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One September more than a decade ago, I was leading a tour of Spain. On the tour were a friends of mine who were retired airline pilots, one of whom put new meaning in the airline phrase “hop,” when he once brought back enough kangaroo meat back from Australia to feed 200 people. We were in a wonderful old bar called El Suizo in Haro, the capital of the Rioja Alta, getting ready to wind down the evening, when I spied several brands of Sherry brandies behind the bar.
“Have you guys ever tried one of those wonderful old sherry brandies, a Solera Gran Reserva?” I asked.
“No, but I sure would like to,” came the reply from Jim Wiltjer, a former Delta Airlines pilot, ever game to try a new wine or a local delicacy.
I asked the bartender to pour a snifter each of Cardenal Mendoza, the dark rich, silky brandy from Sanchez Romate, and the equally rich and smooth Gran Duque de Alba, once the star of Diez-Merito’s stable and now owned by Williams and Humbert of Dry Sack fame. Now, in Spain, they never short the faithful when it comes to brandy, so Wiltjer and his sidekick, Bill Charney from Reno, Nevada were regaled with a good three fingers of dark, plummy brandy. No one can ever accuse Spanish bartenders shorting on brandy pours.
I soon drifted off to our Hotel, Los Agustinos, which is housed in a lovely 600-year old Augustinian convent, and left Wiltjer and Charney savoring their brandies and rehashing events of a more recent nature, no doubt, their years as fighter pilots in Vietnam and the four-day retirement bash Charney threw in Reno for over 200 people, an incredible event that saw the consumption of Charney’s friend Brice Jones’s wine, Sonoma-Cutrer, measured in gallons.
Of their conversation, Wiltjer and Charney said little, but they were effusive in their praise of those two silky Spanish brandies, as most people are when they taste the slightly sweet, aterciopelado (velvety) tones of these high-quality user-friendly Solera Gran Reserva brandies that are so different from the drier, more biting, often harsh finishes of Cognac and Armagnac.
Spaniards are the largest producers of brandy in the world. They also consume vast quantities of it in Spain (approximately 10,000,000 cases) and ship millions of bottles more to Latin America, Europe, the United States and around the world. Spaniards are probably the most experienced spirits producers in the world, since the ostensibly abstemious Moors, who discovered alcohol (a Moorish word, as is alambique [alambic]), occupied parts of the Iberian Peninsula from the early 8th to the 16th century.
Ironically, the turban-like still-head where the vapors collect and the French call chapiteau, is known in Spain as the cabeza de moro (Moor’s head) and they still use a Moorish name, alquitara, for the discontinuous pot still and the high-quality spirit it produces for premium brandies.
And a Catalan-Valencian doctor, Arnau de Vilanova, who was an advisor to Pope Clement V, is said to have produced the first aguardiente (literally, firewater) or marc in the 12th century for medicinal purposes.
Most of Spain’s brandy distillers are the huge Sherry producers of Jerez - - Domecq, Gonzalez-Byass, Williams and Humbert, Osborne - - who distill their base brandies from high alcohol wines made from the non-descript Airén, Cayetana, and Jaen grapes grown in the hot, dry areas of La Mancha and Extremadura. But, very little brandy is made from the sherry district’s Palomino grape. Most of the distilling is done in the Manchegan town of Tomelloso, in the heart of Don Quixote country, and in Almendralejo, an Extremaduran town that sits in a sea of good-mostly-for-brandy vineyards and where single and double distillation is carried out in pot stills, but, for the more common types of brandies, by continuous distillation in massive stills.
Solera Gran Reserva brandies, however are usually the product of single distillation in alquitara pot stills, often up to 100% alquitara distillates. The best Jerez solera brandies are made from up to 80% holandas spirits, the core of wines distilled at low temperatures that reach only 60-70% alcohol and retain most of the wine’s flavoring component.
The name holandas is derived from the spirits left over from a refused Domecq shipment originally consigned to a Amsterdam purveyor. When the Dutch canceled the order due to late delivery, Domecq was left with a considerable quantity of high quality grape spirits residing in oak casks, where it remained for several years. By the time Pedro Domecq got around to tasting the stuff, it had turned into a quality brandy and the famous brand, Fundador, was born.
Besides the selection process, which divides the brandies into three different qualities depending on the quality of the spirits distilled and how long they destined to be aged, it is the method of ageing in the Sherry bodegas of Jerez that further distinguishes Brandies de Jerez from their competitors. The raw brandies obtained from the alquitaras are blended, transported to the Sherry district, and aged for a short period in small oak casks, before being reduced in alcoholic strength by the addition of distilled water. The brandy is then transferred to 500-600 liter butts in a brandy solera system, which operates like the tiered system used to make sherry.
