Sunday, January 12, 2014

Brandy Kings: Cognac vs. Armagnac

While Armagnac was produced prior to its rival Cognac, the latter took the fame cake as it was more accessible to trade ports. Cognac is located closer to the Atlantic Ocean, and just north of the major trade center, Bordeaux. Located further inland, Armagnac struggled to compete with Cognac's accessibility.

Today both produce brandy of outstanding quality, and while many toss them into the same Brandy category, there's a wide range of differences between the two spirits produced from the distillation of wine.

Generally, it can be said that:

Armagnac: can be more intensely aromatic, fuller bodied, and have a larger diversity of styles.

Below is a detailed look at the intricate differences between the two, from grape varieties allowed, distillation, labeling to flavor profiles.


Cognac: 6 varieties permitted, of which
Ugni Blanc is approximately 98% of total plantings. Ugni Blanc is also known as "Saint Emilion," and the white"Trebbiano"grape of Italy. Good rot resistance, and low in sugar, high in acid. This is important because when wine that is low in alcohol and high in acid is distilled, flavors must be more concentrated. Wines from Ugni Blanc are generally not very flavorful, but upon distillation are usually grapey and floral in character.

Armagnac: 10 varieties are permitted
 Ugni Blanc: is still the most planted, but makes up 55% of total plantings, giving producers of this Brandy a wider range of flavor profiles to work with. The three other most important varietals for Armagnac are as follows:
Baco: The second most planted grape in Armagnac (32% of plantings) is unique to this region, as it is not permitted for Cognac production. Yielding earth, full bodied spirits reminiscent of prunes and raisins.
Folle Blanche: creates wines of floral character. The Armagnac producer, Tariquet creates a 100% Folle Blanche Armagnac, in the most planted cru: Bas Armagnac.
Colombard: contributes a spicy, peppery element to Armagnac blends.

THE CRUS: The wine growing areas in each region
Cognac: 6 crus

  • Grande Champagne
  • Petite Champagne
  • Borderies
  • Fins Bois
  • Bons Bois
  • Bois Ordinaires
Armagnac: 3 crus

  • Bas Armagnac
  • Ténerèze
  • Haut Armagnac

DISTILLATION: While all Cognac is legally required to use pot stills, most Armagnac is produced in column still, though pot still is legally allowed, and usually the highest quality Armagnac's are produced using them. 
Cognac: "Charentais Stills" is the term most widely used to describe these copper pot stills legally required to use direct heating and worm tube condensers.
Armagnac: "Alambic Armagnacais" unique column stills which are perfect for making a low strength spirit. This single column still is able to be run continuously, unlike the still used for Cognac. Usually grape varieties are fermented, then distilled separately, allowing a wider variety of options for the final blend.
Above is a sketch of an Armagnac Still I did studying for the
 WSET Intermediate Spirits Certification

AGING: Except Blanche Armagnac, which is unaged, Armagnac is legally required to spend one year in oak. Cognac, on the other hand, doesn't have an un-aged category, and is legally required to spend two years in oak. 
Cognac: Usually aged in 350 L barrels from two types of oak.

  • Limousin (Q. robur) this forrest is located the closest to Armagnac, and usually is the dominant oak used for aging here. This type of french oak is more open grained, thus adding more tannin when used for aging. 
  • Tronçais forrest: (Q. sessiliflora) this type of french oak is more tightly grained and contributes less tannin, and more aromatics when used for aging. 
Armagnac: Generally this brandy spends a brief period of time in new oak, before being transferred to older oak where it completes the aging process. Usually European oak is used, as well as a local oak.

  • Monlezun - the local forrest where this oak is called 'black oak,' provides unique aromatic characteristics. 
  • Tronçais & Limousin- These forests are larger then the above local oak forrest, and are more commercially available, so are also used. 
  • Demijohns - glass containers used to hold very old Armagnacs. As these are inert and prevent evaporation, unlike wood aging vessels, they are generally used to hold spirits closer to 40% abv,  the legal minimum alcohol content required for Armagnac, which after years in oak barrels lose approximately 2% abv/year. 

Both Cognac and Armagnac legally do not allow sulfur additions to the wine prior to distillation. While sulfur is commonly added to wine for a variety of antioxidant and antimicrobial reasons, if it was added to a wine destined for distillation would create a spirit with unacceptable sulfur levels post concentrating. Both also prohibit must enrichment prior to fermentation, which would create a wine out of sync with the desire for a brandy base wine to is low in alcohol and high in acid, as must enrichment enables a higher abv% after fermentation.

Terms: * Ages are based on the youngest component of the blend.

