It had been a long — if not particularly hot — fall evening among the restaurants and bars of San Sebastián, pounding back pintxos and chugging txakoli. Now, back at the Bar Swing of the luxurious Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, I instructed the barkeep to hit me with a blast of “the Duke.”
Actually, that should be, “the Duque” as in Gran Duque d’Alba, the exceptional brandy produced by the sherry house of Williams and Humbert. A large, warmed crystal snifter was proffered; a generous measure dispensed. I accepted the vessel, grateful that in Spain, a “shot” always turns out to be much more than the stingy glass coating squirt we are used to in Canada.
The bouquet, much like Spain itself, was sensual, inviting, relaxing. Warm leather, sultana, sweet pipe tobacco, marmalade and spice scents danced from the glass before the warm, barely sweet, caramel and raisin flavours slinked across the palate and warmed me to the core. It was the imbibing equivalent of sinking back into a plush, oversized, worn leather armchair beside a crackling fire. And it took the edge off everything.
Truth be told, the snort from the snifter became a much-anticipated nightly ritual during my brief sojourn through northern Spain. And I had experienced plenty of other brandies before settling on “the Duque” as the one for me. Lepanto, Carlos 1, Cardenal Mendoza and Torres 20 “Hors d’Age” had all been sipped and savoured. But all good things, as we all know, must end. And so did my stay in Spain, and, sadly, my nightly ritual. “The Duque” was not to be found back home. An email sent to the agency representing it went unanswered (perhaps not received, just to be fair). There were a few lonely flasks of Lepanto here and there, but outside of that, only two brands were readily available. When it came to Spain’s majestic spirit, no one, frankly, seemed to give a damn.
In the opera of fine brandies, the usual principals — Cognac and Armagnac — occupy centre stage. Calvados may make an appearance, as might higher-end grappas. More exotic players like Metaxa and marc could be in the wings. But banished to the role of understudy, Spanish brandy is rarely part of the act. Which is a real shame in that she can sing every bit as well as the rest of the company. In fact, the flavour profile of most Spanish brandies should cover practically everyone’s taste. It’s complex enough to hold the attention of the connoisseur, yet its soft, round, mildly sweet character ought to be immediately accessible to the neophyte. So why isn’t it getting the attention (and distribution) it deserves?
“Within the spirit categories there are very large-volume products such as whisky and vodka. These are usually produced by equally large companies with substantial marketing and advertising budgets that, in turn, make these categories and brands top of mind among consumers,” reports Matías Llobet, the distilling wizard responsible for the Torres range of brandies. He concludes, not surprisingly, that more investment is needed in promotion and education to increase consumer awareness. (Note to Llobet: Doing what I can!
The famous Bodegas Torres, located in the Penedes region of Spain, near Barcelona, is the country’s largest winery, with interests not only throughout Spain, but also in Chile and the United States. Due to its geographic location, Torres produces brandy that’s a bit different than the bulk of that produced in Spain. This Brandy de Cataluña is not only distilled (in the case of Torres top-end products) from a wine made from grapes of French origin (namely the Cognac region’s Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche; native grapes such as Parellada and Macabeo are used for the base wine destined for younger expressions), it is also aged in French Limousin oak barrels in a method similar to the more often seen brandies distilled in the southwest. Due to the grapes used, the climate of the region, and the wood used for aging, brandies from Cataluña tend to have a drier overall flavour profile than their counterparts distilled in the sherry region.
Legally classified under the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) of Brandy de Jerez, brandies from sherry country account for some 95 per cent of all those crafted in Spain. Not only is the production of this brandy confined to a specific region, it must also follow a stringent production and aging regime. And it’s the aging of Brandy de Jerez, in particular, that is largely responsible for its unique character.
Having been first distilled from wine made from (typically) the Airen grape, the wine spirit is then aged in American oak barrels that had previously stored any type of sherry (e.g., oloroso, amontillado, etc.) for at least three years (the sherry, not the brandy). Since these barrels (or butts, as they are called) have been impregnated with wines of varying character and sweetness, the flavour impact they will have on the spirit will vary. Spirit soaking in a butt that once held syrupy Pedro Ximenez will come off tasting noticeably sweeter and richer than the same spirit aged in a butt used for maturing bone-dry Manzanilla.
“The barrel aging is longer than most brandies therefore the sweet tannins from the barrels are more evident in those from Jerez,” adds Marian Stillo, Senior Brand Manager for PMA Canada, the agency representing Duff Gordon, a Brandy de Jerez that has been in the Ontario market for a good 25 years (I used to drink the stuff in university).
Further, these brandies are then “dynamically” aged in a criadera/solera system. This is where things get interesting … and maybe a bit confusing.
Fans of sherry will know all about criadera/solera aging. The condensed version is that young wine is blended with older wine, which is blended with even older wine, which, in turn, is bottled. This obviously speeds maturation and maintains a certain consistency in the final product. The same system is employed in the aging of Brandy de Jerez. So far, so understandable. Where it got a bit weird (at least for me) is when I saw “Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva 10 Year Old.” Um, really? If you were blending 10-year-old spirit with 20-year-old and calling it 15-year-old (as just and average), I’d get it, even with my rudimentary grasp of math. But when you are constantly blending a variety of ages together, how do you determine an average?
I decided it was necessary to seek expert clarification, and to pour myself a suitably large amount of Duff. A dispatch from the Office of the Consejo Regulador del Brandy de Jerez read thusly:
“The minimum aging established for each category — solera, six months, solera reserve, one year, and solera gran reserva, three years, with the usual age for commercial brands being one, two, and eight years — refer to average aging times. In other words, the blending coming from the solera system ensures this average minimum aging. The calculation we do in the Consejo has to do with the rotation of stocks. I’ll give an example: if a brandy solera system has 100 casks distributed in different criaderas with varying degrees of age, and we annually remove/bottle from the solera (the last stage of the system) a quantity of brandy for bottling equivalent to 20 casks, this means that the bottled brandy has an average age of five years (100/20).”
Everybody get that? Good. Moving on.
In any case, one can at least take heart in the fact that the rather strict requirements placed on the production and maturation of Brandy de Jerez ensures a level of quality that can be missing from other brandies.
“Many brandies have no rules and regulations as to what they can put on the labels,” Stillo points out, “so many brandies carry the terms VS, VSOP, or even XO, all of which stand for nothing but dupe the consumer into believing they are a better products. Brandies from Jerez have strict rules to abide by and this is why the quality is much higher for the price.”
In any case, no point in letting the complexity of the aging system or the regulations stop you from enjoying the complexity of the end product. Be it the rich, plush, seductive Brandy de Jerez, or the slightly more austere but equally complex Brandy de Cataluña, the brandies of Spain offer exceptional quality and incredible value. And while they may not currently be as popular in Canada as they deserve to be, those looking for perhaps something new to warm their bones as the fall sets in might consider getting some of this Spanish heat into their blood.