This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by E&J Brandy. At E&J Brandy, crafting the best brandy is what we do. We harvest only the highest quality grapes, distill each vintage in our own distilleries, and age each batch for at least two years in oak barrels. The result? Brandy that is smooth and aromatic, with incredible depth and flavor. Try our ultra-elegant E&J XO brandy or switch it up with one of our E&J flavors: peach, apple, or vanilla. Crafting quality brandies since 1975. E&J Brandy.
Where did the name brandy come from? What is brandy’s relationship to wine? On the final episode of the second season of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers answers these questions and more — taking a deep dive into the world of brandy.
Beavers explores the origins of brandy, how the Dutch coined its name, the differences between brandies around the world, and how the grape-based drink gets made. Plus, listeners will hear about some of the fascinating aspects of brandy distillation that set it apart from winemaking.
Tune in to learn more about brandy.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and this is the last episode of Season 2 of “Wine 101.” What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 30 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. This is Episode 30, the last episode of Season 2. Wow. We’re here, guys. OK, for this episode, we’re going to talk about brandy. Yeah, what is that stuff? Is it wine? Not really, but it has to do with wine.
Wow, wine lovers. Wow. Before we get started, I want to thank you guys again for all of your support for this podcast. You guys are so engaging, whether it’s reviews on iTunes or interacting with me on Instagram. I love it. I don’t ever want to stop. This is the best. You guys have made this podcast one of the most popular wine podcasts on the Internet. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoy picking up what I’m putting down.
The thing is, Season 3 isn’t coming out until next year. What I’m going to do is a little mini series of “Wine 101” between Season 2 and Season 3, starting on Sept. 8. This is going to be me, straight up geeking out. I’ll be talking about things that I am currently, and have been for a while, very obsessed with. I can’t wait. Follow me on Instagram @vinepairkeith for more information about what’s coming up. This is going to be awesome.
OK. Brandy. When you look up brandy in the “Oxford Wine Companion,” it’s not there. So I go to Jedi wine master Jancis Robinson’s website, and it turns out that they actually had a brandy section in the book. But, at some point, the publishers were worried because that section made the book weigh too much and therefore it would have to cost more. That’s nuts. And it turns out it’s about 30 pages. Wow. I had no idea brandy was so involved. The thing is, I need more time for brandy. The world of brandy is huge, and there’s many reasons for that. Knowing the way brandy is made and the history of wine and travel and distribution, it just makes sense.
One of the largest trading companies in the history of the world is the Dutch East India Trading Company. It’s a very specific name, but it was a mega conglomerate. It was sort of like the preamble to capitalism. It was huge in the 1600s. Because the Dutch did so much trading, the word brandy comes from them. They had a way of distilling wine that would actually be palatable, be able to survive long trips over the sea and be profitable.
They had a name called brandywine. I’m not going to say it in Dutch because I don’t have that accent and I don’t want to butcher it. But, what it really means is brand wine: to brand or to burn, and wine. So, basically heating or burning wine, which basically translates into distilling wine. That’s where they think brandy, the word, came from. This theory is not set in stone, but it kind of makes sense. The crazy thing is, that is the moment where the brandy word came about. It just shatters off into all different kinds of directions throughout history, and things just get crazy.
A brandy is really what would be called a grape-based spirit. That spirit can be distilled from wine or pomace. We talked about pomace all the way in the first season, in the beginning when we talked about winemaking. It’s the stuff that comes out of the block of organic material that comes out after the fermentation process for wine. The French call it the “marc.” They also call brandy as made from that marc. That seems simple enough. You have this material, whether it’s a wine or organic material that’s a little bit moist from a fermentation. Then, you distill whatever liquid is there. That makes sense. But it gets so much more complicated than that.
Over history there have been spirits that were called brandy which were actually made from fruits that were not grapes. At some point in history, the U.N. had to come in and say, look, this is what brandy is. It’s a grape-based spirit. I believe there’s a lot of reasons for that. But, Europe, specifically France, specifically southwest France, has two communes, one named Cognac and one in Armagnac that is actually famous for their grape-based brandies. Cognac alone needs its own episode. I can’t get into all that, although we should do an episode at some point.
The place that is really known for their own style of brandy, besides France, is Spain. Spain does a lot of brandy, mostly concentrated in the southern part of the country. A lot of that is consumed domestically. We don’t see a lot of it on the American market. Italy is not a big brandy country, but they have one style they do, and they’re very proud of it. It’s called Grappa, and it’s made from pomace, not from wine. South Africa is a big deal when it comes to brandy. Of course, they do drink a lot of it there. The reason why it’s a big deal is because the Dutch Trading Company was headquartered there for a while.
Last but not least, there’s the United States, specifically California. The U.S. has a very interesting relationship with brandy. It’s different than the codified regions of Europe and what was going on in South Africa because of its proximity within the trading company. For the United States, a lot of the brandy that was developed here was because of the lack of quality grapes we were producing. Not all grapes, all the time, in the history of California winemaking did well. When they didn’t do well, they were often added as brandy to a line of wines. That still happens to this day.
In France — specifically in the Armagnac, Cognac and that region of France — there’s a select list of varieties that are used to make brandy. They’re often white wine grapes that, if they’re made into dry white wine or still wine, they’re not as complex. They’re sort of what we would call a neutral grape, in that you can drink them pretty easily. They’re not going to really have layers of this and layers of that — like grapes like Ugni blanc, Colombard, and Rolle, which is also called Vermentino. It’s really the oak exposure that brings the awesomeness to these specific styles of varieties being used to make these brandied spirits.
