Most wine producing regions have a tradition of producing ‘brandy’, a spirit distilled from wine. Brandy is different from Marc, which most wine regions also produce, this is made from distilling the left-over pomace or solids after winemaking has finished. Brandy consequently tends to be a smoother product.
In Bordeaux most of the leftover solids or pomace from wine making are recovered by the government as a sort of compulsory taxation and are then distilled into industrial or pharmaceutical alcohol with some production of ethanol going for fuel. Pips are removed from which oil is extracted and other extracts include food colourings and antioxidants. Any remaining solids are either incorporated into cattle feed, composted for fertilizer or used for biomass energy production – nothing goes to waste!
The Dutch introduced distillation into Bordeaux in the 17th century. Distillation reduced the volume of liquid for cheaper and easier transportation and possibly also reducing tax that was levied on volume. This encouraged the planting of white grapes for their ‘brandewijn’ hence the name brandy. The neighbouring region of Cognac to the North of course overshadows any spirit production in Bordeaux. At the end of the 19th century distillers in Bordeaux could claim the name Cognac for their product but in the early 20th century they gave up this right preferring to be associated with Bordeaux creating in 1942 an ‘Eau-de-vie d’Aquitaine’
However since 1973 Bordeaux has enjoyed a ‘Brandy’ appellation, ‘fine de Bordeaux’. It was recently granted the IG (Indication Géographique) status. This is a white spirit distilled from wine uniquely vinified in the Bordeaux AOC region from white grapes. But not any white grapes; the blend must include at least 70% Ugni Blanc and Colombard, the remaining 30% can be made up of Merlot Blanc, Mauzac or Ondenc. About 300 ha of these grape varietals are currently planted, mainly in Northern Gironde in the Côtes de Blaye appellation, nearest to the neighbouring Cognac region. As a reminder the surface area of the Bordeaux vineyard is currently about 113000ha of which 11% is under white grapes.
It is here, in the Côtes de Blaye, that the only distillery currently licenced to produce Fine Bordeaux is situated; Les Distilleries Vinicoles du Blayais in Marcillac was built in 1936, the same year that the AOC was created). They currently produce only about 50 000 bottles, most of which is exported to the EU.
The distillation process is the ‘méthode charentaise’ a double distillation in copper pots and Fine de Bordeaux must age for at least one year in oak barrels. This gives an amber colour and a fruity and mellow honey aroma.
Fine Bordeaux was very popular in the 1970’s but declined in the 1980s and had almost disappeared until recently. It is now enjoying a revival thanks mainly to an Englishman in Bordeaux, Simon Thompson. Having spent time in Cognac, he has developed an affinity for the local spirits and he created his company in 2010 producing a range of spirits that includes four Fines de Bordeaux; a 25 year old, a 30 year old and two vintage Fines a 1979 and a 1986. He also offers a single distilled, barrel aged brandy blended with some Fine de Bordeaux and a vodka.
Surprised by the vodka? You shouldn’t be. The highly successful Grey Goose Vodka brand is blended just up the road in Cognac. The difference here however is that the Thompson vodka is distilled from wine rather than wheat, as you would expect in Bordeaux. He is also working on a ‘Bordelais gin’. The Bordeaux British link is still alive and well.