Remember the term Brandywine? Maybe your grandmother had her glass of brandywine each evening before bedtime. We seldom hear the word today. Brandy is technically considered a cordial, but because Cognac and Armangnac are also brandies (but all brandies are not Cognac or Armangnac), I thought having a separate category was in order. Below are two videos, 1) Maurice Hennessy on how to drink Cognac and what to drink it with – or not, and 2) a bartender showing the proper way to pour Cognacs and Brandies.
Cognac: The brands you know so well, Courvoisier, Hennessey, Remy-Martin, and Martell are all Cognacs, all from France and all from wine grapes grown in the Cognac region of France and bottled there – yes, Cognac has it’s own appellation, as do all fine wines. If the grapes are not grown in the Cognac region, then it is not cool to put Cognac on the label. All of these Cognacs are brandy.
France has strict requirements for putting Cognac on a label and those requirements go beyond the grapes being birthed in in that region. Three white wine grapes are approved for Cognac: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard.
The Ugni Blanc is chosen for its late maturing and its ability to resist disease, while the Folle blanche and the Colombard are selected due to their thin white wine that are deemed good only for Cognac.
Since Colombard is a favorite of some wine drinkers, let’s assume that Colombard grown in Cognac is “thin,” but is not thin everywhere in the world.
Cognac, by French law, must be distilled twice, and slowly matured for at least two years in porous oak casks – sometimes crafted from 100-year-old trees, the Limousin and Trancais. The casks rest in dark, cool cellars and as with all wine, humidity is important. The winemaker may move the casks around to achieve the optimum humidity needed for the characteristics of the Cognac the Master Blender is trying to achieve.
So if your choice is Courvoisier, or Remy Martin or Martell (or any of the celebrated Cognacs), if humidity, wood and aging make all the difference, how can every bottle of the particular Courvoisier you choose taste like the Courvoisier you’ve been buying for years? Here’s how:
Cognac is never the product of a single vintage – the Master Blender holds the secrets:
Cognac does not simply consist of a single year’s distillation, but is instead a complex mix of many different Cognacs ranging in years, and sometimes even the crus. Each Cognac house has its own Master Blender, and his or her secrets are fiercely guarded because they control the ‘personality’ of a particular Cognac.
This from Remy Martin:
“The Cellar Master begins his art. He fills his glass one-third full, leaving room for the aromas to develop. Then he uses his nose to test its vintage and bouquet. He takes a little in his mouth to try its body and mellowness. His senses awaken one by one as he continues the ritual. Unconsciously, he closes his eyes as he sniffs. As his eyes open, he focuses on the color of the Cognac. This is the moment when the Cellar Master decides what will be used in the final blend.”
The longer the aging, the smoother the Brandy. That’s the idea. The year of the youngest Brandy in the bottle is always shown on a Cognac label.
In the U.S. V.S.’ and V.S.O.Ps are the No. 1 sellers, due mainly to cost. Hennessey’s V.S. is the brand’s top seller and the No. 1 selling Cognac in the U.S.
There are numerous boutique Cognacs – a story for another time.
Brandy: Brandies can be made from fruits other than wine grapes, and can be produced any place in the world. The quality and restrictions reside in the mind of the blender. Calvados is an example of an apple-based brandy, Slivovitz is a plum brandy and Clear Creek (Oregon) has a much talked about Pear Brandy.
The photo below is of a simply exquisite Cognac glass designed by Rikki Hagen, the owner of Copen Hagen Design Studio. The photo of the glass as an appetizer vessel is courtesy of “Alex” on flickr. I hope she won’t mind my borrowing it. Use your imagination with the gorgeous glassware stored away somewhere in your home.
An opinion from BlueKitchen, rating Brandies: (the following are all made from grapes, but not all are made with white wine grapes), as are Cognacs.