The difference in the United States, and specifically California, is that in Europe, there were not strict rules because the AOC, the controlled appellation system, really wasn’t even developed yet. There were appellation systems in individual places. Still, there were very hard and fast traditions. In California? Anything goes. What grapes do you have available? I’m going to distill those and turn them into brandy. What do you have available? Thompson Seedless grape? I’ll do that. That’s all it was. People would actually use some grapes that were used in Cognac, in California.
There’s a guy named Henry Negley, in the 1860s in California, who made brandy from Pinot Noir and Riesling. The Pinot Noir was the key. Even Henry himself, and a couple other distillers, went back and forth from Ugni Blanc and other varieties, but they kept on coming back to Pinot Noir. For this episode, I talked to David Warter, who’s the distiller for Gallo. He talked about Pinot Noir and how wonderful it is, the fruitiness and the depth of it that comes into the actual distillate.
Again, as usual with American history of drinks, if it wasn’t for Prohibition, I’m not sure where we would be now. But, because of Prohibition, after the decade-long law was repealed, the state of the wine industry in the United States was very, very bad. The idea of making brandy was more of a survival tactic than it was just trying to figure out what works. That’s where brandy became this ordinary drink for a while. As things began to improve with the vineyard situation in California — this story really has all kinds of layers to it, with the Napa Valley Vintners Society and all that stuff — the ideas of Henry Negley won the day, in that Pinot Noir was a focus for brandy.
One of the families that came from Cognac — there was actually a descendant of a family from Cognac — Hubert Germain-Robin, actually made a brandy from Pinot Noir and Gamay. That standardizes how brandy is in the United States: deep, fruity, with texture. The recipes for brandy in the United States, especially California, are all over the place. The Germain-Robin family really made a name for themselves. They’re from the northern part of Ukiah, the northern part of California.
Another big success story with brandy in the United States, specifically California, is the Gallo brothers, specifically Julio. Ernest Gallo was the marketer. He was the guy that went out and made the business happen. Julio was always in the vineyards, and he loved making brandy in the ’70s and the ’80s. That is one of the big parts of the Gallo legacy, to the point where, in 2017, Gallo actually bought Hubert Germain-Robin. What is really amazing, talking to David at Gallo, is that he is making brandy for Gallo based off of the notes that Julio was making back in the ’70s.
What’s really crazy about this particular alcoholic drink is that you have to see into the future with what kind of blending you’re going to do, what kind of grapes you’re going to use. These are going to be distilled, go into barrels and they’re going to taste a certain way. The blending and everything they did back in the day should produce something wonderful years later. David was telling me that, not only is he reading the notes and being guided by Julio — who passed away years ago — but what he’s doing for the future of the brandy that he’s making and what kind of legacy he’s leaving. I didn’t realize brandy had this element, and it’s pretty amazing stuff.
Another thing that’s really funky about brandy is that it involves winemaking. But, because of the second part of the brandy-producing regime, which is after the wine is made and you distill it, the chemicals change. When chemical reactions change, a whole new world of blending and focus opens up. What’s really crazy, man, I keep saying that but I was blown away by this, just learning about brandy. If you remember, back in the sparkling wine episode, we talked about how when varieties are harvested for sparkling wine, they’re often harvested before they’re fully ripened for high acidity. That becomes the blend for the base wine, which will then be added with bubbles. This is so crazy, because that’s exactly what they do for brandy. They want to make sure that they have as much acidity as possible to get a clean distillate. I find that fascinating.
Another thing that’s fascinating about brandy — this is crazy guys — is that there are no S02 additions in the winemaking process for brandy. They don’t want S02 involved in the thing, because the result of S02’s work comes through negatively in the resulting distillate. This happens basically because at the high temperature of the distillation process, sulfur can convert into sulfur dioxide, the stinky rotten egg part of sulfur, and overtake the distillate. It’s just crazy, guys. Right?
The thing about brandy is that it’s just such a creative medium. You can do whatever you want. There are regulations in California for brandy. Only California grapes can be used. The spirit has to be distilled to below 85 percent alcohol. That’s what Jancis says. David’s is 170, so there might be a little bit of a discrepancy there. Then, the distillate needs to be put in barrel for at least two years. It can be anything longer than that. That is American brandy, specifically California. Other than that, you can do whatever you want. There’s those rules, but you can co-ferment. You can ferment grapes individually. You can make individual wine and blend later. It’s all over the place.
What David does at Gallo is that he individually vinifies grapes at high acid levels. Then, he distills them and concentrates on the specific, unique aromas that the distillate will give based on the variety. How many times have I said fascinating? It’s fascinating. Then, they blend from that and then, they put it in barrel. It blows my mind because, at the end of the winemaking process, the winemakers tell me that the most fun part of winemaking is that if we’re blending at the end, that blending moment is fun. Their hard work is almost done. They’re just grabbing wine they’ve carefully made, and they’re blending in different proportions, trying to figure out what their style is for the vintage or winery. The same thing happens with brandy, but instead of going into a barrel for a few months, or however long for wine, this stuff is going to go in for 20, 30, 40 years. I have one word for this: fascinating.
This is a little crash course on brandy. We need to do some more minute exploration into brandy. We’ve got to talk about Cognac. We got to talk about Armagnac. We’ve got to dive into other places like Spain to get a sense of it. It’s a neat little market. I’m actually pretty interested in getting more into this stuff and understanding it, especially on the American side. I’m reading about a little cache of pioneering brandy makers in the United States. I really want to get into it. But this is the crash course on brandy. This will get you started. Wow. That’s it. Season 2, guys. Follow me on Instagram @vinepairkeith. Cool stuff coming.
@vinepairkeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. Now, for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.