Don't Call It Cognac

But some of the finest comes from a small maker in California

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.

(The Distillery)
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.

The heart, a clear eau de vie, flows from the pot's spigot straight into new French oak barrels, which will be placed on racks in a wooden barn nearby. The new wood gives vanilla flavors and many tannins to the brandy, and also starts to color the liquid. After a year Germain-Robin transfers the brandy to seasoned old barrels from Cognac, which continue to mature the liquid but add no more tannins. Up to this point he has strictly separated barrels by grape variety and vineyard. Now he starts to blend.

ANY brandy house prides itself on its blender, who usually assembles dozens and sometimes hundreds of brandies to form a house style. Producers boast of the extent and age of their stocks. Each of the four biggest names in cognac--Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell, and Courvoisier--say that they put cognac that is a hundred years old or even older into some of their blends. The higher the average age of the blend, the more it costs, not because older cognacs (or whiskeys or wines, for that matter) invariably taste better but because tied-up storage space is expensive. The advantages of wood aging are not, in any event, infinite. Cognacs more than sixty-five years old are taken out of wood and retired into glass demijohns, to prevent further evaporation and stop the aging process.

Hennessy, like Martell and the smaller, highly regarded Hine, was begun by a Briton who emigrated to France in the eighteenth century. Maurice Hennessy, the great-grandson of the Irish founder, devised the designation "XO," which joins "VS" and "VSOP" to make up the obscure and not very logical lexicon of cognac classifications. "VS" means "very special"; the youngest of the three, the cognac is required by French regulation to be blended from cognacs whose minimum age is two and a half years. "VSOP" means "very superior old pale," and the cognacs in its blend must have a minimum age of four and a half years. (The English heritage and English market explain why the letters stand for English words.) The cognacs in "XO"--the designation is thought to mean "extra old" but perhaps means "extraordinary," or even "100" (the Roman numeral X plus a zero), for the hundredth anniversary of Hennessy--must have a minimum age of six and a half years and are usually even older. These designations carry no legal requirements outside Cognac, but almost every maker of cognac-style brandy has adopted them as a (rough) standard.

More important than age is style. Although VS is the youngest, VSOP has the lightest feel and usually tastes freshest, with citrus notes and what are known as forward flavors--they register in the front of the mouth, predominating over woody and other flavors that register in the back. VS is strongly and sometimes harshly woody, with the vanilla and spice flavors that are apparent in young wood. These flavors are far subtler and better developed in XO, which has the power and mouth-coating viscosity that people expect in a cognac, and the tobacco and leather flavors that come with age. As Patrick Morley-Fletcher, a direct descendant of the original Hennessy, whose family still runs the company, told me when we sampled his cognacs in New York, XO makes people think of a comfortable armchair, a book, and a dog curled up by the fire. It's for people who spiritually or literally dress in smoking jackets.

VSOP is a good beginning cognac, because it is not overpowering and has what Morley-Fletcher calls a "dainty femininity" (the English are less cautious in matters of political correctness). VS usually has little to recommend it in the way of inducing contemplation, and is often used in mixed drinks. Martell calls its Cordon Bleu its most characteristic cognac, because of the high proportion of grapes from Borderies, one of Cognac's four main growing areas, which have the aroma of violets. Gabriel & Andreu, a small distiller, has just put on the market artisan-made cognacs from each of the four areas, for those who want to learn the fine distinctions.

Although the great majority of cognac sold is VS or VSOP, all the houses offer blends that are yet older and more distinctive than XOs. Armagnacs are close to the XO style; they are said to be woodier and sometimes harsher than cognac but with superior aromatics, because the grapes that go into them have more flavor. Older blends and Armagnacs were the brandies Coale had me try against his XO. His had all the silky mouthfeel, power, and persistence of any XO or older brandy, but a surprising sweetness, too, from the fruit flavor that characterizes all his brandies. Also, the XO had life that continued on the palate and as the brandy opened up in the glass. Other XOs have plain power, and become duller as they stand.