The brandy will pass through several scales (from five to fourteen rows of barrels), or criaderas, during what is sometimes referred to as a dynamic, rather than, static ageing process. By moving the spirits several times in the space of a few years, the spirits are exposed to air and soften up much earlier than cognacs or armagnacs. The brandies also take on the characteristics of the brandies that already reside in the solera and the flavors imparted by the sherry casks they are being aged in: used fino, amontillado, dry oloroso, or Pedro Ximenez casks.
Brandies de Jerez, the Sherry brandies, are classified into three different quality categories: Solera Brandy de Jerez, usually the lower end brandies such as Fundador aged for just six months by law, but usually one year in practice; Reserva Brandy de Jerez, the good solid middle range of brandies such as Osborne’s superb Magno, by law aged for a minimum of one year, but usually an average of two and a half years; and Solera Gran Reserva Brandy de Jerez, top of the line brandies that must be aged a minimum of three years, but in reality are usually aged eight to twelve years.
Besides the Solera Gran Reserva Brandies de Jerez, Larios, the gin producers in Málaga, produce a superb Jerez style brandy called Larios 1966 and the Catalan firms, Miguel Torres and Mascaró, produce several truly exceptional Charentais-method cognac style brandies. Many Jerez bodegas produces Solera Gran Reserva brandies, but only five are readily available in most American markets: Conde de Osborne, Lepanto, Carlos I, Cardenal Mendoza, and Gran Duque de Alba, so I have chosen to focus my tasting notes on them. I used a top quality cognac from A. De Fussigny and one of Francis Darroze superb armagnacs as spirits to measure the Spanish brandies against.
A. De Fussigny X.O Lot 99 Cognac
Pale, correct, light amber. Gorgeous, fruity, peach nose with light caramel tones. Smooth, glossy, finishes with fruity, hot spirit finish lingers. 90-92 pts.
Francis Darroze Bas Armagnac Series Rare 1965 (Aged 28 yrs. in wood.)
Pale, light tea-colored. More sauvage nose, fiery animal nose, age, wood, depth, complexity, intriguing. Light, ethereal, melts in the mouth, then leaves a trail of fiery, nervy Armagnac sparks as it goes down. 95-96 pts.
Brandies de Jerez - Solera Gran Reserva
Conde de Osborne, Osborne Puerto de Santa María
Average age of 20 years from soleras up to 100 years old. Salvador Dalí-designed bottle makes a distinctive gift.
Pale, amber, hazelnut color. Simple nose, lightly sweet, whiffs of raisins, butterscotch, nuts, floral notes. Light, smooth, glossy, bitter finish of hazelnut husk, but not the fiery bite of cognac or armagnac. I am a great admirer of Osborne’s Rare Sherries and their superb middle-range Brandy de Jerez, the great, best selling Magno, but I have always been more impressed by the Dalí bottle than I have the brandy. 85 pts.
Lepanto, Gonzalez Byass Jerez de la Frontera
Average age 15-20 years. The attractive decanter package with glass stopper is a terrific gift package.
Very pale, blond wood/palo cortado color. Clean pretty, nutty, almond-hazelnut, amontillado sherry-barrel nose with hints of apricot. Very ethereal, light, smooth with a bitter finish. Nice balance between cognac and brandy de Jerez, on the drier, more elegant side, but not very complex or intense flavors. 88 pts.
Carlos I (Primero), Pedro Domecq Jerez de la Frontera
Average age 12 years. (Carlos I Imperial, a super expensive brandy, supposedly a cut above Carlos I comes in a crystal decanter; the Carlos I package is rather ordinary). Light aged amontillado-palo cortado color. Simple, light nutty sherry nose, some grapiness. Smooth, glossy without being sweet, tones of vanilla and sweet spices, again a balance between sherry brandy and cognac. Mostly wood in the finish. 86 pts.
Cardenal Mendoza, Sanchez Romate Jerez de la Frontera
Average age 15 years. Has an attractive, old style gilded label and comes in an attractive cork box, which makes a great gift. Darker, light mahogany/cream sherry color, high viscosity.. Nice nose with grape aromas at the core, with whiffs of nuts, dried fruits, sherry, wood, some animal elements reminiscent of the Armagnac. Exceptionally smooth and silky on the palate with coffee and dried fruits flavors and a soft, lingering finish. 92-93 pts.
Gran Duque de Alba, Williams & Humbert Jerez de la Frontera
Aged three years in barrels used to age Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso. Attractive squat bottle with a wax seal and romantic, old-style label featuring the Duke of Alba. The average age for this Solera Gran Reserva is around 10 years. Medium brown oloroso color, high viscosity. Prettiest nose of the Spanish brandies, fruity, tropical flowers, clean, with hints of peaches, orange peel, butterscotch, and oloroso aromas. Very smooth, soft, round with flavors of sweetened oloroso. Sumptuous, luxurious, but with a dry woody finish. 92-93 pts.