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by Chris Rubin

Marcel Proust must have been a brandy drinker -- the amber-colored beverage is truly a window on time and time recaptured. These luscious liquors have spent anywhere from a couple of years to decades slumbering in oak casks, slowly developing their rich color and flavor. But it’s not time wasted, as one sip will tell: the splash of good brandy on the tongue recaptures all the years in a moment. Sure, there are shortcuts: some companies add caramel and wood chips in a vain attempt to quickly achieve what is otherwise created through years of patience—but you can taste the difference.

Brandy is what results from distilling a wine made from grapes, and then aging it in oak casks. Cognac isn't the world's only brandy -- just the best known. There's also Armagnac, from an area about 100 miles south of Cognac, as well as California brandies and competing products from Spain (where the distillation process originated), Greece, Mexico, and other countries around the world.

Cognac is made in the region of France that bears its name from grapes, primarily Ugni Blanc, grown on more than 20,000 small farms. Cognac dates back a little less than four hundred years, when the local merchants first distilled their wine to concentrate it for easier and cheaper shipping. The idea was to add water to the eau-de-vie at the receiving ports, but the customers in Holland decided they preferred the product they called "brandewijn," or "burnt wine," to the normal wine.

But what's so exciting about expensive burnt wine? Cognac and other brandies, at least the good ones, provide some of the most sublime sensory experiences available, short of Class I drugs. And apart from the taste and bouquet, nothing else warms the body from the inside out quite like brandy.

The alambic still, one of the lasting legacies of the medieval wizards known as alchemists, transforms wine into brandy (if not, as the alchemists hoped, lead into gold). Of course, it’s not quite that simple. What comes out of the still is eau-de-vie, a clear, high alcohol distillate, and, in the middle ages, this “water of life” was thought to be a panacea. (I’ll drink to that!)

But more than soil or weather, it's time that makes a great brandy. Age is of paramount importance, because it is the years that transmute and tame the fire of eau-de-vie into the subtle magic of the best brandies. Charred oak casks, in which the liquor ages after processing, impart much of the characteristic golden color.

Cognacs and Armagnacs (known as France’s "other great brandy") come in several government-regulated designations indicating the minimum number of years of cask aging. Don’t bother with VS or three star, which means at least two and a half years old; VSOP denotes a minimum of four years, and some can be quite good; but it’s at the XO level, which means six or more years, that you find the good stuff. Sure, they’re expensive, but unlike wines which you finish in one evening, these liquors can be savored over several months.

Very few things in life offer the luxury of a great Cognac, whether a snifter of high-end products from Hennessy, Delamain, Frapin or others. And it isn’t necessary to spend $100 or more to find a great Cognac. For about $30 a bottle, A de Fussigny’s Selection shows what fine Cognac is all about.

Cognac and Armagnac are perhaps the world’s best known brandies, and Spain was the first to produce it. But recently, a small, select group of California distillers has taken it upon themselves to go head to head with them — much as the winemakers of the Napa Valley took on Bordeaux and the other giants of wine a few decades back. California wines have unique qualities due to their geography, and it took more than a few years for the world to embrace those wines and realize they often rivaled the finest from France and elsewhere; California’s brandies are in the position now that its wines occupied a quarter century ago: poised for world-wide acceptance and recognition.

While brandy has been made in California for over 200 years (dating back to the Franciscan monks), it’s only in the last dozen or so years that people have adopted the time-honored (and time-consuming and expensive) traditions of Cognac that have enabled them to challenge the world’s leading brandy producers. Korbel, Gallo and Christian Brothers have made brandy in the Golden state for decades, but they use inferior Thompson Seedless grapes and a column still for mass-production. It is through the use of fine grapes, superior oak casks and the traditional alambic still—and the patience and commitment to wait years for them to mature—that these new distillers have made such enormous leaps in quality, so much so that more than a few connoisseurs would now claim this brandy is on an equal footing with its famous French ancestors.

Various wineries in California’s wine country, including Domaine Chandon, Clos du Val and Ironstone, have been taking their grapes and having brandies made from them by established distillers, while others have set up shop exclusively to produce brandies. Among the best of the lot are Carneros Alambic, which recently released QE (Quality Extraordinaire), a twelve year old brandy, and Germain-Robin, whose top bottles are superb.

While honoring and observing tradition, Carneros Alambic breaks the rules in an attempt to create a California brandy worthy of the Cognac heritage: Cognac and Armagnac use only white grapes, but Carneros Alambic also uses Pinot Noir, a red, in addition to the traditional grapes for the extra fruit flavors it imparts.

Germain-Robin Alambic Brandy is made in California, but almost everything is done the way it is in France. The Limousin oak casks and antique Alambic still were imported from France, and founder Hubert Germain-Robin comes from a family that began making Cognac in 1783. Ansley Coale, President of Germain-Robin, says they discovered that the Pinot Noir grape makes exceptional brandy. “The French laughed at us at first, told us these grapes were too expensive,” Coale says. “But to have flawless spirits, you must have flawless wines.”

Jepson takes its own approach. Instead of blending several different grapes, they use only French Colombard (one of the traditional Cognac and Armagnac varietals) grown on one vineyard for their product, making their twelve year old Jepson Rare Brandy one of the very few single vineyard, single varietal brandies in the world. Jepson may be the most traditional brandy maker in California, closely following the methods of Cognac, but with the aim of producing a distinctly California brandy that will reflect its fruit and soil.

It will be many years—decades, even—before any of California’s finest brandy makers will have the ability to blend 30, 40 and 50 year old brandies into their finest bottles, as do Delamain, Hine, Sempe and others in Cognac and Armagnac. But California has boldly announced its intentions to make brandies that rank among the world’s finest, and no one should doubt that they will succeed.

And the competition should mean more great brandy for all of us to enjoy.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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