Thursday, March 5, 2009

Brandy Friday: California Cognac - Germain Robin

Did you know that deep in the wilds of Northern California, they are making Cognac? Well, it's not technically Cognac because it's not from Cognac, France, but in Mendocino County, Germain-Robin has been making their Alambic Brandy since the 1980s.

The origination of the distillery is the stuff of legend. In 1981, Ansley Coale picked up a couple of French hitchhikers off Highway 101 in the California wine country. One of the hitchikers was Hubert Germain-Robin, the scion of a long-time French Cognac making family which had been recently swallowed by industry giant Martell. Germain-Robin yearned to make brandy in the small, artisan tradition that seemed to have been all but abandoned in France.

The term "Alambic Brandy" which Germain-Robin had to get special permission to use, refers to the Alambic stills (pot stills) which are used to make the brandy. This differentiates it from the big California brandy producers (Gallo, Korbel, Christian Brothers, etc.) which use continuous stills.

Ansley Coale, the co-founder of Germain-Robin is a passionate advocate for his product who insists that it's better than any Cognac out there. Chief among the reasons is the use of delicate Pinot Noir grapes grown in Mendocino County and enjoyed by many wine lovers. In contrast, the grapes of Cognac are grown in bulk and aren't fine wine grapes. Germain-Robin landed on Pinot brandy after much experimentation. Cabernet Sauvignon apparently makes lousy brandy because of the tanins, but Coale likes Sauvignon Blanc and uses some Zinfandel.

Coale prides his operation on being 100% transparent and was happy to answer even the most probing questions. He says they use a "trivial amount" of caramel coloring (1/10 of 1 percent) to maintain consistence and occasionally a trivial amount of sugar syrup, depending on the batch. They never use boisé flavoring (added wood chips) and eschew over oaked brandies.

Germain-Robin makes a number of brandies; I sat down with the well-regarded XO to see how this California upstart stacks up to the Frenchies.


Germain-Robin Alambic Brandy, Select Barrel XO, 40% alcohol ($100-115).

The XO is 80% pinot noir, with the remaining 20% being comprised of a number of varietals, including Semillion and the traditional, though underutilized Cognac grape Colombard.

This brandy is big, bold and complex. The nose is beautiful and dry with subtle grape notes. There is less sweetness than the Cognacs I've had, only a touch with some oak and a dry wine flavor. You can taste the pinot; the brandy tastes more like red wine and less like raisins than the Cognacs we have tasted. A beautiful drink that is certainly comparable to the best Cognacs I've tasted.

It's wonderful to see brandy of this quality being made with this much care right here in our home state. Cheers to Germain-Robin.

Next Friday: Back to Cognac

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