For the past three centuries, France’s world-famous Cognac region has been synonymous with the heady, amber-colored brandy that bears its name. In California, a handful of small distilleries only a few decades old are aiming for the same kind of quality.
To find out how these American upstarts compare with Cognac’s legendary bottlings, three other judges and I conducted a blind tasting of boutique brandies from today’s fastest-growing category, the luxury XO level, at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters. They all had subtle aromas and layered flavors of dried fruit, spice, caramel and leather, thanks to having been aged in oak barrels for a couple of decades.
With only five serious producers, California was the underdog in this competition against six French bottlings. Cognac is home to four giant global brands and hundreds of small family distilleries, and only brandy made there can be named after that region. Like producers in Cognac, the Californians double distill wine in traditional copper pot stills. The big difference is the grapes. Cognac is restricted to ugni blanc (for roundness), colombard (for depth) and folle blanche (for finesse). Any varieties can be used in California.
France’s Jean Fillioux XO Grande Reserve was our three-star winner. And two California brandies, we all agreed, were only a shade less delicious: Etude XO and Osocalis XO. “The Jean Fillioux is beautiful, deep, amazingly vibrant and big,” says judge Flavien Desoblin, 37, founder of New York’s Brandy Library. “The big surprise is how balanced and complex the top California ones are.”
Jason Hopple, the 33-year-old beverage director of New York’s North End Grill, praises the Osocalis’s creamy roundness and notes of tropical fruit and butterscotch. Wine collector Stuart Leaf, 51, founder of Cadogan Management LLC, likes its “wisps of cinnamon bark and soft, lingering finish,” which he contrasts with the “voluptuous, sexy character” of the Etude.
Artisanal cognacs, such as the Jean Fillioux and most of the others in our tasting, usually offer more personality and individuality of taste than big brands and are now more available because of passionate importers. California’s under-the-radar brandies fit the same mold. “They clearly deserve to be better known,” says Leaf, sipping happily.
Jean Fillioux XO Grande Reserve Cognac ($120)
Osocalis XO Alambic Brandy ($115)
Etude XO Alambic Brandy ($145)
Delamain Pale & Dry XO Cognac ($90) Best value
Germain-Robin Select Barrel XO Brandy ($110)
Jepson Signature Reserve Brandy ($135)
Paul Beau Hors d’Age Cognac ($115)
La Gabare Grosperrin XO Cognac ($92)
Leopold Gourmel Tres Vieux Age des Epices ($165)
Tesseron XO Lot No. 76 ($100)
Charbay Brandy No. 83 Folle Blanche (375 ml, $185)
Elin McCoy is the drinks columnist for Bloomberg Markets and Pursuits. elinmccoy.com