Most wine producing regions also produce brandy (distilled wine) or eau de vie/marc/grappa/orujo (distilled pomace) which are useful and profitable by-products. The art of distillation was brought with the Moors when they invaded Spain in 711AD, but they did not drink the spirits, preferring to use them for perfumes or medicines. The Arabic words used for stills: “alquitara” and “alambique” are still in use today, indeed the word “alcohol” is also Arabic.
|An alquitara - very slow distilling..|
Not much wine was distilled until the mid XVI century but this spirit did precede the birth of Cognac. The first Spanish tax on brandy was imposed in 1580. The Dutch were regular customers for the wine spirit which they used to compound their liqueurs or rectify into Genever, and it is to them we owe the words “Brandy” and “holandas.” The former is a corruption of the dutch “brandweijn” (or burnt wine), and the latter is the word the Spaniards used for spirit good enough for the Dutch.
|Gonzalez Byass Lepanto Distillery Jerez: alembiques Charentais style.(foto:proensa.com)|
In 1850 Pedro Domecq was left with a large consignment which sat around so long in barrel that it improved dramatically and formed the basis for the Fundador solera in 1874. Until now, all brandy had been double distilled in alambiques and aged statically much the same as Cognac, but the second half of the XIX century saw brandy sales really take off led by Fundador, and the solera system came into its own.
|Modern column stills in Tomelloso (foto:altosa)|
Producers were forced to find a more suitable source of wine as the vineyards of Jerez could not produce nearly enough. They chose Tomelloso in Castilla La Mancha which was surrounded by boundless vineyards planted to the Airén grape as opposed to the Palomino of Jerez. For a while Airén became the most widely planted grape in the world! Here they established large distilleries equipped with much more efficient column stills, Domecq being the first in 1890. As brandy is one third the original liquid volume of wine, it made sense to distil here and take the spirit to Jerez by railway tanker either for ageing as brandy or for fortifying Sherry. As far as I know the only brandy distilled in Jerez now is Lepanto from González Byass.
|It seems to go on forever...Domecq's famous brandy bodega: La Mezquita (foto:consejo regulador)|
A Consejo Regulador was established In 1987 to enforce the rules and protect the interests of Brandy de Jerez, of which there are three categories:
Solera: (about 2/3 of total production)min 6 months solera ageing, min 50% holandas, min. volátiles 150 mg per 100cc pure alcohol.
Solera Reserva: (about ¼ of total production)min 1 year solera ageing, min. 75% holandas min. volátiles 200 mg per 100 cc of pure alcohol.
Solera Gran Reserva: (about 6% of total production)min. 3 years solera ageing, 100% holandas, min. volátiles 250 mg per 100 cc of pure alcohol.
There is a fourth category known as “Bebidas Espirituosas” where brandy is blended with Destilado (which may not be made from wine) and sold at a lower strength (typically 30%/vol). This reduces not only the price, but also the quality and it cannot be called Brandy de Jerez and is thus not supported by the Consejo Regulador Brandy de Jerez. A proper Brandy de Jerez will have these precise words on the label.
Unlike statically aged brandies, the solera brandies of Jerez require less ageing, but are nonetheless generally aged much longer than the minimum legal period. Butts for ageing must have a minimum of 3 years seasoning with Sherry or brandy and have a minimum capacity of 500l and max of 1,000l, and the base wine should be free of lees and sulphur dioxide (SO2). The angels’ share (loss to evaporation) is about 7% per annum. Strength on sale should be between 36 and 45%/vol and ageing must take place, like the wines, within the Sherry triangle. Slight adjustments are permitted so the addition of spirit caramel and sweetening with flavoured syrups are legal, often around 15 grams per litre, but in the better brandies this is achieved by the use of choice Sherry butts and ageing.
|This beautiful old still was stolen from Valdespino's old bodega in C/Ponce|
Base alcohols used are as follows:
Holandas: Single or double distillation is normally carried out in a direct-fired copper pot still (alambique or alquitara) and produces the lower strength spirit known as Holandas from 40- 65%/vol (max 74%/vol), which are made from the best wine. Holandas can be produced in column stills but pot stills are better as the spirit retains more character.
