let it be said that, by and large, American distillers seem to be producing a style of brandy that's—dare we say it—more intense than most Cognacs. If "austere" is a word commonly used to describe the best Cognacs, then "bold" might be the descriptor that is best applied to their American cousins.