  • Blanche - un-aged brandy found only in Armagnac. Labeling term introduced in 2005, with a minimum three months in inert stainless steel vessels, so it can be reduced to bottling strength.
  • *** or VS (Very Special): This term has a different meaning in Cognac, than in Armagnac. In Cognac minimum is 2 years while in Armagnac, only 1 year minimum aging. (Cognac producers of VS are permitted to use oak chips, which generally are unacceptable for premium products.)
  • VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale): 4 year minimum in both Cognac and Armagnac. In Cognac, this term is interchangeable with "Réserve,"a term not used in Armagnac. 
  • Réserve: Term unique to Cognac, interchangeable with "VSOP," indicating minimum 4 years. 
  • Napoléon:In both regions this indicates a minimum of 6 years.  Note: In Cognac this term is set to rise to a minimum 10 year, and will be legally defined after April 1st, 2018) 
  • XO (Extra Old): Used in both regions with different meanings. Cognac is 6 year minimum, Armagnac 10 year minimum.  Note: In Cognac this term is set to rise to a minimum 10 year, and will be legally defined after April 1st, 2018) 
  • Hors d'âge: Both regions, different meanings (currently) Cognac - 6 year minimum, Armagnac - 10 year minimum. This term means 'beyond age,' and usually is at the top range of a producers brandies. 
PRODUCERS: Cognac is dominated by four large production houses, while Armagnac isn't dominated by large producers, and has a wide range of smaller merchant houses. 
Cognac: The following four Cognac houses dominate trade: Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier.
  • Courvoisier: established in 1809, this production house only uses grapes from Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, and Fins Bois. They have two distilleries of their own, and contract with more than 1,000 winemakers and distillers who sell their eau-de-vie to Courvoisier, who creates blends. After harvest grapes are fermented in small batches for seven days. To distill, Courvoisier uses small 25 hL Charentais pot stills for the first distillation, and extremely small 6hL stills for the second distillation. Courvoisier's belief is that smaller stills give better aromas and better contact with copper. The second distillation occurs on the lees, adding depth and complexity. 60% approximately of barrels used are from Tronçais and Jupilles wood, while Limousin makes up the remaining 40%. New barrels are used for only 6 months of the aging process to reduce oak influence.
  • Rémy Martin: established in 1724, this producer only uses Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche, from only two crus: Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. Fermentation lasts generally between 5-7 days, and the resulting base wine is around 7-9% abc. Distillation occurs on the lees, and aging occurs in open grained Limousine oak. 
  • Martell: est. in 1715, Martell has plantings in Borderies, Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne, and the wine they create themselves accounts for about 70% of that which they distill, the rest supplied by third party sources. Fermentation lasts around a week, and racking lasts three weeks post fermentation, so distillation may occur without any lees. Unique to Martell, no chauffe-vin is used to preheat wine before fermentation. Martell believes much of the character of their Cognac is from lightly toasted Tronçais oak barrels which are used for aging, before being moved to demijohns for the remainder of the aging period. 
  • Hennessy: est. in 1765 by irishman Richard Hennessy. It is believed that VSOP was created when King George IV himself asked Hennessy to create a "very superior old pale Cognac." Using grapes from four crus; both Champagnes, Fins Bois and Borderies. Hennessy's style revolves around the division of head and tails between both brouillis and wine before they are distilled again. Their very best Cognacs are aged more than 100 years. Hennessy is said to have one of the largest reserves of aged Cognac in the world. In 2011, Hennessy produced over a million cases, or more than 12 million bottles of Cognac. 
  • Delord: est. in 1893 by a travelling distiller whose grandsons stil run the company today. They only use Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc and Colombard. They are centered in the Tenarèze cru. 
  • Castarède: This family owned Armagnac is able to boast being the oldest business in Armagnac, est. in 1832. They don't distill themselves, buying their brandy exclusively from the Bas Armagnac cru. Most of their Armagnac was distilled between 1900 and 2000, and is kept until wood until it reaches about the legal minimum for Armagnac - 40% abv, where upon it is transferred to glass. 
Brandy Cocktails: 
Sidecar: This recipe is similar to one found in Jerry Thomas's 1862 book, How to mix drinks, and is also said to have originated at the famed Harry's New York Bar of Paris, after a US. Miliatary Captain arrived at the bar in a sidecar of a motorcycle. Serve in an old fashioned glass. 
     1 oz Brandy
     1 oz Cointreau
     3/4 oz lemon juice
     flamed orange peel garnish

Brandy Alexander: Supposedly John Lennon's favorite drink, give this cocktail a whirl at your next booze get together! Shake brandy, créme de cacao, and heavy cream with ice, and strain into a small cocktail glass, before garnishing with a pinch of nutmeg. 

    1oz Brandy
    1 oz creme de cacao - (dark)
    2 oz heavy cream
    pinch of nutmeg to garnish. 

Champagne Cocktail: Similar to a drink that evolved in the 1700's, this is a Cognac cockgtail is a refreshing alternative to your next glass of bubbly. Pour bitters over a sugar cube placed in the bottom of a Champagne flute, then cover with Cognac. Pour Champagne over the mix, and if you really want to get sassy - try rubbing the sugar cube on the skin of an orange for an added kick 
     Angosutra bitters
     sugar cube
     1 oz Cognac

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Visit with Stephen Barnard, Winemaker at Keswick Vineyards

Keswick Vineyards
Monticello AVA
Just outside Charlottesville, VA

In September, a friend of mine and I set out to tackle VA wineries and without a doubt our best experience was Keswick Vineyards. 3 or 4 days before the first of the grapes were to be harvested, we had the opportunity to visit with winemaker and general manager Stephen Barnard who, like the rest of the staff at this winery, was ensured we had the best experience possible. Stephen allowed us to pick his brain for upwards of an hour, showing us around the vineyards and winery. 

