As the door closes behind you, it takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the comparative darkness after the brilliant sunshine outside. Immediately, your nostrils prickle at the scent that hangs over the cavernous room, a blend of wood, earth and spice aromas imbued with pungent, palpable alcohol. Stretching off into the dusky distance are endless rows of oaken barrels, stacked three high. The haunting sounds of Gregorian chant resonate from speakers high above your head and waft off into space. Otherwise, the barrel room at Carneros Alambic Distillery in the southern Napa Valley is as still as a cathedral at dawn.
After the hubbub of winemaking and the hellfire of distillation, this is how first-rate Cognac-style brandy is produced: by waiting. For years.
It takes patience to produce good alambic brandy--"alambic" referring to the uniquely configured pot still used in the production of French Cognac. For the tiny handful of distilleries that is crafting this little-known style of brandy in the United States, the long wait is starting to pay off in complex, aromatic bottlings.
Carneros Alambic, owned by Rémy-Cointreau SA of France, is producing a line of well-made alambic brandies ranging from Special Reserve at $29 to a deluxe XO-level brandy called QE (for "Quality Extraordinaire"), which sells for $92. QE, a mellow, rich and nutty spirit, is blended from brandies from 1982 and 1983, the operation's first two years of distilling.
Another highly regarded producer of alambic brandies, Germain-Robin, Inc., of Ukiah, California, has also released a top-of-the-line brandy that edges over the $100-per-bottle mark. Germain-Robin's XO, made by distiller Hubert Germain-Robin, contains brandies averaging 10 to 12 years in age and retails for about $105. Hubert Germain-Robin's partner, Ansley Coale, says the XO is "what we set out to do" when they established their distilling operation on Coale's sheep ranch near Ukiah in 1982.
Jepson Vineyards in Mendocino County, which produces small amounts of alambic brandy from the grapes of 40-year-old French Colombard vines across Highway 101 from its winery, will release a reserve bottling within a couple of years, according to winemaker and distiller Kurt Lorenzi. The Jepson reserve will include its oldest brandies, dating back to 1982, when the winery was named Estate William Baccala and when Miles Karakasevic, who now has his own distillery called Domaine Charbay, was the distiller.
Hundred-dollar brandies may seem pretty ambitious for Germain-Robin and Carneros Alambic, two operations that didn't exist 15 years ago. After all, the most venerable of French Cognac firms have been around for almost three centuries, and Cognac itself, the model for American alambic brandy, is a creation of age. Cognac begins life as a thin, neutral white wine. After distillation, it is only prolonged aging in Limousin and Tronçais oak casks that gives the best Cognac its dazzling complexity.
But the California producers have impressive pedigrees. Carneros Alambic was founded as a joint venture between Rémy-Martin Cognac and Napa Valley sparkling wine producer Schramsberg Vineyards. (Schramsberg exited the partnership in 1986, and the French firm is now the sole owner.) And Rémy did not stint on the investment in its Carneros outpost, which operates eight 25-hectoliter alambic stills. In contrast, Germain-Robin and Jepson Vineyards have one 13-hectoliter still, and one 25-hectoliter still, respectively.
Germain-Robin is also a French-American partnership, albeit on a more modest scale. Frenchman Hubert Germain-Robin, who comes from the family that produced Jules Robin Cognac, met Ansley Coale, then a classics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981. Germain-Robin was hitchhiking in Weott in Northern California's Humboldt County; Coale says he picked him up because he knew the area was so remote that the poor guy never would have gotten a lift. The two began talking about making a Cognac-style brandy at Coale's ranch. Within a year, Hubert Germain-Robin had found an antique Cognac still in France and arranged to have it shipped to Ukiah, and in 1983 he made his first barrels of distillate.
That these California producers have no stocks of decades-old brandies, such as those in the chais (barrel warehouses) of venerable Cognac firms, doesn't worry them. "We're not trying to produce Cognac," contends Bernard La Borie, director of Carneros Alambic, who despite his French surname was born in New York City. "Cognac is Cognac, and California alambic brandy is California alambic brandy, and yes, there is some sort of relativity, but they are separate and very, very distinct."
