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A Short History of Spanish Brandy

Pete Whieldon on Spanish BrandyContinuing our tour of wine producing countries we arrive in Spain on this occasion to find out about Spanish Brandy.

Now I am sure when you have been on holiday to this great country you will have tried in some form or another, this spirit. It might be then surprising to learn that Spanish brandy is older than any French spirit!

The Spanish were greatly influenced by the Arabs in many areas, but significantly in production of this product, indeed the area and city known as Jerez in the south was and has remained the main production area for Spanish Brandy. This whole area was for many years in the 13th century the frontier of the Christian north and the Arabic south, hence the name “Jerez de la Frontera”.

It is certain that Moorish influence permeated political boundaries and as a consequence the art of alcohol distillation was learnt by the Christians and as they say the rest is history.  As time and technique progressed the production of this spirit ebbed and flowed with different cultural and national influences, but in the 16th century the production of a spirit called “Holandas” was emerging as it was imported from Holland to fortify the existing wines of the area to make sherry which were then exported. By the 1850`s the producers in Jerez ( The Jerezanos)  were producing their own and exporting mainly to Holland but also to England and other European countries.

The first “commercial“ brandy  from Spain began to appear in the 1860`s and it was this transformation which I will describe shortly , that began its emergence as a saleable product both in taste and colour to its destined market. If you travel to Jerez  (it is well worth while) you will hear the story about the beginnings of THE BRANDY as we know it today, and although it is legend, myth or fable ,you cannot dispel the charm attached to it .

The story is told that a member of a distinguished sherry shipper at that time, Pedro Domecq Lustau could not find a buyer for a small consignment of sherry at that time, he subsequently forgot about it, and many years later rediscovered the consignment and upon noticing the change in its appearance, bouquet and its flavour, he decided to distil it as a brandy and the legend was born … ”Fundador”.  Still today this brand is enjoyed and has pioneered the drive behind the worldwide sales of Spanish Brandy.

Just at the time of the release of Domecq`s brandy (1873/4) the French cognac producers were experiencing the Phylloxera epidemic which devastated all their vines and therefore left them with a shortage of wines to distil. This enabled a boom in Spanish Jerez Brandy sales in to the 1890`s. But then the epidemic hit Spain and there production was hit but the trade that had been built up was retained and by the 1920`s the vines had been replanted and production was back in full swing.

It was at this time we began to see the formation of the larger producers and the familiar names we know and recognise today. These firms include, Torres, Valdespino, Osborne, Gonzales Byass, Hidalgo, Domecq, Bodegas Internacionales, and Bobadilla.

The making of Spanish Brandy has changed little but one area it has changed is where the grapes used are grown. Originally, brandy was made from grapes grown around Jerez, but today the brandy is only matured there.

The grapes used are the “Airen”. The growing area is in the vast, upland plateau of La Mancha (and if you visit it you will find it Bleak, if it was not for the vines you could call it moonscape!) which is situated south of Madrid.  The town of Tomelloso dominates the area and is dedicated to the distillation of the wine pretty much collectively speaking on an industrial scale.

The area is very dry and with no irrigation allowed by Spanish law the vine concentration is low, so hence the expanse of ground under vine growth. After the harvest takes place (August/Early Sept) the juice is usually at 12 to 14.5 % alcohol level and after light filtration the distillation begins and continues for many months due to the sheer quantities involved. The newly distilled grape spirit variations are;

Holandas – below  –   70%

Aguardientes  –  70-80%

Destilados de Vino  –  80-90%

  The wineries here in La Mancha are wine cooperatives, none of the major firms own or manage vineyards, they purchase the raw material from them ensuring the grapes and therefore the juice meet exacting standards, but then they begin the distillation process with one or two big firms now owning distillation plants in the area to ensure the correct process meets the needs of their particular taste requirements.

 Using the continuous still production method they can produce several variants of style including high proof or low proof brandies, however in some areas usually not in the Jerez area conventional pot stills are still used and therefore more variations are seen.

As with any major spirit production in the world today the actual blends of the wines, distillations additives and length of time in the maturation process are closely guarded secrets and the firms employ strict secrecy conditions on all operatives in” sensitive” areas of production.

After distillation the brandy is taken to Jerez and begins it journey of maturation and this is known as the “Solera System”.  The success of Spanish brandy whatever the style may be, relates directly to the wood and additives used and that most of the brandy is lodged in soleras which are banks of large wooden casks (usually 500 litres or slightly larger 650 litres) which were previously used to mature sherry.

The brandy is transferred down the casks much the same as sherry, with new brandy spirit being added at the top as the final product is drawn from the bottom rank of the casks. This process is fast, and therefore the ageing of the product is often referred to in Jerez as “dynamic” ageing, with different qualities of the finished product being determined by the amount of time it spends in the solera system.

The spirit is moved up to four or sometimes five times a year, and here the familiar terms of “Holandas” reappear to determine a year old product which is almost a drinkable and an “alquitara” which has two years in the solera   and is comparable to a French Cognac of three to four years maturation. The most important factor about the solera system is that it guarantees consistency of style.

As with French Cognac the type of oak wood used in the solera system matters greatly. The casks are American White oak having been previously Portuguese oak. Over a period of time different cask will “mature” and give off varying strengths of tannins and colour but the skill of the blender again reigns supreme, knowing when to transfer the spirit from one cask to another and what cask to put it in!  It really is a fascinating aspect to observe.  When the spirit is finally ready to be bottled the process of reducing the alcoholic content begins and the Jerezanos are careful how and where they do it.

Unfortunately, they cannot rely on length of storage as a way of reducing the current strength (65-70% proof) down to the legal limit of 35-45%. So they came up with a structure of phased proof reduction built in to the various stages of the distillation and solera system to enable gradual proof reduction aimed at not harming the characteristics of the finished brandy.

Regards
Peter

 

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