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Brandy de Jerez, Spanish White Wine Distillate
What is Brandy de Jerez?
Brandy de Jerez is the distillate of white wine. The wine can come from any region of Spain, however, most comes from the La Mancha area.
Following distillation the wine must be shipped to the Cadiz region of Andalucia for ageing in or around the towns of Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda or El Puerto de Santa María. It is distilled in one or more of four authorised methods and has been aged in solera for a minimum of six months.
The casks that make up the criadera y solera should have contained sherry wines for no less than three years and should be 250 – 600 liters in size. The brandy must come from an established solera system that has been registered with the DO governing body and must also pass a tasting test to ensure that it carries the expected typicity of the appellation.
Brandy de Jerez, a bit of history
The Moors ruled the south of Spain from the 8th century until the Middle Ages and brought with them their al-ambiqs in order to produce al-kohl. In those days it was intended for medicinal purposes, but was ultimately used to fortify the local wine.
The first recorded references to the maturation of distilled wine, or aguardientes de vino comes from 1580, and discusses the building of a brandy warehouse in a Jesuit college. In the 17th century Jerez proved to be a reliable brandy resource for the Dutch Navy, who introduced the copper pot still to the region, but it was not until the late 18th century to the early 19th century that the producers began to register their own brand names. To this day pot-distilled brandy is known in Jerez as holandas.
In the late 19th century phylloxera hit France decimating her vineyards. Initial beneficiaries of the devastation included Brandy de Jerez. Jerez’s brandy producers were further assisted with the Spanish Civil War as Brandy de Jerez kept up the morale of the troops on both sides. Post-Franco, however, the Spanish market became more accessible and imported brands were soon favoured by the local populace and consumption dropped.
Brandy de Jerez was awarded Denominaciónes de Origen (DO) status in 1989.
What is Brandy de Jerez Made From?
The following two grape varieties are permitted:
- Airen (95 %): The base wine is from La Mancha and is ubiquitous, plentiful and relatively acidic.
- Palomino (5%): The famous grape of Jerez and generally considered too valuable as potential sherry to be used for brandy, although at least one firm still distils it. It is low in both acidity and potential alcohol.
How is Brandy de Jerez Made?
As the Dutch learnt 400 years ago in Cognac, distilling at the source and transporting the brandy is much cheaper than transporting wine and subsequently distilling it. Accordingly, the brandy-producing bodegas of Jerez either own, or have shares in, distilleries in the town of Tomellosa, near la Mancha.
Despite Airen’s natural acidity the base wine, at approximately 13% ABV, is still high in alcohol, making it more difficult for the distiller to concentrate the quality characteristics in the wine. Furthermore, the sheer size of the various operations makes it impossible to distill all the wine before the heat of summer. Therefore the wines must be to be held under certain conditions to prevent oxidation. If this is not tightly controlled a rougher brandy may be produced, which must later be tamed during maturation.
There are four acceptable methods of distillation:
- Single and double distillation: In pot stills both producing holandas of between 60–70% ABV
- Single distillation: In a column still yeilding a distillate below 85% ABV
- Single distillation: In a column still yeilding a distillate above 86% ABV
In order to protect the quality, the character, the identity and ultimately, the good reputation of Brandy de Jerez, the DO has decreed that more than 50% of the end product must comprise spirit at or below 85% ABV. Nonetheless, the various firms produce a plethora of styles.
The bodegas have numerous permutations available to them; including 100% holandas, 100% column still or any combination thereof within the confines of the above law.
The DO requires that the level of flavouring congeners in the brandy reach a minimum level. This is achieved when the distillation and maturation methods outlined are combined. The lower the degree of distillation and the longer the maturation period, the higher the level of congeners.
To ensure the minimum quality level of each category, the solera brandies must contain 150mg per liter and Solera reserva must contain 200mg per liter, while the congener level of Solera Gran reserva must be in excess of 250mg per liter.
Maturation of Brandy de Jerez
All Brandy de Jerez is aged in añada casks and then in the solera system. A short initial period, up to perhaps two years, may be spent in smaller casks undergoing static ageing before the brandy is introduced to the solera where it is blended with older spirit.
A solera system is comprised of rows of barrels, criaderas or nurseries, stacked on top of one another so the wine flows down through the barrels into one final layer, the solera. No more than a third of the solera brandy may be siphoned off for blending and bottling in any year. This is replaced by brandy from the first criadera, which in turn is replaced by the criadera above and so on until the añadas, or new brandy, is fed into the top barrels. Thus the new refreshes the old, the old gives character to the new and at the same time the regular additions of the new spirit affect the interaction with the wood. In this way consistency is achieved.
This style of ageing brandies is known as dynamic as opposed to the Cognac region’s static method. The best brandies may come from soleras with a high number of criaderas, or from those that include a static-ageing period first, but this is not the most important factor; it is the amount of times that the brandies are moved that really makes the difference. This is because if one runs the scales very frequently the brandy will be exposed to plenty of air thus increasing the rate of maturation.
The butts, or barrels, are made from white American oak, which have previously matured sherry. A key to the desired brandy style is the type of sherry that was previously in the butts. An old Fino butt will give a pale, elegant brandy, an old Oloroso butt will give a fuller-bodied, nuttier spirit whilst an old Pedro Ximénez cask will produce big, round, sweet brandies.
The vagaries of the climate mean that the angel’s share does not work in the same way as it does in Cognac or Armagnac. In Spain one finds that the brandies lose a fair amount of volume, but little in the way of alcoholic strength. In order to compensate for this the brandies tend to be reduced earlier in the production process.
Understanding Brandy de Jerez Label Language and Terms
Brand names: Indicators of the style of brandy and the type of barrels in which the brandy has been aged, some companies even state the specific cask.
Solera: A minimum of six months in solera; these brandies will always have the highest volume of column distillate, distilled to the highest degree and it is permissible to flavour them slightly.
Solera reserva: A minimum of one year in solera; normally a blend of column and pot still to give character and some finesse.
Solera Gran reserva: A minimum of three years in solera; almost always made from double-distilled holandas.
In practice the majority of bodegas age their brandies longer than the required minimums; a year seems to be the average for Solera, two to three years for Solera Reserva and 10 years or more for Solera Gran Reserva.
The alcoholic strength should be 36 – 45% ABC.