The World of Spirits is Made from Grapes
Last time we spoke of fortified wines like Porto, Marsala, Vermouth, Vin Santo and Sherry. I would say, that these wines do still taste like wines without much alcohol. Because of this we can combine Port wine with an Amarone from Venetia or a Sherry with a Viognier from Molly Dokker in South Australia or a Vin Santo with a Trockenbeerauslese from Germany. But Spirits made from grapes, Cognac, Armagnac or Brandy, can only be combined with Spirits made of other fruits such as apples for Calvados and also sugar cane for Rum and a few grain variations for Whiskies. All of them have in a way the same golden brown colour. The clear version of grape spirits are called Eau de vie, Grappa, Marc and Trester, which does remind me of products made from potatoes like Vodka and grains, like Steinhaeger and so on. As a Wine Connoisseur and Sommelier we have to be knowledgable about it all, even if it may seem more on the ground for a Bar man of class.
What makes these Grape Spirits so interesting? According to doctors, there are health benefits if you drink one a day. They are like medicine for the stomach, killing bacteria where ever the liquid travels to. And on the other side, these spirits do not spoil easily, they last for several 100 years if kept well. So we could drink a Cognac today which maybe Napoleon or the Prussian King had also drunk called the Old Fritz. There are endless stories behind these magnificent beverages and this is what I also call a high end drink for the end of the day.
Grape Spirits, for me, also represent the beverages for cultural drinking as you drink it only after a meal and not before, which you do with Whisky, Vodka and many others. Also you do not often mix Brandy or Grappa into cocktails as you do with Whiskies and Gins. It is a swill where age plays a big part on taste, especially when you sip on an old Armagnac or Weinbrand. The process of ageing was adapted for these grape spirits by other spirit variations, especially by the Whisky industry, which was before Scotch became a Malt and then a Vintage Malt Whisky. In other words, in the old times a gentleman would only drink Cognac or Armagnac and Whisky was more commonly drank by the Cowboys and the working class. Today, Whisky has become accepted in the world of high society, as have other spirits too. Cognac and especially Brandy have also been accepted by the working class.
Cognac has had a system for age classification for many centuries now. The most important aspect to understand is how much “young” Cognac is in a bottle. For example: With VS (Very Special) or De Luxe written on the bottle, this is 3 years of ageing in barrels mixed with Cognac that is also older. Superieur and Grand Selection – 4 years of ageing in barrels mixed with Cognac which is also older, VO (very old) or VSOP (Very Superieur Old Pale) and Grand Fin – 5 years of ageing in barrels mixed with Cognac which is also older and the best, the XO (Extremely Old), tallies up more than 5 years to 150 years of ageing in barrels and in cellars. In a way, if you buy a Cognac with a classification then you should find out how much of the Cognac is 3 years old, 4 years old and 5 years or older in the bottle. Some Cognacs have more than 50% of its content aged to 25 years and mixed with 3 year aged Cognac, which means, the Cognac must be called VS. This is because each Cognac is labelled according to its youngest part in it. Sounds complicated but is not. It is this inside knowledge which makes a Spirit Connoisseur.
Armagnac is another high quality Spirit from the region of Armagnac. Much like Cognac can only be called Cognac because it is made in the Cognac region where the grapes must come from Armagnac gets its name for the same reason. The real difference between these two high class spirits is that Armagnac gives you the year it is from on the bottle. Therefore you have to find out by yourself for how long was the Armagnac in the barrels and from which area in the Armagnac region did it come from. An expensive bottle of Armagnac means a long ageing process from the best areas in the Armagnac region.
Other well-known and sold spirits in fine dining restaurants are Grappa (Italy), Trester (Germany) and Marc (France). These Spirits are made from the already pressed grapes which produce wine, called Must. Actually it is a second class product as the grapes itself makes the good wine and its leftovers, the Must, makes the Grappa. It is the Italians who are masters at marketing this spirit to the world. And the funny thing about this is that it is loved by so many people and they pay a great sum for it. Most famous ones are Grappa di Sassicaia or Marc de Champagne.
Finally I like also to mention the Eau de vie of grapes which is a fruit brandy. You have maybe heard of Eau de vie Pear, Cherry or Plum, which are more famous than the ones made of grapes. Nevertheless, this is pure greatness, if it is also made by the best fruit makers, which you find in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France. Stay on the look out for a Ziegler or Morand in Indonesia, hope you find one!
There are many books written about the spirits of the world and I would suggest to read some of them to find out about the differences in the world of Spirit. Cheers to all of them.
About Author :
Harald Wiesmann, Restaurant Manager of the fine dining, Asian-inspired Haute Cuisine Kayuputi and Chief Sommelier at The St. Regis Bali Resort, has a very interesting career history spanning a number of years with different roles in various countries. His 45 years of international experience has led Kayuputi to receive prestigious awards from the Wine Spectator Magazine (USA) for seven consecutive years since its opening nine years ago, and dubbed as a fine restaurant that has one of the best wine lists in the Asian region. Harald is set to publish his book, titled “The Inner Voice of a Sommelier in Bali” in the near future we hope.