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California Brandy

[Brandy - Part 1]  [Brandy - Part 2]  [Brandy - Part 3] 
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(Note: Information Originally Published In 1955 - Presented For Historical Perspective!)


California brandies should be judged on their own merits and not be compared with cognac, the most famous brandy of all, produced in the Charente region of Southern France, of which the town of Cognac is the world-renowned center. A fine cognac, especially when produced from either of the two Champagne districts of the Charente region, is probably the noblest beverage produced anywhere under the sun. California brandy, a totally different product, can be very good indeed, and some have achieved a very high standard.

California brandy and cognac are produced from different kinds of grapes, grown on different types of soil and in varying climates. They are produced and aged differently.

Brandy in California is derived from a variety of grapes, depending on the location of the distillery and the producer. In the Lodi area the Flame Tokay is important and in the Fresno area Thompson Seedless. Others include Burger, Green Hungarian, French Colombard, Malaga, Muscat of Alexandria (for muscat brandy). Even red grapes are used for California brandy, such as the historic Mission, from which the first brandy in the state was made, and the popular Grenache, considered by some producers to yield a fine wine for brandy distillation. Cognac is distilled from wine made from the Saint Emilion (also known as Trebbiano, Cadillac, and Ugni blanc), which is gradually ousting in favor the traditional Folle blanche. In California there is, as yet, no defined brandy district as in the Charente region. The soil in Cognac is chalky and calcareous; that in California varies according to the place where the grapes for brandy production are grown. Practically all California brandy is distilled in continuous column stills, while for cognac pot stills are used.

On the other hand the laws in the United States for brandy production and marketing are stricter. California brandy is a sound product, with its own characteristics and flavor, and has its own place in the sun. Its history is as old as that of the California wine industry. The Padres made brandy as well as wine and some of their aguardiente achieved a certain renown.

Most California brandies are distilled from white wines, like other grape brandies. They are usually distilled right after fermentation, allowing the lees or wine sediment to impart its flavoring to the final product. Brandy must be aged for a number of years in oak to become smooth and mellow and to acquire the typical amber color. Once bottled, brandy, like any other spirit, and unlike some good wines, does not improve with age. A brandy bottled twenty years ago will be no better than the same kind of brandy, bottled yesterday. It may, however, have lost some of its contents through evaporation. At the same time it will never spoil, retaining its character unchanged in the bottle.

The best-known and most popular type of California brandy is that which is simply called Brandy or Grape Brandy. It can either be straight or blended (rectified). Muscat brandy, distilled from wine made from muscat grapes, had a certain vogue at one time, but its production now is very limited. Grappa Brandy, distilled from the grape pomace and white in color, is produced in small quantities. Lees brandy, distilled from the lees of wine, and which also was quite popular at one time, is only very rarely seen today.

Nearly all the California brandies available on the market are of the first type, either straight or blended. They should be light to medium amber in color, are from 80 to 100 proof (4o to 50 per cent alcohol by volume) and should possess the typical aroma, flavor, and character associated with fine brandy, owing to proper distillation from clean, sound wines and to sufficient aging in oak. They should be mellow and smooth, clean and satisfying to the palate and taste. If the brandy is straight, it is dry, no sweetening, smoothing, or flavoring substances having been added. If bottled in bond, it must be roo proof and at least four years old. Many California brandies are a great deal older.

Numerous California brandies are of the blended type, to which it is permissible, by law, to add sweetening, coloring, and flavoring substances. These should, however, never mask the typical character of the brandy, nor should they exceed 2 1/2 per cent alcohol by volume. Experience has indicated that such agents should usually constitute less than 1 per cent.

There is no general preference between straight and blended California brandies. Some prefer the drier straight varieties and others the blends.

Muscat brandy is a grape brandy derived from muscat wine, for which the Muscat of Alexandria has usually been used. This kind of California brandy has been replaced in popular favor by the regular brandies distilled from wines made from other grapes. Muscat brandy should have the typical muscat aroma and flavor, while sweetening is not required, as the muscat character itself is already quite sweet.

Grappa, produced from the pomace or pulp of the grapes after crushing, is called after the Italian brandy of that name. The reason, presumably, is that the winegrowers and distillers who have produced that type of brandy in California have been of Italian descent. It could equally well have been called Marc (Mar) as that is what it is called in France, where it is quite popular, some of the best being produced in Burgundy (Marc de Bourgogne) and in Champagne (Marc de Champagne). Marc and Grappa are not to everyone's liking, as they all have a rather sharp, distinctive character and woody flavor, owing to the fact that the pips, skins, and stems contained in the grape pomace impart to the product its typical taste. There are aficionados who prefer this type of brandy to any other.

Lees brandy, distilled from the sediment or lees of the wine in the casks, has its own characteristic aroma and flavor. It is much milder to the taste than grappa and, unlike the latter, amber in color.