Archive for the ‘wine making’ Category

Cognac brandy

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Cognac (pronounced /ˈkɒnjæk/), named after the town of Cognac in France, is the most famous variety of brandy, produced in the wine-growing region surrounding the town from which it takes its name, in the French Departements of Charente and Charente-Maritime. The town of Cognac is one of only three officially demarcated brandy regions in Europe; the others are the French town of Armagnac and the Spanish town of Jerez.

According to French Law, in order to bear the name, Cognac must meet strenuous legal requirements, ensuring that the 300-year old production process remains unchanged. It must be made from at least 90% Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, or Colombard grapes, although Ugni Blanc, specifically Saint-Emilion grapes, are today virtually the exclusive variety used. The remainder may consist of the grape varieties Folignan, Jurançon blanc, Meslier St-François (also called Blanc Ramé), Sélect, Montils, and Sémillon. It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels, most commonly from oak shipped from all over Europe but passing through the town of Limoges and for that reason called ‘limousin’ oak.

Producing region and legal definitions

The region authorised to produce cognac is divided up into six zones, including five crus (singular cru), broadly covers the department of Charente-Maritime, a large part of the department of Charente and a few areas in Deux-Sèvres and the Dordogne. The six zones are, in order of decreasing appreciation of the cognacs coming from them: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and finally Bois Ordinaire.

Production process

Cognac is made from eaux-de-vie (literally, “waters of life”) produced by doubly distilling the white wines produced in any of the growth areas. The wine is a very dry, acidic, thin wine, not really suitable for drinking, but excellent for distillation. It may only be made from a strict list of grape varieties. Distillation takes place in traditionally shaped Charentais copper stills, also known as an alembic, the design and dimensions of which are also legally controlled. Two distillations must be carried out; the resulting eau-de-vie is a colourless spirit of about 70% alcohol.

Cognac may not be sold to the public, or indeed called ‘Cognac’, until it has been aged for at least two years, counting from the end of the period of distillation (1 April following the year the grapes were harvested).

The final product is usually diluted to 40% alcohol content (80 proof) with pure and distilled water. Major manufacturers add a small proportion of caramel to colour their cognacs (at least the less expensive qualities).

The age of the cognac is calculated as that of the youngest eau-de-vie used in the blend. The blend is usually of different ages and (in the case of the larger and more commercial producers) from different local areas. This blending, or marriage, of different eaux-de-vie is important to obtain a complexity of flavours absent from an eau-de-vie from a single distillery or vineyard. Each cognac house has a master taster (maître de chai) who is responsible for creating this delicate blend of spirits, so that the cognac produced by a company today will taste almost exactly the same as a cognac produced by that same company 50 years ago, or in 50 years’ time. In this respect it may be seen to be similar to a blended whisky or non-vintage Champagne, which also rely on blending to achieve a consistent brand flavour.

Hundreds of vineyards in the Cognac AOC region sell their own cognac. These are likewise blended from the eaux-de-vie of different years, but they are single-vineyard cognacs, varying slightly from year to year and according to the taste of the producer, hence lacking some of the predictability of the better-known commercial products. Depending on their success in marketing, small producers may sell a larger or smaller proportion of their product to individual buyers, wine dealers, bars and restaurants, the remainder being acquired by larger cognac houses for blending. The success of artisanal cognacs (and of single malt whiskies) has compelled some larger producers to market single-vineyard cognacs from vineyards that they own. A recent example of this is the cognac house Hennessy, who released Izambard, Le Peu and Camp Romain, being three of their distilleries, in 1999.


The official quality grades of cognac are, according to the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac):

* VS Very Special, or *** (three stars) where the youngest brandy is stored at least two years in cask.
* VSOP Very Superior Old Pale, where the youngest brandy is stored at least four years in cask, but the average wood age is much older.
* XO Extra Old, where the youngest brandy is stored at least six, but average upwards of 20 years.

In addition can be mentioned:

* Napoleon Although the BNIC states this grade is equal to XO in terms of minimum age, it is generally marketed in-between VSOP and XO in the product range offered by the producers.
* Extra A minimum of 6 years of age, this grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.
* Vieux Is another grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
* Vieille Rèserve Is like the Hors d´Age a grade beyond XO.
* Hors d’age The BNIC states that also this grade is equal to XO, but in practice the term is used by producers to market a high quality product beyond the official age scale. Hence the name “Hors d’age” (ageless).

It is important to notice, that no house of cognac produces all the above mentioned grades/qualities.

