The Charentais Alembic
Jean Martell was one of the earliest pioneers in the field of wine distillation into cognac, and the process and still that is used is named after the Charente river where Cognac is located. Wine is fed into the boiler, where it vaporises. As it rises, it passes through the swan’s neck to go into cooled tubes, where it condenses into eau-de-vie. The first distillate is called “brouillis”, and this has a concentration of around 30 per cent. This is re-distilled, into a higher concentration eau-de-vie called the “bonne chauffe”, and it is at this point when the heart of the distillate is separated from the head and tail, which are recycled, while the heart is aged in oak barrels to develop its flavours.
Champagne has similar characteristics but with a shorter finish. Fin Bois produces fast-ageing eaux-de-vie with strong fruity flavours and frequently constitute the base of most cognacs. Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires tend toward gentler styles that age quickly and offer a hint of the sea.
Like cognac, armagnac is a regionspecific brandy that is based largely on the same grapes used in cognac production. The process of ageing is identical, and armagnac was considered in the past to have a medicinal and therapeutic benefit for life. The terroir of the region determines the kind of flavours that you can taste in the cognac, and four main regions exist: Bas-armagnac, Armagnac-ténarèze, Blanche dʼarmagnac and Haut-armagnac.
The key difference lies in their distillation, armagnac being distilled only once to yield a fragrant spirit, after which it is aged. The categorisation of ageing follows the same rules as cognac, with one top ranking: Hors d ʼâge, which has the minimum ageing of a decade. However, it also follows a vintage ageing style, in the same way as wines, for particular vintages.
A natural progress from the cider farms of the Normandy region, apple brandy is distilled from ciders made from very high quality apples from farms in the regions. Various types of apples are used, with up to 100 different apple varieties existing in one single bottling.
Fruits at apple farms are harvested and pressed, either by hand or machine, fermented and then distilled. The ageing process takes place in oak casks and double distillation (like cognac) in alembic pot stills. Calvados can also be distilled in a single process, but only on column stills.
Calvados is also rated by cask ageing and vintage bottling, depending on the quality of the fruit that is available.
While cognac and armagnac bear a single appellation (international rating), calvados has four. The standard is the AOC Calvados, and the more restrictive AOC Calvados Pays d ʼ Auge has a designated region and requires double distillation. AOC Calvados Domfrontals have more traditional standards and Fermier Calvados indicates the traditional style that is made by hand.