We generally think France when it comes to brandy wine because the classics from the Cognac and Armagnac regions are so pervasive and well thought of. But taking your palate on an excursion one country to the South—Spain—can greatly expand your brandy horizons, especially if you enjoy pairings with cigars.
Brandy de Jerez, the product of the same region that gives us Sherry wine, has enjoyed immense popularity in Spain for a half a millennium and now has found a major booster in the United States in the personage of Lou Manso, the importer of Manso & Contreras Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva.
Like French brandies, Manso's pour reflects the charms of distilled wine that has benefited from long-cask aging. Unlike the Gallic interpretation, it plays not so much in the flowery end of the flavor spectrum, but a deeper, fruitier section with its reflections of Sherry.
Manso's journey into Spanish brandy appreciation started when he was a young man in his early 20s whose business took him to Spain, where he was wined and dined by colleagues. "The guys in Madrid," he says, "were the best hosts. We'd go to lunch from 2:00 to 5:00 and drink wine and Spanish brandy. Then they'd pick me up at 10:00 that night, and we'd do the same at dinner." Not surprisingly, Manso "became very fond of Spanish brandy because of its delightful smoothness."
He brought his taste for Brandy de Jerez to San Diego, where now runs an advertising business, and found "no one had heard of Spanish brandy—the Anglo population anyway." So when Manso visited restaurants in the area he "begged them to bring Spanish brandy."
"I thought people should know about the great quality of these products," says Manso, who enjoys smoking cigars with them. It was this that drove him to create his own brand to import to this country. While a few Spanish brandies—Conde de Osborne, Solera Gran Reserva (with its Dali signature bottle) and Cardenal Mendoza, Solera Gran Reserva—Manso was in a sense making a market for the product here.
The number one customer he had to convince, however, was his wife. "I checked with my wife first and said, ‘I want to create a Spanish brandy.' She said, ‘Sure honey, just don't forget we have to eat.'"
The next step was to find a producer. Brandy de Jerez is a registered appellation controlled by the Consejo Regulador del Brandy de Jerez (the Brandy de Jerez Regulatory Council) and adheres to specific rules for production, much like Cognac, Armagnac, as well as many whiskies and wines. The Jerez brandy must be produced within the boundaries of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda and aged in American oak casks of 500-liter capacity that previously contained sherry.
Manso's brandy is made from a grape varietal called Airén, which is actually white grape. The color of the liquid derives from the aging system, called criaderas y soleras. This solera method utilizes several tiers of casks through which the brandy is moved over time, mixing newer spirits, called Holandas (a term originating from the Dutch market that was very important to the brandy in the earlier days) with older.
Manso's brandy is of the oldest of the denomination's types: Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva, which is aged for an average of 10 years.
The importer says he extensively researched the distillers of the area and decided on Sánchez Romate Hermanos, one of the few remaining wineries in the Jerez Designation of Origin that is still in the hands of local owners. Manso says his decision was based on two factors: the quality of brandy made there, plus the eagerness of the distiller to work within his demanding standards.
"I drove these guys absolutely insane because I obsessed about the quality," Manso says. His obsession extended not only to the liquid, but to the packaging. He insisted on special printing, quality bottling and that the stopper not be made of pulverized cork.
Before he settled on his final projects, he also employed focus groups to be sure there would be a market in America for his product. "I'm an advertising guy, that's what I do."
We're glad he did. The brandy is a captivating combination of the fruity wine from where it arises and the hearty wood character it picks up from the Sherry barrels. Paired with a cigar, it smooths rough edges and coaxes out savory flavors.
Manso & Contreras ($70, 750 ml, 40 percent alcohol) is currently available in specialty liquor stores in California. Visit www.MansoandContreras.com for stockists and further information.