A column still produces 3 types of spirit depending on the positioning of the interior plates:
Aguardiente: spirit from 74 –86%/vol., used for blending and liqueurs
Destilado: spirit between 94-95.5%/vol., used for blending and fortifying Sherry or making liqueurs
Alcoholes Rectificados: spirit at 96.5%/vol. This is used mostly for industrial purposes
It takes 4 Kilos of grapes to make 3 litres of wine which in turn make 1 litre of brandy. A total of about 95% of the grapes used are Airén and only about 5% are the Jerezano Palomino. No fewer than 100,000 hectares of vineyard are needed to produce the grapes for Brandy de Jerez (Jerez only has about 7,000 hectares which are needed for Sherry).
The quality of brandy is not necessarily a function of just age but of the original selection of wine for distillation, butts used and the proportion of holandas in the blend. So a Solera brandy cannot become a Solera Reserva simply by extended ageing.
While 95% of Spanish brandy is Brandy de Jerez, Spain does produce other notable brandies, particularly in Cataluña (eg. Torres, Mascaró), Huelva (Luis Felipe), Málaga (López Hermanos) and La Mancha (Peinado, Allozo). Jerez is the only Spanish brandy, however, to have a Consejo Regulador.
Just a few recommended Jerez Brandies:
These are all Solera Gran Reserva and not cheap so buy them in Spain!
Carlos I Solera Gran Reserva
Originally from a Domecq 1889 solera, now owned by Osborne. 100% holandas with a minimum age of 10 years in Amontillado and Oloroso butts.
Lepanto Solera Gran Reserva
GB began distilling in 1844 and Lepanto dates from 1886. It is 100% Jerez Palomino, 100% holandas and comes in 3 versions finished in Fino (Tio Pepe), Oloroso and PX butts, aged over 12 years in 15 criaderas and sold in a beautiful decanter bottle.
Barbadillo Solera Gran Reserva
100% Palomino, small batches, numbered bottles, over 20 years old, serious stuff.
Cardenal Mendoza Solera Gran Reserva, Sánchez Romate
First produced in 1877 and named after the man who convinced the Reyes Católicos to back Columbus. 100% holandas aged in Oloroso and PX butts for 15 years. Romate also make the excellent Uno en Mil single cask brandy.
Fernando de Castilla Brandy Artesano Solera Gran Reserva
This bodega was established to produce the best brandy. They make an excellent standard range but the 3 Artesanos stand out for their originality. They are single cask Amontillado, Oloroso or Oloroso Viejo one-off bottlings, always different but excellent. They also supply brandy to Equipo Navazos.
Conde de Osborne Solera Gran Reserva, Osborne
Complex brandy made from 100% holandas and aged over ten years in butts previously used for PX then put in a bottle designed by Salvador Dalí. Osborne are famous for the massive bulls visible from Spanish roads which used to advertise their Veterano brandy.
Gran Duque de Alba Solera Gran Reserva, Williams & Humbert
Named after a descendant of the Jacobites, this fine brandy was launched in 1945 (the bicentenary of the Jacobite uprising in Scotland). There are 3 versions: fine holandas are aged 10 years in 15yo Dry Sack Oloroso butts for GDA, 15 years in Don Guido butts for GDA XO and 20 years in Dos Cortados butts for GDA Oro.
Coleccion Roberto Amillo Solera Gran Reserva
Fine independent bottling of old brandy from Hidalgo La Gitana presented in a beautiful 50cl bottle.
Less expensive but good are:
Felipe II Solera Reserva (1905 solera originally Blázquez, now Osborne), Osborne Magno Solera Reserva, González Byass Insuperable Solera Reserva
And out of interest:
Ximénez Spínola make a wonderful brandy and PX liqueur called Liqvor de Brandy