Building the Brandy Machine

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Unfortunately, within the first few years of its life, a white wine will fade. Inevitably, there will be a loss of primary aromas and the acidity will mellow along with other features associated with its freshness. A majority of winemakers will rely on SO2, or sulfur dioxide, for antioxidative strength, but at some point, all wines realize the same fate––they eventually die.

But there is a chance for immortality. When distilled, these terminal wines, in danger of turning into a unquenchable vinegar, have the chance for a drinkable forever, either by being fortified with themselves (see and drink Port wine), or in their spirit form as brandy. With the help of a skillful hand and a perceptive palate, the attractive subtleties of a wine can be captured when distilled. Over the years a push in one direction and a jerk in the other have helped perfect those processes; from varietal selection to the resulting textures and aromas revealed, with some needing time to mature while others are anxious to be poured. From pisco to cognac, the spirit of wine can endure.

Aromatic white wine production is argued to have originated over 5000 years ago by the ancient Egyptians and Persians, or at least over 2000 years ago by the Greeks and Romans. Arguments Aside, it’s clear these perfumed pleasures have been enjoyed for a very long time. Cleopatra herself is said to be one of the early enthusiasts of vintages coming from the Aegean isles. Island moscatos have a history of being well travelled, not only making their way into the hands of Egyptian royalty but also westward to South America, by way of the Canary Islands on the ships of 15th century Spanish migrants who needed something to drink in the new world.

As cities grew, so did the demand for wine. Wine was not only consumed for pleasure but also served a purpose in church. As the Spanish Crown furthered their reach, more missions popped up and new vineyards followed. In short time, the South American wine industry started to boom and as vineyards dug roots deeper into soil, they eventually felt political resistance. Spain felt threatened by the new world wine competition and soon enough laws were written to pump the brakes on the burgeoning  industry. By design, these laws were intended to halt the production of new wine, so focus shifted into the unregulated production of brandy. Brandy not only conformed to Spanish law, but maintained a much a longer shelf life, and with a higher alcohol content the therapeutic benefits were much more efficient.

But what’s a cheeky story about the emergence of brandy without a mention of  France?

Similarly, Armagnac––where some of the best brandy in the world is made––also didn’t gain notoriety because they needed to solve a longevity problem. Without a nearby seaport, most of their wine was sent to market through Bordeaux, and authorities in Bordeaux decided to regulate wines coming from Armagnac because they competed with their own. As a way to skirt these biased impositions, the Armagnac region found distilling to be much more lucrative. Not only could the newly made spirits be transported more easily, they also wouldn’t spoil and have to compete with the Bordeaux wine machine.

It’s doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the wine used to make brandy had specific properties well-suited for distillation. Pisco or Singani in South America was more often than not made from aromatic moscato varieties which translated through the still remarkably; the profound aromas that were so attractive in the wines in first place could now be preserved and enjoyed again. The selection of grapes used for Cognac and Armagnac production wasn’t coincidental either. When comparing them to the fashionable wines of Bordeaux, different varieties could produce wines that were either overly acidic or too flabby and not very drinkable, however when distilled they created a structured spirit that could be aged longer than most people live.

The dominant varieties; Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche, each with their own unique textural and aromatic qualities, put on one of the greatest balancing acts in drinkable history. Everything in its right place and with good reason. Grapes used in South American brandy were intended to be consumed young. On the other hand, those in Cognac and Armagnac (with the exception of Armagnac Blanche) are meant to produce a spirit with structure, that requires aging––some won’t even be in bottled the lifetime of the person who makes  them. It is as selfless an act as a spirit can offer. It’s no wonder when these ancient wine producing regions decided to deviate from the norm; fortunately for the drinking public, there was no going back.

References:

J. Robinson Vines Grapes & Wines pg 185 Mitchell Beazley 1986

J. Robinson, J. Harding and J. Vouillamoz Wine Grapes - A complete guide to 1,368 vine

varieties, including their origins and flavours pgs 678-696 Allen Lane 2012

Oz Clarke Encyclopedia of Grapes pgs 146-153 Harcourt Books 2001

"Historia de la producción de vinos y piscos en el Perú". Scielo.cl. 1990-01-06

Alejandra Milla Tapia; José Antonio Cabezas; Felix Cabello; Thierry Lacombe; José Miguel

Martínez-Zapater; Patricio Hinrichsen & María Teresa Cervera (June 2007). "Determining the

Spanish Origin of Representative Ancient American Grapevine Varieties". American Journal of

Enology and Viticulture

Rice, Prudence M. 1996. The Archaeology of Wine: The Wine and Brandy Haciendas of

Moquegua, Peru. Journal of Field Archaeology

Faria, J. B., Loyola, E., López, M. G., & Dufour, J. P. (2003). Cognac. In A. G. Lea, & J. R.

Piggott (Eds.), Fermented Beverage Production (pp. 335-363). New York: Springer US.

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