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Cognac on the Ropes?

A California brandy has been outscoring French Cognac in tastings. It's secret punch: grapes.


UKIAH — To most lovers of fine Cognac, brandy and all the other aged-in-barrel spirits, the secret of greatness is time. Ten or 15 years' aging gives them complexity and richness. Aged 25 to 50 years, they can be sublime, worth even their always-substantial cost.

But to Ansley Coale, the secret is in the grapes.

"It's the major difference between what they do in Cognac and what we do in California," says Coale, co-owner of Alambic Germain-Robin, America's finest brandy maker, whose latest efforts compete favorably with the finest Cognacs of France. "Sure, the aging is critical, but without great grapes. . . ."

With the recent release of a brandy called Perfection, which sells for about $250 a bottle--roughly $10 per ounce--Coale and his partner, Cognac expatriate Hubert Germain-Robin, have established a standard by which to judge all such distilled products, including top-of-the-line Cognacs selling for far more.

Some purists may point out that you cannot really compare domestic brandy to Cognac. However, when Coale staged a blind tasting of these products a few weeks ago in San Francisco for a series of experts, Germain-Robin Select Barrel XO brandy, which sells for $100 a bottle, outscored Cognac Ferrand Selection des Anges ($105) and Cognac Hennessy XO ($120).

Germain-Robin, situated on Coale's 200-acre sheep ranch outside Ukiah, is the most unassuming of distilleries. The small copper-pot still sits in a tiny building on a brick shelf, gleaming in the morning light. It's the essential piece of equipment in the operation--fine brandy requires slow distillation in copper pot stills, skilled blending and barrel age. But Coale and Germain-Robin have come to believe that the grapes can be just as important as the distilling.

This is not a commonly held idea. In fact, you read very little about grapes in the Cognac literature. For centuries, Cognac has been made from rather neutral grapes. There is even an old saying that the worse the wine, the better the brandy.

And Cognac's grapes have declined in overall quality in the last hundred years. The traditional grapes, Folle Blanche and French Colombard, which make acceptable white wines on their own, began to be replaced early in this century with Ugni Blanc, a grape known chiefly for its large tonnage per vine.

"When we first started in 1982, we were looking for neutral grapes," says Coale. "That's what Hubert thought would make fine brandy." But their new distillery was in Mendocino County, which hadn't yet been discovered as a premium growing region by the rest of the wine industry. So almost all grape varieties were cheap.

"We got our hands on some very good grapes, almost by accident," says Coale. "We could buy any grape in the county for $450 a ton, so we got Colombard, and we were offered some Gamay Beaujolais for the same price."

It wasn't the real French Gamay but a lesser clone of Pinot Noir that was known by that name in California at the time. It had rarely been used for making fine brandy. "I'll never forget Hubert standing at the still as the first drops [of Gamay Beaujolais brandy] were coming off. His mouth was open and he was amazed. 'This is the best stuff I've ever seen!' he said."

Germain-Robin knew brandy. He was reared on his family's distillery in Cognac, the Jules Robin Cognac house. Founded in 1782, it was one of the finest artisanal producers in Cognac. Germain-Robin was a blender for the firm when it was sold in the late 1970s to Cognac giant Martell.

Germain-Robin says the larger company's production techniques didn't suit him, so he moved to the United States. A chance meeting with Coale, a professor of ancient history at UC Berkeley, led to a partnership in a venture that Coale admits turned out to be a lot more time-consuming than they had anticipated.

The problem, he now says, is that even the discovery that better grapes make better brandy couldn't eliminate the need for a long aging process. He says it takes at least a decade to make a great product: "And we didn't realize how long a decade was when we were starting out.

"But really, it comes back to the grapes," says Coale. "We now use Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay, Palomino. The Cognacois say they have to have chalk in their soil to make great Cognac. Well, that's all they have. Their laws were written in the 1850s, limiting their choices of grapes."

Those laws were changed in 1936 to dictate, among other things, the kind of fermentation that must be used.

"That's another thing," says Coale. "We are doing much finer fermentations. We use a variety of yeast strains to give us complexity you can't get from the old-fashioned methods that they still use. Cognac is still fermented in a very old-fashioned way."

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