The crus where the grapes were grown can also be used to define the cognac, and give a guide to some of the flavour characteristics of the cognac:

* Grande Champagne (13766 hectares total) Grande Champagne eaux de vie are long in the mouth and powerful, dominated by floral notes. The most prestigious of the crus. “Champagne” means chalky soil, a characteristic shared with the area around Reims where Champagne is produced. Hence the name “Champagne”.
* Petite Champagne (16171 hectares total) Petite Champagne eaux de vie have similar characteristics to those from Grande Champagne, but are in general shorter on the palate.
* Borderies (4160 hectares total) The smallest cru, eaux de vie from the Borderies are the most distinctive, with nutty aromas and flavour, as well as a distinct violet or iris characteristic. Cognacs made with a high percentage of these eaux de vie, for example, “Cordon Bleu” by Martell, are dominated by these very sought-after flavours.
* Fins Bois (34265 hectares total) Heavier and faster ageing eaux de vie suitable for establishing the base of some cognacs. Rounded and fruity, with an agreeable oiliness.
* Bons Bois
* Bois Ordinaires (19979 hectares together with Bons Bois). Further out from the four central growth areas are the Bons Bois and the Bois Ordinaires. With a poorer soil and very much influenced by the maritime climate, this area of 20,000 hectares produces eaux de vie that are less demonstrative and age more quickly. These lesser crus are excluded from blends by some manufacturers.

The growth areas are tightly defined; there exist pockets with soils atypical of the area producing eaux de vie that may have characteristics particular to their location. Hennessy usually uses the unofficial brandy grades for its cognac offerings, but has also produced three single distillery cognacs each with very distinctive flavours arising from the different soils and, to a lesser extent, climate. Other cognac houses, such as Moyet, exclusively use the crus to describe their different cognacs.

The top cognac houses also produce premium-level cognacs. These include:

* Extra by Martell by Martell is a blend of “eaux-de-vie” hailing in part from Martell’s cellar known as “Le Paradis”.
* L’Or by Martell is a cognac stored in a decanter with gold plated shoulders and closure. It is made of the oldest and most refined “eaux-de-vie” from Martell’s “Paradis” (heaven). This is a place where “eaux-de-vie” over 50 or 60 years old are stored. Some date back to 1830.
* Extra by Camus is their premium cognac beyond XO containing their oldest cognacs from the Borderies, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne regions in a distinctive decanter style bottle.
* Louis XIII by Rémy Martin is composed of more than 1,200 of the finest eaux-de-vie aged a minimum 55 years (usually 65-100+) in very old Limousin oak barrels, presented in Baccarat crystal decanter, and individually numbered and owner registered.
* Richard Hennessy – produced by Hennessy, ‘Richard’ is a blend of over 100 eaux-de-vie aged up to 200 years. It is sold in a Baccarat crystal blackman and is named after the founder of the company.
* L’Esprit de Courvoisier – Courvoisier’s leading cognac, presented in a hand-cut Lalique decanter, blended from eaux-de-vie up to 200 years old, and individually numbered.
* Moyet Antiques – Moyet’s Très Vieille Fine Champagne and Très Vieille Grand Champagne cognacs blended from some barrels over 150 years old, individually numbered and signed by the cellar master.

Cognac and hip-hop culture

Since the early 1990s, cognac has seen a significant transformation in its American consumer base, from a predominantly older, affluent white demographic to a younger, urban, and significantly black consumer. Cognac has become ingrained in hip-hop culture, celebrated in songs by artists ranging from Tupac Shakur to Busta Rhymes to Mac Dre and Jay-Z, among many others. It is estimated that between 60% and 80% of the American cognac market now comprises African American consumers, the majority of whom have indicated in studies that the endorsement of popular musical artists is a key factor in their preference for the drink, which also spawned its nickname ‘Yak’ (or ‘Yack’). Moreover, Pernod-Ricard, the parent company of Martell, has acknowledged that “the USA is the biggest market for cognac and African-Americans are a priority target” Many have credited hip-hop culture as the savior of cognac sales in the USA; after nearly floundering in 1998 due to economic crisis in Asia—cognac’s main export market at the time—sales of cognac increased to approximately US $1 billion in America in 2003, a growth paralleled by (but not necessarily related to) hip-hop’s rise into the mainstream of American music.

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Turn of the screwcap

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

The future of wine bottle closures is getting clearer (to me). The future of wine bottle closures is screw caps.

screw capWine drinkers cannot have helped but notice that many winemakers make the leap from corks in favour of screwcap closures. Some wine lovers even rant that corks should be abandoned.

