(Continued from “The Spanish Spirit” on 16 November 2018)
In the world of wine, both maturation in barrel and ageing in bottle are conducive to improving quality and complexity – assuming that both are done properly. In the realm of brandy, however, only maturation in barrel counts; ageing in bottle may help take the edges off the nectar, but this also blurs its distinctive flavours. Nonetheless, many a veteran brandy connoisseur would still go the extra mile to find old bottlings of even the most common cognacs. This is not only due to rarity, but also because of quality.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when cognac had yet to penetrate the massive market in Mainland China en masse, production volumes of even the biggest houses were but a fraction of what they are now. Three to four decades since, sales have increased multifold and yet total hectarage in Cognac has barely increased, or at least not as exponentially. How could that be possible?
First, with fresh money made from emerging markets, big brands began to buy eaux-de-vie from smaller ones, thereby becoming more of a blender than distiller. Second, the percentage of old eaux-de-vie in blends gradually decreases, replaced by ever smarter use of boisé, caramel and sugar syrup; after all, blending is at the heart of every cognac, and all the aforementioned additives are legally permitted. Third, alcoholic strength is almost invariably watered down to the bare minimum of 40%; high ABV does not guarantee better quality, but it does mean more substance in the bottle.
As far as brandy is concerned, the world we live in is borderline dystopian, when most airports, hotels, restaurants and supermarkets sell essentially the same cognacs. It is as if there is little living space left for genuine nectars, and it takes some gargantuan efforts just to find proper cognacs made by boutique producers. Fortunately, there still are the likes of armagnac, calvados and fine brandies from the rather less airbrushed and commercialised Iberia. Far from being the poor man’s cognac, Spanish brandy is quite often the uncorrupted soul of the art. Up and down the country, in Andalucía in particular, there is a wealth of hidden gems to be discovered at astonishingly attractive prices.
Bodegas Rubio is one of those well-kept secrets. Legend has it that in 1893, several casks of matured brandy was discovered in a cellar in La Palma del Condado, some 45km NE of Huelva. The forgotten casks were stamped with the name “Luis Felipe”, Spanish for “Louis Philippe” as they were reserved for Antoine Marie Philippe Louis d’Orléans, Duc de Montpensier, the youngest son of Louis Philippe I, King of the French.
Not unlike rearing Iberian pigs, given a critical mass, the stock can become an eternally self-replenishing system – in theory at least. As per the traditional criaderas y soleras method, barrels are arranged in andanas and cachones, stacked one on the top of another; the oldest ones are called soleras and are closest to the floor. When portions of the soleras are bottled, they are replenished with younger ones from barrels immediately above, which are called criaderas.
Bodegas Rubio – W: www.brandyluisfelipe.com;
Photography: Courtesy of Bodegas Rubio.
To be continued one day…
Matured for an indeterminable number of years in ex-Oloroso and ex-Pedro Ximénez casks made of American oak using the traditional criaderas y soleras method.
Saturated mahogany with ochre-sepia rim, the spellbinding nose discreetly radiates salted plum, star anise, dried cordyceps flower, balsam, treacle, cigar and lacquer. With a double cream-like mouthfeel and consistency, the haunting palate gracefully oozes prune, clove, shitake mushroom, hazelnut paste, beechwood honey, pu-erh tea and dark soya sauce. Full-bodied at 40% and yet the impression of alcohol is gentler than even a vintage Madeira, the ultra-fine entry evolves into a boundlessly umami-rich mid-palate, leading to a seemingly eternal finish, all the while maintaining poise and stature.
This is a time capsule, or retronasal sensation, or Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, or all of the aforementioned, in a bottle. A brandy that makes one takes the hat off and stand straight, one that deserves to be savoured drop by drop and appreciated with deference. Alternatively, one could spalsh a few drops on a pocket square.