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Brandy's Best

American Brandy Distilled in the Traditional Methods of Cognac Is Starting To Come of Age
Jean T. Barrett
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

(continued from page 1)

Coale and Germain-Robin, though, have the temerity, even gall (pun intended), to present their brandies in tastings alongside fine French Cognacs, and the upstart Mendocino County bottlings show very well indeed. Coale asserts that the quality of California grapes makes the brandies supple and mellow. Plus, Hubert Germain-Robin blends brandies made from a range of varietals--Pinot Noir, Gamay Beaujolais, French Colombard, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Palomino and Sauvignon Blanc--which adds complexity, whereas in Cognac, the Ugni Blanc grape predominates. "We are very lucky here to have access to all types of grapes, compared to the Cognac region, where they mainly use one grape," notes Germain-Robin.

The California brandies also benefit from the West's balmy climate, according to Robert Léauté, maître de chais expert (master Cognac maker) for Rémy-Martin, who serves as a technical advisor to Carneros Alambic and was part of the original team that came over from France to launch the joint venture. Léauté asserts that brandy ages faster on the West Coast because it is so much warmer there, particularly during the winter months. California's relatively mild winters allow the brandy to continue to age, whereas in Cognac the chais are so cool over the winter that the aging process is retarded.

Léauté adds that the more assertive varietal characters of California grapes add complex flavor notes to the brandy, whereas the wine that goes into Cognac is selected for its neutrality. "What is amazing is that we can get certain varietal characters, such as tobacco and cigar box, earlier in our [California] brandy because they exist as varietal characters in the grape," Léauté says. "For Cognac you have to wait 25 or 30 years to get some tobacco or cigar box smell; it comes from the aging process."

A tasting of Carneros Alambic's component brandies bears out the importance of grape character. Each of the six varietal brandies that the distillery makes is distinctive-- for example, the Pinot Noir is vanilla-scented and rich; the Palomino is butterscotchy and spicy; the Muscat offers the aromatic floral quality of wine made from that grape. There are also a French Colombard, Chenin Blanc and Folle Blanche.

A good introduction to California alambic brandy is to sample the basic brandy each producer offers. Jepson Rare ($28), the only brandy Jepson currently produces, is made from estate-grown French Colombard, a grape type that once was widely planted in the Cognac region. The Jepson brandy is suave and subtle, with attractive dried-fruit and dead-leaf aromas and spicy, earthy flavors. Germain-Robin's Fine Lot 11 ($35), which Coale characterizes as VSOP-level, is composed of brandies with an average age of five to six years, made largely from Colombard and Chenin Blanc grapes and small amounts of other varietals. It is pale gold, with a delicate, citrusy-woody aroma and a delicious softness on the palate. Carneros Alambic's Special Reserve ($29), also based primarily on Colombard, is made in a sweeter, richer style, with a woody-floral bouquet and caramel-like flavors on the palate.

From there, the possibilities abound, depending on your taste and budget. For those who favor a full-bodied, fruity style, Carneros Alambic makes a varietal brandy from Folle Blanche ($61) that bears an elegantly understated, old-fashioned label. Folle Blanche was once the major grape used in the production of Cognac and Armagnac, but after phylloxera ravaged the French vineyards, Folle Blanche did not take well to being grafted and was gradually replaced with the more neutral Ugni Blanc. These California plantings of Folle Blanche are from Louis Martini Winery's famed Monte Rosso Vineyard, which Carneros Alambic distiller Brad Skibbins believes to be the only plantings of the varietal in the North Coast. The Folle Blanche brandy is very fruity, with orange peel notes in the aroma, and is full-bodied and round on the palate.

Carneros Alambic also produces two older brandies, XR ($52) and QE ($92). XR was one of my favorites, particularly given its price; it is made in a drier, more delicate style than the Special Reserve and offers intriguing toasty aromas with a long, toffeelike finish. Carneros Alambic QE is rich, smooth and complex, with toffee and dried-fruit aromas; the nutty, suave flavors unfold seductively on the palate.

Germain-Robin has long produced a Shareholders' Blend ($50), which is given as a Christmas gift to the firm's 14 outside shareholders. This is a delicate, fruity, lightly oaked brandy with attractive spicy flavors. Germain-Robin's XO ($105) is composed of 75 percent Pinot Noir brandy with a bit of Colombard, Chenin Blanc and Palomino, the grape used in Spanish sherry. The XO is extremely fine, offering a cornucopia of woodsy scents mingled with sherry and toffee aromas and smooth and spicy flavors; it has a long finish.

Hubert Germain-Robin also releases a single-barrel, single-varietal brandy every year, made without the flavorings commonly used in brandy production such as caramel and syrup sweetener. The Single Barrel V17, now sold out, was a 1984 brandy distilled from French Colombard that offered clean citrus-floral aromas and Colombard's characteristic spicy earthiness on the palate. A single-barrel Pinot Noir brandy, V43 and V177 ($125), is currently available. "What I like in the single-barrel brandies is that they are very pure," comments Germain-Robin. "You get the essence of the grape."

There's even a brandy "for the lover of fine cigars." A year and a half ago, Germain-Robin, who enjoys an occasional cigar, released a single barrel--about 38 cases--of Germain-Robin's Special Blend for the Lover of Fine Cigars ($95). He structured the blend to provide a generous dose of fruit from Sauvignon Blanc brandies in order to balance the dry-mouth effect that smokers can experience, and he used oakier brandies for more power to stand up to cigar flavors. The result is an assertive, rich brandy with attractive tobacco and butterscotch aromas and a lingering finish. The initial release sold out immediately, but a second release is now available at $95.


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