A series of trials had been undertaken by both the University of Burgundy (1960s) and the Australian Wine Research Institute (1970s) and consecutive tastings proved that screwcaps were indeed a viable alternative to natural cork.

For instance, Stelvin is the best-known brand of screwcaps and it is used on Taylors Cabernets.

“No other industry in the world accepts the type of product failure experienced using cork” says George Fistonich of New Zealand screwcap pioneer Villa Maria . Fistonich has been standing firm and all Villa Maria bottles are screwcapped. New Zealand producers have followed and have started a so-called Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative
The n

Screwcap Initiative gets vocal on the radio

In July 2007 an advertising campaign started on the NZ radio. It was embarked upon by the Screwcap Initiative. It has high profile winemakers talking in favour of their preferred wine bottle closure. Wine maker Michael Brajkovich of Kumeu River Wines in Auckland is one of them.

In the advertisement he says, “We were one of the first to export wine in a
screwcap wine bottle. The Old World wine trade didn’t like the idea – at first, they liked
the romance of the cork. But a few of us New World winemakers knew it fixed the problem ofcork taint and once the public twigged to it, it was their seal of quality. It’s another
example of New Zealanders going with what works for us and then finding out that the rest
of the world agrees.”

The advertisement is backed by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and their website “We are right behind the exporters,” says a spokesperson.

Business demand

Chris Hatcher is the chief winemaker at Wolf Blass, Australia. In 2000 he said that their British distributor had asked that the entire next shipment of Annie’s Lane wines be Stelvin-sealed. Now Wolf Blass bottle some of their super-premium Platinum reds under Stelvin. Henschke, Australia, started screwcap bottling with their Keyneton 1995.

In the USA the Bonny Doon winery has championed Stelvin and has set up a Death of the Cork website. It should be added that an extra incentive for the change is that wine company bean counters also love screwcaps as they are cheaper than corks.

In a similar vein, wine critics now mention whether wines they review use screwcaps and restaurant wine lists follow. Consumer acceptance will grow accordingly. What was once a trickle will become a flood — in time.

A new book on the topic of wine closures is due this October. It is entitled ‘TO CORK OR NOT TO CORK: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle’, by George M. Taber, the author of ‘Judgment of Paris’ (Scribner, 2005). A preview of the book is this good-looking fact sheet on wine closures (PDF) (4 MB).

Cork used to be useful

Cork material is a subset of generic cork tissue, harvested for commercial use primarily from the Cork Oak tree, Quercus suber, with Portugal producing 50% of cork worldwide. Cork's elasticity combined with its near-impermeability makes it suitable as a material for bottle stoppers, especially for wine bottles. Cork stoppers represent about 60% of all cork based production. Many cheaper brands have switched to lower quality cork, synthetic plastic stoppers, screwcaps, or other closures. However, plastic Corks were certainly revolutionary in the 17th century when British ale and French champagne makers started to use cork stoppers instead of traditional closures made of hemp soaked in oil. That innovation certainly improved the quality of wines greatly and without it the development of champagne would have been impossible. But in the age of the microchip we are still using the archaic and risky technology of stoppers made from oak bark.

Cork taint

Why risky? Depending on whom you talk to cork taint (TCA) affects maybe five per cent of bottles, making them unpalatable. Yet, strangely, it has taken more than three centuries for winemakers and consumers to grow tired of wines that are diminished in quality due to this taint and to other problems such as unwanted cork flavours, leakage, cork deterioration and so forth. (For example, the renowned Penfolds Wine Clinics’ main focus is the replacement of dodgy corks).

Screwcap benefits

Screwcaps on the other hand are taint free and impermeable.

No cork taint

Everyone you ask will give you a different answer, but the general consensus from the trade is that between 5-15% of wine is adversely affected by 2,4,6 trichloroanisole. This can occur simply when chlorine is used to wash the cork bark or, more worryingly, it can be due to a contamination of the trees themselves due to the use of organic pesticides which contain chlorine and in this case, affect several harvests.

No more sporadic oxidation

The ideal closure should provide an air tight seal to the wine bottle. A good quality cork is a perfect closure, however, as with all natural products, quality variations mean that “random oxidation” has become the second biggest problem linked to natural corks.

“Driven” closures – whether they are natural or synthetic – need good elasticity in order to fill the gaps and irregularities within the bottle neck. In addition to this, natural corks also contain pits, cracks or insect holes and these create a weakness within the seal that can lead to leakage and oxidation.

Traditionalist criticise screwcaps saying that they are not romantic, however, this industrially-produced closure has the advantage of being more consistent identical, therefore making bottle variation a thing of the past.

