The word Brandy comes from the Dutch word brandewijn (“burnt wine”).This is how Dutch traders, who introduced it to Northern Europe from Southern France and Spain in the 16th century, described wine that had been “burnt,” or boiled, in order to distill it.
Brandy, in its broadest definition, is a spirit distilled from wine or fermented grape juice and aged for at least six months. Brandy is made widely around the world. All brandies are distilled from fruit wines, most commonly grapes. Most brandies are aged in wood, much like whiskeys.
Brandies may go by a number of different names, such as slivovitz in Poland, metaza in Greece, grappa in Italy and pisco in Peru.
Cognac is the most famous type of Brandy in the world, a benchmark by which most other Brandies are judged. The Cognac region is located on the west-central Atlantic coast of France, just north of Bordeaux. The primary grapes used in making Cognac are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. The wines made from these grapes are thin, tart and low in alcohol—poor characteristics for table wines, but oddly enough, perfect for making Cognac.
Produced only in the Cognac region of France, the wine is distilled twice in traditional Charentais copper pot stills. The finished product is clear and adopts its beautiful amber color after many years in French oak barrels. Under strict French law, cognac production methods and growing areas are clearly defined.
The districts in order of quality are:
- Grand Champagne
- Petite Champagne
- Fins Bois
- Bons Bois
- Bois Ordinaires.
Within the Cognac industry, there is a system of certification of age. The certificates are based on the length of time that the cognac has spent in oak:
- VS (Very Special)- is at least two years old.
- VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale)- also called a reserve and at least four years old.
- XO (Extra Old)- also called a Napoleon is at least six years old. Most cognac houses will use older than those required by law. Many allow their XO’s to reach a minimum of 20 years in order to reveal their best.
Armagnac claims a longer history than Cognac, probably having been first produced in the twelfth century. The Armagnac region is located in the southwest corner of France. Distillation still takes place in the unique type of column that’s even more “inefficient” than a typical Cognac pot. The resulting brandy has a rustic, assertive character and aroma that requires additional cask aging to mellow it.
Most Armagnacs are blends, but unlike Cognac where single vintages are produced by few houses, Armagnac single vintages and single vineyard bottlings can be readily found.