How is brandy made and what does it have to do with wine?
"Paul, besides wine, what other products are made from grapes?"
The first one that comes to mind, of course, is vinegar. That's a fascinating topic, which we will discuss in a later edition. One of the most common uses for grapes, and wine for that matter, is the making of brandy. It is very important to understand the various terms in the process of making brandy. The word "brandy" refers to any beverage that has been distilled from wine grapes. Brandy is basically a French word, but many countries use it as well since it has no official meaning in France.
Cognac and Armagnac are specific areas in which brandy is made to exacting laws. All Cognacs are brandies, but not all brandies are Cognacs. In Italy, the word "distillato" is used, which means just that, the wine was distilled. The important thing to remember is that a brandy usually starts out as wine and is then distilled. Grappa is distilled from the leftover grape pulp, called "must," after fermentation. It makes a very high alcohol product that is pretty tough to take.
Other terms in France that refer to the brandy process are Eau de Vie (water of life) and Marc. These terms are used when making grappa in Alsace or Burgundy. They refer to distilling the grape must in those French wine-making areas.
In Alsace, one of the most distinctive Marcs is made from the Gewürztraminer. The intense perfume of the grape (as you'll see in this month's domestic selection) actually comes through in the brandy. In most instances, the character of the grape is completely lost, except to the most knowledgeable tasters, in the distilling process.
The price of these brandies varies considerably due to the care used in the distillation process, the quality of the material distilled and the number of times it is distilled. The finest process for distillation calls for using a pot still. This is very expensive because the still is made of solid copper and takes the longest to distill the grape must or wine. The slower the wine is distilled, the more flavors are extracted. Boiling the grape must is a quick and inexpensive way to make brandy.
In order to distill from a good wine, you would first have to make the wine before you can distill it. Obviously, this takes more time and incurs more cost. And finally, each time the brandy is distilled, it becomes smoother. Double and triple distillation is common with the finer brandies. Just keep in mind that you lose up to 75% of the volume with each distillation. If it is aged in expensive oak barrels like Cognac, the costs go up even more.
To put it into perspective, if one were to take grape must that wasn't going anywhere anyway, distill it quickly and bottle it, you would have a very inexpensive brandy. If, however, you took a good wine, distilled it slowly in a pot still three times and aged it in expensive oak barrels for 3-6 years, you would have a fairly expensive product and, hopefully, a good one as well.