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.
This year, Germain-Robin also collaborated with Robert Levin, owner of Ashton Distributors, which imports Ashton cigars, to produce a custom cigar-blend brandy called Ashton Crown. An XO level brandy, Ashton Crown is available at select wine and spirits merchants and at some tobacconists, priced at around $100.
While American alambic bottlings have proliferated over the past few years, brandy lovers should not expect to find new, high-end domestic blends above XO in quality anytime soon. Antique brandies cannot be produced on demand; the stocks of Germain-Robin, Jepson and Carneros Alambic will have to age considerably longer before another leap in quality can be offered.
"People ask, what's next after QE?" says Bernard La Borie. "I have no idea, because it's going to be many years before we put out a product after QE. Now, our brandies are continuing to get better and better every year, but our oldest stocks are from 1982. You have to consider that products like Louis XIII Cognac have components of brandies that are over a hundred years old. We're not there yet."
Miles Karakasevic of Domaine Charbay holds another viewpoint. Karakasevic, who has been distilling since his boyhood in Yugoslavia when he worked in his family's distillery, produces a range of small-batch distillates in alambic stills in Ukiah and Napa Valley. Whereas he and his wife, Susan, market grappas, eaux-de-vie and other exotic spirits, his California alambic brandies, dating back to 1982, are still resting in barrel and won't be released anytime soon.
Karakasevic explains that while he likes the alambic brandies produced by other American distillers, he prefers a different style, one that requires prolonged aging. "Mine you have to eat with a spoon; you have to chew on it," he asserts. "It's like chewing tobacco or molasses. Dark, rich! And that's what I call brandy."
When will this nectar be available?
"Turn of the century, I guess," replies Karakasevic. He sounds reluctant.
For information on the availability of American alambic brandies, contact the distillers at: Carneros Alambic, 707/253-9055; Domaine Charbay 707/963-9327; Germain-Robin, 707/462-3221; Jepson Vineyards, 707/468-8936.
Jean T. Barrett is a Los Angeles-based writer on wine, spirits, food and travel and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator. GLASS ACT
Those balloon brandy snifters from Tiffany's that were given to you as a wedding present? Lose 'em. If you're serious about your brandy, you should know that the classic globe-shaped snifter is not the best glass for tasting. It tends to deliver too much alcohol to the nose, which hampers appreciation of brandy's complex aroma nuances.
Professional Cognac tasters have long used a much smaller glass, shaped like a tulip with a narrow, chimney-style aperture. Carneros Alambic's hospitality center sells three variations on this "cellar master" glass, priced at $5.50 (with Carneros Alambic logo), $10 and $36 per stem. Austria's Riedel glass company has two glasses for Cognac, a "Cognac XO" and a "Cognac VSOP," that fit the bill as well and are priced at $49.50 per stem.
Bernard La Borie of Carneros Alambic believes that the classic balloon-shaped snifter will soon go the way of the Champagne saucer, which was the glass of choice for bubbly until the flute became popular in the 1970s. "The next generation of brandy drinkers will be drinking out of the cellar master glass," he predicts.
UNDERSTANDING BRANDY DISTILLING
Mention American brandy and the big brands come to mind: E.&J. Gallo, Christian Brothers, Paul Masson and Korbel. These large-volume, well-established brandies are produced using the continuous still--also known as the Coffey, patent or column still. This type of still permits a continuous inflow of distilling material, greatly boosting volume. The continuous still is used to make most high-volume distilled products, such as gin, vodka, much blended whiskey and American brandy.
Alambic brandy is produced in a uniquely configured pot still that is used to produce French Cognac. Alambic and other pot stills produce brandy in batches and require that the still be emptied and cleaned after each distillation. The alambic pot still, also known as the alambic charentais, features a bricked-in heating chamber over a source of direct fire, an onion-shaped still head to collect alcohol vapors, and a "swan's neck" curved pipe to carry the vapors to the cylindrical condensing chamber, where the vapors are cooled by circulating water and condensed into liquid. Most alambic stills also have a preheating chamber for heating wine to be distilled. Both alambic brandy and Cognac are produced using two distillations. Pot stills are made in a variety of configurations and sizes, but only a still that meets the above specifications is an alambic still.