Keswick Vineyards was established in 2000, and after spending time in there in 2002, South African native Stephen Barnard returned in 2006, as both winemaker and general manager. With a minimal intervention approach to vinification, currently most wines ferment using yeasts naturally present on grapes at the time of harvest, and all reds are bottled un-fined and unfiltered. 

Having been named one of America's Top 100 Most Influential U.S. Winemakers Stephen should also receive an award as perhaps the most welcoming and generous winemaker in Virginia. 

KeswickVineyard Stats:

Established: 2000
Acres: 43
Grape Varieties: 
  • Bordeaux Varieties
  • Norton (A red grape native to Virginia that Barnard has no problem giving his brutally honest opinion on.)
  • Touriga (2 acres of this red Portuguese variety)
  • Verdejo (1 acre of this white Spanish variety widely planted in Rueda D.O.
Soils: Clay shale and limestone
Elevation: Low-lying, highest point at 700 ft 
Viticulture: Like most wine regions located on an east coast, Virginia struggles with high humidity and, thus an increased likelihood of disease, however an emphasis in battling this includes minimal use of fungicides and pesticides. While we were here there was a large amount of damage due to pests like squirrels and birds, and there was also grey rot present.
 Onset of GREY ROT: 
Stephen shows the tiny dots or punctures on the grape's skin 
where the fungus's microscopic filaments have created an outlet through 
which water may evaporate. If VA had drier, sunnier afternoons in the summer, perhaps
incredible dessert wines would be made, but because VA is damp and
humid, Noble Rot's unwanted form, Grey Rot sets in, decreasing yields and 
tainting flavors. 

Casually strolling the vineyard explaining his philosophy on both winemaking and grape growing, we all pull a few grapes off the vine to pop into our mouths. Suddenly Stephen spits the mangled carcass of what was a perfectly fine grape on the road to becoming a red wine into the palm of his hand. Lily and I worriedly look to each other to see if we should follow suit. Maybe something was horribly wrong with our mid afternoon snack that could result in sudden death, or had we unknowingly consumed feces? Refraining from continuing to chew as Stephen explained how he predicts the color of a wine, squeezing whats left of the grape between his palm and his thumb. 

 Predicting a Wine's Color in the Vineyard

Stephen explains he's trying the Ballerina vine training system, where the canopy of the vine is allowed to spread out like a too-too, increasing leaves exposure to the sun. 
Ballerina Vine Training at Keswick Vineyards

Eventually making our way into the winery Stephen shows us around. One neat thing about Keswick V.Y.'s is their involvement with their customers. With an phenomenal wine club offering a host of events, including the member's party where the final blend of Consensus is chosen. This red wine's label has the photos of all members backing the winning blend for the year, a blend entirely chosen by wine club members. You also have the opportunity to invest in a new barrel, and get a cut of the wine down the road, as well as a nifty golden plaque with your name.

Why you need to go here:

I by no means am an expert on Virginia wine, but I have been to my fair share of wineries in my home state, and I will say that the level of enjoyment and learning the staff at Keswick deliver to guests has been unsurpassed by any other winery there as far as my experiences go, and without a doubt Keswick Vineyards is my personal favorite winery to take either someone who knows plenty about wine, or needs a boost to jump on the winery-visiting-wagon. They are also dog friendly, and when they are not too busy are happy to show you around beyond the tasting room. Also a beautiful wedding venue, Keswick Vineyards should not be missed on any trip on the Eastern Monticello Wine Trail 

What to Drink:

  • Viognier - Their award winning Viognier is not only their most planted grape, but the grape described by Jay Youmans, Master of Wine, as the future grape of Virginia. This is a difficult white grape to grown, and is mostly grown in Northern Rhône. While Virginia is starting to show the world what it is really capable of with this grape, Stephen Barnard's outstanding version has set standards for a number of years. Usually stainless steel tank fermented with a small portion fermented in neutral french oak barrels, this golden colored wine, with intense peach, pear, and subtle white flower aromas, shows just a slight hint of oak. On the palate these wines are almost always a perfect balance of mouthwatering acidity, and creamy smooth texture, as these wines are generally aged on their lee's, or dead yeast, for around 6 months. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Byron Bay, Australia 2011

Byron Bay, Australia 2011

By far my favorite place I travelled on my trip to Australia. The hostel where we stayed must have required all workers to be total babes, right on an incredible beach packed with surfers, and with the views of Mt. Warning to the left, a random bizarre island popping straight out of the water in front of you, and a lighthouse to your right, this is one of those places where you'll disappear from your reality and be perfectly happy without a watch for the rest of your life. Definitely recommend this hostel, the second you walk in you're part of the gang.

From our hostel we hiked to the lighthouse on the eastern-most edge of Australia's mainland, got to see whales migrating, and watched the most ape-shit-crazy sunset I've ever seen while listening to a random collaborative jam-sesh of about 30 people who climbed in off the surf to play whatever they could get their hands on. A local on the cliff said he moved to Byron because of the insane sunsets.