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Andalusian Ambrosia

As Brandy Consumption Declines at Home, Spanish Producers Look for New Connoisseurs
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

Ignacio Osborne eats his breakfast as light jazz wafts through the Icon restaurant at The Court, one of New York's new hip W Hotels. It's an unlikely place to encounter the 46-year-old chief executive officer of Osborne y Cia S.A., which produces--among many other products--four types of Spanish brandy. It would be improbable to come across any Spanish brandy producer in such a postmodern setting. Brandy is about as old-world and traditional as Spain gets, and parts of Spain still look much as they did in 711, the year the Moors invaded. Osborne isn't slugging back a brandy and coffee for his breakfast, as is the old Spanish custom; he's nibbling on fresh fruit. Clearly, something is amiss.

Despite his fashionable suit and impeccable English, Osborne is, figuratively speaking, a long way from home. The vast majority of Spanish brandy (as well as all of the world's authentic sherry) comes from a triangle of Andalusian towns in the southwest corner of Spain: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. This Spain isn't the funky Madrid of the Almodovar movies or the futuristic Barcelona of the 1992 Olympics; these old towns look like a Hollywood stage set of Spain. Jerez is known for Spanish horses and flamenco, Sanlucar is a fishing village with cobbled streets, and the bullring in El Puerto de Santa Maria, where Osborne lives, is Spain's largest.

Amid tiled patios shaded from the relentless sun, in vast warehouses filled with ceiling-high stacks of barrels made from white American oak, the juice of the airén grape makes its way through an aging process known as the solera system. This is an expensive and time-consuming operation, which helps explain why little has changed in an industry that began about 130 years ago.

Each of those hundreds upon hundreds of old barrels contains a blend of juice from grapes of different vintages that has been fortified by additional alcohol. The youngest blends are at the top of the solera; the oldest, closest to the floor. Each year, a certain percentage of those oldest blends--about a fifth of what's in each of those bottom barrels--is removed from the system, put into bottles, and sent to market as Brandy de Jerez. Those partially empty barrels are then replenished from the next oldest blend, which is aging directly above them. That blend is then topped up from the barrels above it, and so on. At the top, fortified grape juice from a recent harvest is poured into the barrels.

Why bother with such complicated maneuverings? Because the solera system is the essence of Brandy de Jerez. It imparts to young brandy the qualities of the oldest brandy in each barrel, which in the case of Gran Reserva brandies can date back a hundred years or more. It helps create the integrated smoothness that is a hallmark of the Spanish product, a smoothness that makes the brandy an ideal complement to a cigar's nuanced flavors. French Cognac, to which Brandy de Jerez is compared, is made in a different manner: double-distilled and aged in French barrels. Some connoisseurs prefer one and some the other, but only a fool or a Frenchman would deny that the finest Spanish brandy is the equal of any distilled spirit in the world.

For decades, brandies ranging from the young, robust Fundador and Veterano to the majestic, decades-old Gran Reservas that look like burnished wood, have had their place in the strict hierarchical order of Spanish life. Unlike sherry, which was originally made for the English marketplace, Spanish brandy was rarely exported. It has survived through the years almost wholly on domestic consumption.

"The tradition for the Spanish laborer is to have a shot of brandy before going to work in the morning," Osborne says. "And then, after the big meal in the afternoon, glasses of brandy are traditionally drunk." But these traditions are dying in Spain, where, like almost everywhere else, the vast majority of alcohol is now drunk in the evenings. "Our studies show 75 percent of fortified spirits is consumed between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. in Spain today," Osborne says. "Unfortunately, that is not traditionally the time for brandy."

I first encountered Spanish brandy in 1987 in Seville on a sweltering afternoon at one of the storefront bars invariably positioned near Spanish bullrings. The Spanish say that heat inside relieves the heat outside, so I try to drink a Magno or a Fundador on hot afternoons whenever I'm in Spain. The few men drinking brandy around me always look to be about 80 years old. Everyone younger is drinking beer.

The consumption of Spanish brandy has been falling for years. It is the result of increased communication and transportation; of the old, closed world of Spain under Franco getting thrown open to the light. It is a by-product, fortunate or unfortunate, of a united Europe. Increasingly, the continent is keeping the same hours and eating the same food, which will soon be purchased with the same money. Spain is unquestionably a more affluent country now, but a less Spanish one.

No longer does all of Spain shut its doors for the three-hour lunch and siesta at two in the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, then open again at five when the heat has slackened. Such a schedule made sense before air conditioning, but offices are cool and comfortable now. And an important fax or e-mail is more likely to arrive from elsewhere in Europe in mid-afternoon than at seven in the evening, when everyone else has headed home.

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