Grown-up Grapes

California wine country comes of age with fine brandy.

By Jon Bonné

Published on March 18, 2019

Where there are grapes, there is brandy; a grape-based, barrel-aged spirit makes good use of unripe or surplus fruit. California had a fine brandy industry in the mid-1800s, but after Prohibition, artisanal spirits were ditched in favor of industrially produced, low-quality ones. So, recently, when I tasted Germain-Robin Coast Road Reserve California Brandy ($65), I was surprised by its exquisite chestnut color, its scents of guava and apples, its savory sandalwood kick. Fine California brandy, it seems, is again a reality.

The Ukiah-based distillery Germain-Robin was co-founded in 1981 by Hubert Germain-Robin, a native of Cognac who adapted to his new Mendocino home by trading out the usual white French brandy grapes—ugni blanc, colombard—for riper, more refined California-grown pinot noir. If pinot noir lacks the acidity of the other grapes, it can contribute plush berry-like flavors.

Germain-Robin started a small trend. In the early 1990s, distiller Dan Farber and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard winemaker Jeff Emery launched Osocalis in Soquel, outside Santa Cruz. Osocalis Rare Alambic Brandy ($45), made primarily from pinot noir, colombard, and semillon, is rambunctious, with savory bouillon accents. It screams to be put in a citrusy sidecar cocktail.

The most extraordinary California brandy comes from the esteemed Carneros pinot noir producer Etude, whose oldest barrels, dating to 1982, were inherited when the winery bought its estate. The property once housed brandy maker Remy Martin's short-lived California distillery, one of a few French forays into the state in the 1970s and '80s. A onetime release, blended from 43 of the 72 remaining barrels, Etude XO Alambic ($145) is packed with flavors of roses, golden raisin, nectarine, and the sherry-like signature of its rarest French counterparts. Made from a mix of grapes both traditional (colombard, ugni blanc) and unconventional (pinot noir, muscat), it's a bridge between two worlds. And it's proof that California can produce brandies as world-class as its wines.

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