Although it pre-dates virtually all other spirits, brandy may be one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated categories in alcoholic beverages right now.
Very basically, brandy is a distilled spirit, typically ranging from 33-40% abv, made from grapes (all brandies may also be called eau-de-vie, but eau-de-vies can also be made from other fruit). Brandies are made in a wide range of countries and tend to be distinguished by the locale of the vineyards, the varieties, and the process.
Legends date the practice to 15th century Armagnac in southwest France, where wines were being made of enough quality that other countries wanted to import them, and yet discovering that they were too fragile to survive the voyage and be quaffable.
A Dutch ship captain, so the story goes, innovated the idea of distilling the wine to reduce it, so that it could be reconstituted later. One can read a few different motivations for this: shelf-stability, certainly, but also a cost-cutting measure for shipping more sellable product at less weight, and thirdly, according to another legend, it was a way around the dispute with Bordeaux that only their wines could be shipped via the Garonne river—if it becomes brandy, then it isn’t wine. It’s also worth noting an awareness that Armagnac’s winemaking at that time could not compare to the quality of Bordeaux. But before long the Dutch end users found they liked the end product, stronger in spirit but mellowed in the wood casks over the sea voyage, just fine as it was. They called it “brandewijn” (literally “burnt wine”) and the world of cask spirits was created.
Within the next 200 years, the Cognac region due North of Armagnac and Bordeaux took over from Armagnac in regards to popularity of brandies, but Armagnac continued producing brandies, as it does to this day, which win a great deal of respect and favor regardless. Other parts of Europe (and eventually, the entire world) also learned the process quickly (fwiw, alcohol distillation was documented in Italy in the 12th century, and brandy mentioned in Germany by the 1430s) and each adapted their own versions to varying results.
One of the first was Spain, where the winemaking center of Jerez in Andalucia also began distilling wines by the 16th century, according to histories there, because the ruling muslim Moors could not drink wine, so they used it to produce alcohol for perfume and medicine.
[Side note: People are often confused about the difference between Brandy de Jerez, and Jerez wine, or Sherry in English. Brandy de Jerez is exactly what it sounds like, a spirit distilled to about 65% abv before casking. Sherry is a wine fortified by adding some Brandy de Jerez but only to about 20% abv; Oporto/Port is also fortified wine, from Portugal.]
All brandies tend to be blended from a variety of grapes and a variety of barrels, each with specific limitations, although like many cask spirits, these rules are bending today.
At any rate, I’m explaning all that background because I thought it would be interesting to compare two bottles I received recently, a Bas-Armagnac brandy, and a Brandy de Jerez to each other, rather than the usual comparing spirits just within their specific categories, since they are such close cousins.
Chateau du Tariquet Bas-Armagnac VSOP comes from a family that is a relatively new producer (“only” four generations in!) but on an estate that dates back to 1683 for wine production. While Tariquet touts their award-winning Cote-de-Gascogne white and rose wines more seriously now, their brandy is still estimable.
Made traditionally with Ugni Blanc, Tariquet also blends in Baco and Folie Blanche grapes. Distillation is done in a traditional copper alembic still heated by recycled acacia wood vine stakes. Only 10,000 cases of all Bas-Armagnac (including VS, VSOP and XO) are produced yearly.
A blend of Ugni Blanc and Baco brandies aged at least 7 years, Tariquet VSOP (40% abv) gives me a nose of vanilla, white flowers, and candied orange peel. The mouth is almost pure vanilla with black pepper. Natural color of antique gold.
Gonzalez Byass has a longer company history, dating to 1835 with the production of the Tio Pepe brand in Jerez. Lepanto is the only Brandy de Jerez produced exclusively in Jerez, from the musts of locally grown Palomino grapes, which undergo a double distillation process in former Cognac pot stills.
The Lepanto Solera Gran Reserva is aged in American oak barrels formerly holding Tio Pepe for 12 years and then the same barrels which held Olorosos for 3 more years. I get a nose of nothing so much as vanilla pudding, with a complex mouth of butter, vanilla, dried fruit and soft pink pepper on the finish. The color is an amber/orange gold.
To choose between the two? It depends on your taste. Both are fine sipping spirits. Brandies tend to appear as pairings in the US, either with desserts, cheeses or cigars. But I would argue both of these stand well on their own, and should be considered for that style of enjoyment.