One wall of the Germain-Robin barrel room is lined with small 50-liter barrels, each bearing a brass plaque. "The White House," reads one. Kuleto's, Mustards Grill & Bistro Rôti, Corti Bros., Lark Creek Inn, Wally's, Beltramo's, BIX--these plaques could be a Who's Who of fine spirits purveyors. The barrels contain private blends of brandy that Hubert Germain-Robin prepares to customer specifications, lets age in the small cooperage, then bottles and custom labels. Doug "Bix" Biederbeck, owner of BIX restaurant in San Francisco's Jackson Square district, was the first restaurateur in the United States to select a Germain-Robin private blend; he has had his barrel refilled year after year. Biederbeck is such a fan of Germain-Robin's brandies that he features a classic Sidecar made with Germain-Robin Fine Lot 11 on his bar list, although, as Biederbeck admits, "It's sort of a waste of good brandy."
Biederbeck says he seeks a floral, delicate quality in his custom blend. "My model for fine brandy is Hine, particularly the early landed Cognacs," he says. (Early landed Cognacs were shipped to Britain in casks and aged in bonded warehouses, then bottled. Unlike French-bottled Cognac, early landed Cognac may carry an age designation.)
Because the 50-liter casks are sized for commercial use, Coale is now offering individuals the opportunity to age bottled Germain-Robin brandy in handmade 10-liter casks produced by Tonnellerie Vernou from 50-year-old grande Champagne Cognac barrels. The miniature barrels hold about a case of brandy, so the prospective customer buys the brandy and the $200 cask, then fills the cask with the brandy for aging. Due to the higher ratio of brandy to oak surface (more brandy, per volume, touching the sides of the barrel), Coale says that the brandy ages about three times faster in the small cask than in the standard 350-liter Cognac barrel.
Coale has limited the offering to 100 casks and says he has sold 43 so far. "We have one guy who bought his cask in August of '94 and he just ordered his fourth case of brandy," Coale says with some incredulity in his voice. "I think he has a lot of business clients."
Carneros Alambic's private barrel offering includes a blending session with the cellar master and access to the distillery's oldest stocks to fill a 63-liter (15 gallon) barrel, plus the added inducement of overnight accommodations for two at a nearby inn for both the blending session and the bottling session, for a price of $6,000.
With the barrel yielding about six cases of brandy, this offering is not for the fainthearted, but a number of individuals have figured out creative ways to make it work. Jim Myerson, president of Wine Warehouse, which distributes Carneros Alambic brandies in California, brought the Gamma Forum of the Los Angeles chapter of the Young Presidents Organization to the distillery for a visit, and the members "snapped it up," according to Myerson. The only problem was that during the subsequent blending session, the two CEOs entrusted with the task couldn't come to terms on the blend. Bernard La Borie settled the tiff by offering to custom-blend a barrel of each of the two blends; the YPOers can choose between them at the time of bottling or take half of each blend. (Myerson says he suspects La Borie is hoping they'll pop for the two entire barrels.)
Paul Nerger, a computer executive based in Beaverton, Oregon, put together a small partnership and sold subscriptions to a Carneros Alambic private barrel to five friends, who each will end up with a case of custom brandy. When Nerger initially broached the idea to a friend with whom he was visiting Carneros Alambic, the man blanched. "That's a lot of money," he said. "You don't understand," countered Nerger. "When else will you get an opportunity to blend your own brandy? We'll just bring in other people."
Nerger scheduled the bottling session to coincide with the 1995 Napa Valley Wine Auction, turning the event into a weekend of festivity. And since the first partnership worked so well--it ended up being oversubscribed and a couple of partners are splitting their case--he might do it again. "You can have the barrel after bottling," he muses, "but it seems a shame to take this old Cognac barrel and let it go to waste."