I NEVER seem to have enough cognac in my bar. Despite my stock of grappa and fruit liqueurs, it is cognac my guests usually want after dinner and keep drinking as conversation continues. Until recently I didn't understand why, and in fact I didn't really know what cognac was. Then I gave in to the nearly two years' worth of literate and aggressive letters I had received from Ansley Coale Jr., a man in California whose company, Germain-Robin, produces what wine writers I respect say might be the finest cognac-style brandy not only in America but in the world. It takes its name from the distiller, Hubert Germain-Robin, the scion of a cognac-making family in France. Late last summer I went to Mendocino County, a hundred miles north of San Francisco, to find out why so many guests drink me dry.
Cognac, I learned, is not distilled from fruit, as poire is distilled from pears and framboise from raspberries, nor is it distilled from the remnants of the winemaking process--the stems and stalks that are the base of grappa and its French cousin, marc. Instead cognac begins with fresh, unaged wine, and after distillation it is perfectly clear--as is every distillate, or eau de vie. The color and much of the flavor come from the oak barrels in which it ages for anywhere from three years to a hundred or more.
All cognac is brandy, but, as the French will remind you, not all brandy is cognac. Like Champagne, the French region of Cognac (along the Charente River in the southwest of France, above Bordeaux) has zealously guarded its name; so has Armagnac, in the region of Gascony, which has produced its own wine distillate even longer than Cognac has. Distillers in other countries who use nearly identical processes must call their products "brandy," although the word, which comes from the Dutch for "burnt wine," is today applied to many other kinds of spirits as well. Even vodka, I learned on a recent trip to Stockholm, where I visited the excellent museum run by Vin&Sprit, the company that makes Absolut vodka, is still called "brännvin"--"burnt wine"--in Sweden, although its base was for a long time potatoes and wheat, and today is just wheat.
Obviously, something distilled from a fruit will taste unlike something distilled from grain. The most important difference between a clear and a brown liquor, though, is the aging in wood, which initially confers vanilla and citrus flavors and later ones of tobacco and leather and earthy mushroom; if the interior of the barrel has been charred, as is done in the making of whiskey and bourbon, smoky flavors are also added. If grain-based eau de vie, with its mild, bready flavors (as in Absolut vodka) or floral scents (as in Polish Wyborowa vodka), were put into barrels and aged, it would become whiskey. If the grape distillate called ue', made by the Nonino family in the Friuli region of Italy, were put into barrels, it would with time become cognac, although of course the Noninos couldn't call it that.
THE reason people have become so devoted to Germain-Robin's brandy is that it is made from many varieties of grapes, not the very few used in cognac. Grapes in California are famously fruity by comparison with the same varieties grown in Europe. They get more sun, and also they can be picked exactly when they're ripe. Colder and damper European climates often lead cautious vintners to pick early, to avoid molding and rot. As in the Champagne region, in Cognac white grapes yield a thin, fairly uninteresting wine, and so growers long ago found something more profitable to do with it. In both regions practicality was codified into strict regulations. Makers of cognac-style brandy outside Cognac can use wine made from any grapes they please, even red ones. Red grapes are unusual in brandy, because the bitterness of the tannins in their skins can become pronounced after long aging in oak; yet my favorite of the many brandies I tried was made by Germain-Robin using only Pinot Noir.
Unlike most producers of cognac-style brandy, Germain-Robin makes the majority of its brandies from red wine; it also uses the white Ugni Blanc grape (better known by its Italian name, Trebbiano), the base of today's cognacs. Hubert Germain-Robin prefers the white Colombard--a grape that was the principal component of cognac before phylloxera devastated European vineyards a hundred years ago--and untraditional grapes like Chenin Blanc, Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Sémillon, and Palomino. He has his fresh wine made by several vintners in Mendocino County, who use the yeast and procedures he specifies.
Germain-Robin, forty-four, is a tall, rangy, bearded man with a big peace symbol tattooed on the back of his right hand. It isn't hard to picture him hitchhiking along Highway 101, which is where Ansley Coale picked him and his wife up fifteen years ago. Seeing that his passengers were tired, Coale offered them lodging at the sheep farm he and his wife had bought as a ticket out of academe. Born on the East Coast, Coale had taught classics at Berkeley, grown tired of it, and bought 2,000 steep and barely accessible acres in Mendocino for the price of a house in San Francisco. As for Germain-Robin, there was no place for him in what had been his family's cognac business after a big company bought it, but he was interested in Coale's suggestion that he try to distill local wines.
Germain-Robin went home to Cognac to look for an old copper still, which he bought for $1,000 and had restored. The shape of Germain-Robin's still makes it an "alambic," a word taken from the Arabs, who originated the process. It is splendid, with an onion dome and a long serpentine "swan's neck" pipe leading from the boiler to the barrel-shaped "pot." (A "pot" or "batch" still works one load at a time, whereas a "column" still, which big brandy makers use, operates continuously.) The neck is particularly long to help lengthen the rectification, a process in which harsh flavors, which have a high specific gravity, rise, condense, and are heated again, after which they recondense in lighter, smoother form.
Yet more beautiful than the still is the small one-room wooden cabin that serves as distillery. The still is mounted in red brick against one wall, with a big old hammered-copper pail set under the spigot. The window behind Germain-Robin's desk overlooks the parched Mendocino hills of Coale's sheep farm; along its sill old bottles that Coale collected and half-filled with water in various jewel tones shine in the clear Mendocino light, casting colored shadows against the neat rows of sample brandy bottles on wooden shelves.
Working with only one assistant, Germain-Robin distills day and night for about four months. All the wine is distilled twice: once to produce a rough alcohol, and then again with more care, in order to smooth the flavor and remove impurities, or "congeners"--but not remove all of them, because that would render the spirit tasteless. During both distillations only the "heart," or middle portion, of what comes out of the still is used. Germain-Robin uses his decorative copper pail to remove the "heads," which are too high in alcohol, and the "tails," which are too harsh to drink. As is standard practice, the heads and tails are redistilled in later batches.