- On November 19, 2015
France is the home of brandy. There, we said it! Perhaps nowhere else in the world is more renowned or celebrated for the production of aged brandies. Whether it be Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados or other fruit, the brandy produced in France is top notch. Even in this higher echelon though, there are striations. Some spirits are simply better than others; small, hidden gems that beg to be unearthed and experienced. Once stripped of any marketing BS or big brand names, these spirits must rely solely on quality and flavor to carry them. Charles Neal has spent his adult life in the pursuit of these sublime representations. This week, we explore some of the fantastic imports from Charles Neal Selections!
When we speak about French brandy, Cognac is inescapable. It is what everyone thinks of when they think of French spirits (other than overpriced vodka *cough cough*). Now, there are plenty of household brand names that the consumer can call to mind when they think of Cognac, but what of the producers who have been making it exactly the same way, in the same small amounts, for generations? The Dudognon family of the Grande Champagne region have been doing just that since 1776! They cut no corners, and use no fillers. While they began as simply a supplier for negociants, the Dudognon family soon realized that they could cut out the middle man and sell Cognac on their own. Raymond Dudognon was the first of the family to really bring their spirit to the masses, and his daughter Claudine runs the operation today. They distill only the Ugni Blanc grown on their property and do so in two small Alembic stills. They produce roughly only 100 barrels a year, which is absolutely miniscule in comparison to some of the mainstream companies. Their Reserve (10 years old) is light, soft and almost breezy. A perfect entry-level Cognac with warm honeyed spice notes, and a nice toffee-vanilla-Grandma’s-house flavor. Unlike many of their competitors, they utilize no added agents, whether it be caramel for color or boise for flavor. It is simple and simply delicious. ($49.99)
Hailing from the Gascony region of France, just South of the region where Cognac is produced, Armagnac never had the export trade Cognac thrived on, and thus became very much an industry in which the producer consumed most of what they made. It was not until the 20th century that uniform standards became more commonly accepted and that Armagnac began to get the recognition it has long deserved. Armagnac is like Cognac’s bigger, badder brother. Its inception actually pre-dates Cognac, but production still pales in comparison. Think of it as more rustic, a little more bombastic and with a lot bigger flavors. The soil is a bit sandy, compared to chalky; the weather is a bit warmer rather than temperate. Armagnac is also distilled fewer times, often only once. This results in a spirit with more esters and congeners, which some would view as lesser, but which we know just means more flavor compounds! Now, if Armagnac is the lesser known brandy in comparison to Cognac, this Armagnac from the Tenareze region is even more under-represented in comparison to the more common Bas-Armagnac region. The soil here is a bit chalkier and has more limestone, closer almost to Cognac’s soil. Chateau de Pellehaut’s Tenareze Reserve Armagnac is just fantastic. There is an inherent sweetness, but it has a great balance of drying tannins from the wood and some warm spices. Perhaps light-bodied for an Armagnac, but still what we would recognize as rich and flavorful. Perfect for a roaring fire and over-sized snifter! ($49.99)
Calvados represents the third region of France known for its brandies, but the surprise twist here? It’s all apple and pears! Located in the Normandy region along the English Channel, distillers here have been producing great spirits for nearly 500 years. Perhaps the least known or appreciated brandy of France, Calvados is actually reminiscent of early American brandies, in that they are essentially distilled cider. We have a long history with applejack and other fruit brandies, so great minds must think alike! There are three subregions in the Calvados area, and this week we will be focusing on the Pays d’Auge region. The soil here is quite stony, quite flint-y, which makes the apple trees suffer and work harder, and the fruit gets the lions’ share of the nutrients. The Giard family’s farm is located near the small community of Montreuil, thus the name Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil. They grow a mixture of all four apple categories: sweet, bittersweet, acidic and bitter. Old school doesn’t even begin to describe it. Cows freely roam the landscape that can only be labeled as Pastoral. His Calvados is double distilled, giving it a more refined flavor, yet with some good flavor compounds remaining. The Reserve is the only offering from the distillery, created in combination with Charles Neal when tasting through some of the aged stock. They settled on a blend whose average age is seven years old. It has clear apple notes up front, along with some of the usual apple pie flavors (vanilla, cinnamon, spice) and a toasty, oaky flavor to keep it warm. ($39.99)
If each of the previous products represents a famous French brandy category, this one is the iconoclast. Louis Roques La Vielle Prune is a PLUM brandy coming from Southwestern France. It is definitely an if-you-know, you know spirit. Produced from the dark, sweet and rich plums (or prunes, depending on who you talk to), the fruit is crushed, their juice fermented and then oak-aged. There is a flavor reminiscent of a Maraschino liqueur, with the stone fruit and nut component being predominant. But the wood helps keep it in check, lending tannins to help tame the sweetness. The color is outrageous, the bouquet is ripe and floral, the flavor is nuanced and dances on your tongue. You couldn’t ask for a more unexpected yet welcome spirit. ($49.99)