The grapes used for making brandy vary according to the geographic region of the spirit’s production, as do refinements to the process. Sherries, for example, range from sweet to dry, and none of them taste like Cognac. However, but the basic stages of the fruit processing that culminates in brandy are relatively standardized and actively adapted around the globe.
Making grape brandy is similar to making whiskey, in that it begins with fermented grape juice — a simple wine. Wine is fermented until it reaches 8-12% alcohol content, but to make grape brandy, the process must be extended until the alcohol content reaches 30-40%. To do so, the wine is distilled; it is heated in, typically, a copper still. Heating forces some of the liquid to evaporate. Because alcohol boils more quickly than water, the evaporate has a higher concentration of alcohol than the original wine. The evaporate is trapped in a separate container. The distilled wine is now a spirit of 30-40% alcohol by volume.
Complex Flavors of Grape Brandy Come from Age
Grape brandy is more than a high-alcohol wine, however. Unlike pomace and fruit brandies, grape brandies are aged, and many are blended to produce a finer spirit of greater depth and complexity in taste and aroma.
Aging takes place in wooden casks. The brandy absorbs flavors, color and scents from the wood. Makers of distinctive brandies choose particular woods to promote the development of their spirit’s signature style, but most of the wood is oak. Brandy will remain in cask for a variable length of time, and may be transferred to different casks as it matures, or be blended with other batches or other vintages altogether.
The duration of the barrel aging is often readily disclosed to the consumer via regulated, systematic designations. In one such system, a brandy aged for two years will be designated as A.C. Brandy; if aged for three years, the product is V.S., or “Very Special”; if held in cask for five years, the brandy is called V.S.O.P., for “Very Special Old Pale.” Each designation usually means a progressively higher price and, when you find the Extra Old, or X.O. bottles at the store or, better yet, the Vintage and Hors d’Age bottles, you can expect to pay a hefty price, as these spirits have been lovingly sculpted and tended for at least six years and, in the case of Hors d’Age, ten years or more.
If the fermentation of grape juice and distillation of wine into spirit appear to be more or less science, in that everything depends on simple, predictable chemical processes, the maturation and blending of the spirit into a finished brandy is more art than science.