What the hell is brandy anyway?
The most common kind of brandy, and what most people are talking about when they say brandy, is produced from grapes, and is often aged in barrels, though not always. The grapes are picked younger than is usual for table wine production, making a more acidic and less sugary white wine, which is then distilled into an eau de vie, or unaged brandy, before generally going into oak barrels.
France is home to perhaps the most famous and lauded varieties of grape brandy, Cognac and Armagnac. The production methods and long held traditions of these brandies are well preserved thanks to the country’s pioneering Appellation of Origin (AOC) laws, which govern not only production methods, but also geographic location. If a brandy is made outside of the Cognac region, for instance, even if it follows all other rules regarding production method, it cannot be called Cognac. This is based on the idea of terroir: that specific environments, particularly climate and soil, produce distinct crops, and therefore distinct spirits by extension.
French brandies (and even French rums produced in Martinique) also follow the same age designations, different categories covering ranges of age rather than just naming the age itself:
VS - “Very Special”, aged at least two years
VSOP - “Very Superior Old Pale”, aged at least four years for Cognac, three years for Armagnac
Napoleon - aged at least six years, potentially named for how old the famous emperor appeared to be from a distance (citation needed)
XO - formerly the same as Napoleon, as of 2018 blends marked XO must be at least ten years old
Hors D’Age - “Beyond Age”, the same minimum aging requirements as XO, this label often simply denotes that it is the producer’s most “luxury” blend
Cognac is named for the town in southwest France, around which the larger Cognac region was created. Though several types of grapes may be used, the majority of Cognac is produced primarily from Ugni Blanc grapes, an especially acidic variety also known as Trebbiano. The pressed grapes ferment for 2-3 weeks with wild, native yeasts and are then twice distilled in traditional copper pot (batch) stills to around 70% alcohol. The resulting eau-de-vie (unaged brandy) is aged in used French oak barrels for at least two years, although generally longer.
Within Cognac, smaller regions, or crus exist, each with their own distinct microclimates and differing soils:
Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne - along with Borderies these form the innermost crus, and are not to be confused with the sparkling wine, which is from a different part of the country altogether. The Grande and Petite Champagne are defined by their shallow clay-limestone soil, generally producing some of the most sought after cognacs.
Borderies - the smallest cru is known for its soil containing clay and flint stones.
Fins Bois - farther out from the three inner crus, Fins Bois is defined by its especially stony, red clay-limestone soil.
Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires - the outermost crus, they are generally considered to have poorer soils than the inner crus, though some take on intriguing and unique seaside characteristics due to their location on the coast.
Although single Cognacs from specific vintages are often highly prized, most are blends of different batches and ages, with the age of the youngest brandy in the blend given as the stated age. The master blender is responsible for creating a kind of “house style”, a position and practice that carries with it a fair amount of prestige. Although most small producers blend from their own stock produced and aged on the same property and in the same stills, the large commercial houses (Hennessy, Courvoisier, Remy Martin, etc.) buy up stock from many of these small producers, making blends of brandy from all over the region, tied together with added sugar and caramel coloring, arguably eliminating any sense of terroir the component brandies once had. C’est la vie.
Armagnac is produced in Gascony, in a region much smaller than that of Cognac, which, among other factors, has generally meant that it lacks the same popularity outside of France that it’s famous brother has always enjoyed. However, it has a longer history than Cognac, with some form of distilled brandy having been produced in the region as far back as the 14th century.
In some ways the more freewheeling and rugged of the French brandies, Armagnac is produced from a variety of grapes, the most common being Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, and Baco Blanc. Also unlike the twice pot-distilled Cognac, Armagnac is single distilled in column (continuous) stills to around 50-55%, a low enough proof that it is often not diluted at all, resulting in an arguably wilder, more full flavored brandy. The aging and blending process is largely the same as Cognac, although recently production of Blanche Armagnac - unaged brandy - has been allowed to carry the name Armagnac.
The crus, or appellations for Armagnac are as follows:
Bas-Armagnac - where the majority of Armagnac is produced, it is defined by its acidic grapes produced in stony soil
Armagnac-Ténarèze - the soil of limestone, sand, and clay here is generally thought to produce some of the fullest flavored brandies in the region
Haut-Armagnac - the largest by area but by far the smallest by number of vineyards, this cru’s soils are known for their abundance of limestone
Pisco is unaged grape brandy made in Peru or Chile, and the use of the term is hotly contested between the two countries. Peru claims that only brandy made in Peru can be called Pisco, while Chile regards the word as a generic term for the style of brandy. Generally the rest of the world considers brandy from either country to be Pisco.
Peruvian Pisco is distilled in pot stills and is never diluted, being bottled at still strength. It can be made from a variety of grapes, the variety used separating it into different categories:
Puro - made from a single variety of grape, generally Quebranta.
Aromáticas - made from muscat grape varieties, or from Albilla, Italia, or Torontel grapes. Can only contain one of these grape varieties.
Mosto Verde - made from partially fermented grape must, distilled before fermentation has converted all the sugars into alcohol.
Acholado - a blend of different grapes
Chilean Pisco is looser with their laws about production, although they only allow Pisco to be made in two regions, Atacama and Coquimbo. The muscat grape is the most widely used, with some Torontel and Pedro Jimenez being occasionally used as well. The categorization of Chilean Pisco is a strange phenomenon, all based on the dilution of the spirit.
Pisco Corriente o Tradicional - 30-35% abv
Pisco Especial - 35-40% abv
Pisco Reservado - 40% abv
Gran Pisco - 43% abv and up
Although our focus here is mostly on grape brandy, brandy can be made from any kind of fruit, most notably in unaged form as an eau de vie (also called schnaps in German speaking countries). Originally made as a way to preserve the flavor of excess fruit into the winter, the goal of an eau de vie is to distill the essence of a fruit’s flavor in its purest form, without the changes that come with Barrel aging or adding sugar. Any fruit can be used, but especially common varieties include pear, and cherry (Kirsch).
Another notable French contribution to the brandy world is Calvados: Apple or Apple and Pear brandy from Normandy. Fermented cider is distilled and aged in French Oak, taking on vanilla and wood notes in addition to the fresh fruit, often adopting a kind of baked fruit flavor over the years. Calvados is, like Cognac and Armagnac, a protected AOC denomination of origin, and and is separated into three appellations:
Pays D’Auge - Calvados from the Pays D’Auge is made from 100% apples and is twice pot distilled
Domfrontais - Calvados from this region is especially notable as it is required to contain at least 30% pear in addition to apple, and is distilled once in a column still
Calvados - the third and largest Appellation is generally made from apples alone and is either once column distilled, or twice pot distilled