Except for few major producers, brandy production and consumption tend to have a regional character and thus production methods significantly vary. Wine brandy is produced from a variety of grape cultivars. A special selection of cultivars, providing distinct aroma and character, is used for high-quality brandies, while cheaper ones are made from whichever wine is available.
Brandy is made from so-called base wine, which significantly differs from regular table wines. It is made from early grapes in order to achieve higher acid concentration and lower sugar levels. Base wine generally contains smaller amount (up to 20 mg/l) of sulphur than regular wines, as it creates undesired copper(II) sulfate in reaction with copper in the pot stills. The yeast sediment produced during the fermentation may or may not be kept in the wine, depending on the brandy style.
Brandy is distilled from the base wine in two phases. In the first, large part of water and solids is removed from the base, obtaining so-called “low wine”, basically a concentrated wine with 28–30% ABV. In the second stage, low wine is distilled into brandy. The liquid exits the pot still in three phases, referred to as the “heads”, “heart” and “tails” respectively. The first part, the “head,” has an alcohol concentration of about 83% (166 US proof) and an unpleasant odour. The weak portion on the end, “tail”, is discarded along with the head, and they are generally mixed with another batch of low wine, thereby entering the distillation cycle again. The middle heart fraction, richest in aromas and flavours, is preserved for later maturation.
Distillation does not simply enhance the alcohol content of wine. The heat under which the product is distilled and the material of the still (usually copper) cause chemical reactions to take place during distillation. This leads to the formation of numerous new volatile aroma components, changes in relative amounts of aroma components in the wine, and the hydrolysis of components such as esters.
Brandy is usually produced in pot stills (batch distillation), but the column still can also be used for continuous distillation. Distillate obtained in this manner has a higher alcohol concentration (approximately 90% ABV) and is less aromatic. Choice of the apparatus depends on the style of brandy produced. Cognac and South African brandy are examples of brandy produced in batches while many American brandies use fractional distillation in column stills.
After distillation, the unaged brandy is placed into oak barrels to mature. Usually, brandies with a natural golden or brown colour are aged in oak casks (single-barrel aging). Some brandies, particularly those from Spain, are aged using the solera system, where the producer changes the barrel each year. After a period of aging, which depends on the style, class and legal requirements, the mature brandy is mixed with distilled water to reduce alcohol concentration and bottled.
Some brandies have caramel colour and sugar added to simulate the appearance of barrel aging.
Labelling of grades
Brandy has a traditional age grading system, although its use is unregulated outside of Cognac and Armagnac. These indicators can usually be found on the label near the brand name:
- V.S. (“very special”) or ✯✯✯ (three stars) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in a cask.
- V.S.O.P. (“very superior old pale”), Reserve or ✯✯✯✯✯ (five stars) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least four years in a cask.
- XO (“extra old”) or Napoléon designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years.
- Hors d’âge (“beyond age”) is a designation which is formally equal to XO for Cognac, but for Armagnac designates brandy that is at least ten years old. In practice the term is used by producers to market a high-quality product beyond the official age scale.
In the case of Brandy de Jerez, the Consejo Regulador de la Denominacion Brandy de Jerez classifies it according to:
- Brandy de Jerez Solera: one year old.
- Brandy de Jerez Solera Reserva: three years old.
- Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva: ten years old.