Screwcaps also seal from around the outside of the bottle, therefore imperfections within the bottle neck are immaterial and the pressure (approx. 160kg) exerted on the head of the screwcap during bottling ensures that it is totally airtight.

Screwcaps avoid flavour modification, including scalping

Cork is a natural product, therefore, it is inevitable that it will impart some level of taste on the wine to a lesser or greater degree.

As John Belsham of Foxes Island and also current NZSCI president says, “We ran a very simple trial of putting corks into glasses of acidified water. There was a varying degree of colour and flavour taint in all glasses – all except one – the glass containing no cork.”

Screwcaps are totally neutral and therefore do not modify the wine in any way, allowing it to retain the original characteristics and age uniformly.

AWRI research has discovered that the TDN flavour molecule – which gives a kerosene type flavour to white wines – is totally absorbed by plastic closures and partially absorbed by natural cork. This is known as flavour scalping and according to the AWRI, there is no evidence of flavour absorption from screwcaps and this therefore explains why they are so well suited to delicate, aromatic wines such as Rieslings.

Young taste

“Screwcaps have shown wines that are brighter, clearer and more focused. Fruit and mineral characters shine through better than before” says Ken Canaiolo Engebretsen, President of the Norwegian Sommelier Association.

Aging with screwcaps

To test their longevity a number of wine companies (notably Yalumba) have bottled wines under both screwcaps and cork over the last few decades. Comparative tastings of these museum wines indicate that Stelvin bottled wines are fresher, cleaner and retain better colour than examples of the same wine under cork. There are criticisms that screwcaps seal too well and can create reductive characters in wines. This is less true today and should only concern wines that you keep a few years.

Cork is doomed

The list of winemakers actively supporting screwcap is growing. A recent example of conversion is that of a well-known and well-regarded winery in Long Island, NY. It’s Paumanok Vineyards.

For near-term wine the days of cork as a closure are numbered.

2007 vintage would be bad in Europe

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

In a nutshell: buy 2007 wines only from reliable producers.

Obviously a vintage is a concept: it cannot taste bad. The point here is to indicate that vine growers have had more problems this year than previous years. The quality of the wines very much depends on the vine growing — every year but this year even more so. This is the year when the serious, talented winemaker makes a big difference.

Vineyards near Gamlitz, Austria, by HalehRThe Austrian wine marketing board have published their official summary of the vintage so far, calling it ‘the winemaker’s year’. In the words of Jancis Robinson this means that ‘there have been quite a few hurdles for them to overcome – in the vineyard perhaps even more than in the winery’.

In France, the cool summer of 2007 affected everyone and the September weather saved some grapes. Micro-climates came into play and the savvy vigneron had to carefully determine the date of harvest. Rot and mildew was widespread. Keeping the grapes on the vines was a gamble many winemakers did not make.

Côte d’Or, Burgundy

Reports Bill Nanson: ‘The vintage will be as heterogeneous as the approaches and the quality of grapes and sorting’. ‘Grapes from Latricières-Chambertin needed quite some work (just like in 2004)’.
Said Louis-Michel Liger-Belair: ‘we made a hard triage’.
Reports Martine Saunier, California importer of some growers in Burgundy and the Rhône Valley: ‘beginning 25 August, the weather warmed up and the sun finally came out. Temperatures rose to 25°-30° C. The grapes started turning red immediately’.

More reports

I have made complementary overviews:

Wine harvest is over worldwide

Friday, October 26th, 2007

In the Northern Hemisphere most of the last wine grapes were picked by the 20th of October. I already reported on how the harvest started early. So the harvest period is about two months long.

Todd uses a PulseAir system to aerate a two ton fermenter of estate pinot noir, by Anne Amie Vineyards, OregonInside reports on the 2007 harvest season come from:

Go have a look at pictures of the impressive harvesting machine at Château Lacayot (with French captions).

Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac excellently explained how grapes are turned into wine a year ago.

It is a little early to assess the quality of the vintage. Bear in mind that vintage quality is a complex concept. Nevertheless it is possible that the quality will go down for many French wines made in 2007. (I feel this while reading a few French ‘vignerons’ report on their ‘vendanges’.)

We already know that the volumes produced will be low in many places. This is a problem for the revenues of the producers. This is not a question on the quality of the wines. The reports of low volume come from Oregon, California, France (the article is in French), Italy.

Regions which produce as much wine this year as the previous year include Bordeaux.

It is urgent that you consider making your own wine from bought grapes. Or wait for next year!