If I were getting a gift for a cognac lover, I would buy a bottle of Germain-Robin XO, which at $100 is expensive, but less so than the cognacs that to my mind compared favorably to or bettered it: Hine's Triomphe ($180) and Delamain's Très Vénérable ($175, if you can find it--Delamain is the cognac of choice among most connoisseurs). If I wanted a good all-purpose brandy to serve as cognac without worrying about how much money was going down guests' throats, I would get the plain Germain-Robin Fine ($32.00), which has the freshness of a VSOP and strong fruit, too, and more complexity than VSOP or VS usually has. I also like Hennessy's VSOP, which costs $29.99.

Another worthwhile gift is the right glass. It isn't a snifter--one of those balloon-shaped things as appropriately sized as a restaurant pepper mill. The wide base encourages too-fast evaporation of the alcohol, and the narrow top concentrates the fumes, delivering heat to the nose and palate at the expense of the subtler scents and flavors that should prevail. Professional tasters use smaller, narrow glasses with only slightly bulbous bases and flared rims. When I rented glasses recently for a cognac evening, the only reasonable alternative was a small champagne flute. Carneros Alambic, another California producer of cognac-style brandies, markets chimney-shaped tasting glasses that capture and deliver aromas slowly; they do not have flared rims, and they cost $7.50 with the company's logo and $10.00 without (the number is 707-253-9055).

Riedel, an Austrian maker of glasses for wines and liquors, working in consultation with the chief taster for Hennessy, has designed glasses for young cognacs, which it calls VSOP, and for older ones, which it calls XO. The outwardly curved rim makes the liquor first hit the front of the palate, which registers sweetness, and then the back, where depth and roundness are felt. Like everything from Riedel, the VSOP and XO glasses are delicate, expensive ($49.50 a crack, to use the wrong word), and uniquely suited to the beverages for which they were made.

Perhaps you will disapprove of a cognac-loving friend's treatment of glasses I gave him last Christmas: following what he says is standard practice among brandy connoisseurs, he simply wipes them after they are used, to keep them seasoned. His wife certainly doesn't like it. However unappetizing, this has its own logic. Many wine drinkers do no more than rinse their glasses, because detergent residue spoils the taste of wine and liquor. With glasses this expensive, not fumbling with a sponge or crowding them into a dishwasher rack will at least lower the breakage rate.

ANSLEY Coale has come up with a clever marketing ploy: one Germain-Robin blend is named Cigar, and the bottle bears a nineteenth-century-style label with an engraving of a man smoking on a London omnibus. Cigar smoking has become a craze among the smoking-jacket types Coale wishes to reach, and of course cigars and brandy have always been mates--although not very happy ones. Cigars so fill and scrape the mouth that strong, acid flavors are required to counteract them and refresh the palate, which is why VSOP has always made a better match with cigars than a deeper, more expensive brandy. In the Cigar blend Germain-Robin pairs a forward, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc brandy with older, deeper brandies, creating a kind of one-two punch. Absent the tobacco, the sequential sensations are strange and unbalanced, but I can certainly see how they could successfully do battle with a good cigar.

The brandy I liked best at the tasting is by no means classic, but it reminded me of the surprise that made me so esteem the Noninos' ue' after I had tried many grappas--which, however expertly made, always strike me as harsh. Germain-Robin's V43 (the number of the barrel in which it was aged), released this year, is made only of Pinot Noir wine that was distilled in 1986, and it is expensive ($125). The flavor of the grape leaps out--a complete, balanced fruit flavor from just one variety. And it has the distinct but not burning fire that every good brandy has. Anyone who wants to experience the full power and pleasure possible in a brandy should taste Germain-Robin's V43. It shows why distillers who don't live in Cognac don't have to lose anything by calling their liquor something else.

Photography by Ed Caldwell

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1995; Don't Call It Cognac; Volume 276, No. 6; pages 125-128.