When I was little, my parents would trick me into eating my dinner. Nothing malicious. They just told me what I needed to know and nothing more. Because, at the time, the names of foods would color my opinion of them. Sometimes for the better, but mostly for the worse.
For a long time, I had this crusade against lamb. I refused to eat it, because I was convinced I didn’t like it. My parents had seen me eat it (without knowing what it was) a few times and knew this wasn’t true. I liked most meats, so they used this when I would inquire as to what the evening’s repast would be,
“We’re having meat.”
And I would give the meal my seal of approval, “Meat?! Yay, I like meat!”
They would smile and finish making dinner. Soon after, I would be eating large spoonfuls of ground lamb and say, “This is good meat. Good choice.”
Nothing got past me.
I think about this anecdote every time I try to introduce a whisky drinker to brandy. I’ve had many conversations where both sides lament the scarcity of whiskies they’ve loved from years past, and about the rising prices of the ones that remain on the shelves. What are we to do? Well, we could always try something else.
Children, as well as adults, seem comfortable in camps. I like this, not that. This sports team, not that one. Whisky, none of this brandy nonsense.
Perhaps our admiration for what we hold dear eventually turns into an unhealthy allegiance. And an allegiance to any one spirit is unfortunate, as there’s so many great bottles out there that happen to be made from something other than grain.
In an effort to escape rising whisky prices I’ve been tasting a lot more brandy in recent years. More importers were bringing in higher quality juice from lesser-known producers. This is always a great combination, as the prices for these bottles were more generous than fair. What made this wave of brandies most remarkable was the breadth of offerings. I was finding brandies at 15, 20, 25, even 30 years of age, and all for prices I could afford!
Suddenly, looking at Yamazaki 25 year on a shelf for 4 figures just made me laugh.
Of the brandies out there, Armagnac, with its long maturation, deep color, and robust flavors seems a touch familiar to something else we all know very well.
Luckily, many people before me have already put Armagnac on the bourbon drinker’s radar. While new bourbon releases are still (very much) sought after, there is a large contingent of bourbon drinkers out there who have jumped onto the brandy bandwagon. Today, you can find whisky clubs arranging flights and bottling barrel picks of brandy. Some importers and producers, seeing this trend, have gone as far as to finish their products in famous bourbon barrels (Weller, Pappy, etc). This, for me, goes too far and defeats the point of trying something new. However, that’s another discussion entirely.
I’ll be tasting two different bottles of Armagnac from Domaine de Pellehaut. It is a large estate located in the center (Tenareze) of Armagnac. The estate covers 550 hectares, 250 of which are under vine. The domaine makes a lot of Côtes de Gascogne wine that gets distributed all over the world, while still having plenty of juice left for their prodigious brandy operation.
Because they are a big operation, they don’t have a problem keeping the lights on. They can afford to hold onto their stocks for a long time (still sounds a bit like bourbon, no?). Which is good, as the brandies made in Tenareze tend to be abrasive in their youth. They need time to come into their own, and Pellehaut is happy to wait. The estate uses the Ugni Blanc grape for their older brandies. The earliest they’ll bottle any Ugni Blanc brandy is after a minimum of 15 years in cask.
Both of today’s brandies are much older than that. They’re vintage brandies from 1989; a 31 year old bottled in 2020 (49.9% ABV), and a 32 year old bottled in 2021 (49.5% ABV). I thought it might be fun to jump into the deep end and see how different these releases would be with only a year apart from each other. Both were on the shelf for $100.
Chateau de Pellehaut Ugni Blanc 1989 31 Year – Review
Colour: Ceylon Tea.
On the nose: Upfront, it is dry but rich. Notes of stretched caramel, dark toffee, and wood varnish percolate to the top. Fruit leathers and dried figs combine with vanilla and nutmeg. The aromas, while assertive, are only just holding back the ethanol that is itching to come out. I added a few drops of water to slow things down. This also stifled the prick of ethanol.
In the mouth: The palate is compelling from the start, as it’s alive with spices but also softly textured. The dried fruits from the nose are complimented by nougat and brown sugar notes. The finish has a tea bitterness that fits well with the mild wood notes. Water sweetens the overall palate and rehydrates the fruit flavors a bit.
The aromas and flavors all seem so classic. Though what I like best is it drinks like a more youthful brandy. Lots of energy in the glass, yet it still manages to offer some nuance that is only found in older spirits. This isn’t the height of brandy experiences but it is very far from the bottom. You get a lot for your money.
Chateau de Pellehaut Ugni Blanc 1989 32 Year – Review
Colour: Amber (with a hint of red.
On the nose: The alcohol is more noticeable in this brandy. A lot of what was found in the 31 year is here, but it’s all more subtle. The spices aren’t as sharp, fruits more leathered, and sugar
notes are less sweet. Everything seems more tightly knit too. What does make it stand out from its younger sibling is an aroma of dried flowers. It lingers and reminds me of nice perfume.
In the mouth: The flavors are less complex but more defined, which appeals to me. Hearty fruit flavors of sugared plums and caramel apple. There isn’t much of a mid-palate, as the brandy is eager to get to the slam bang finish. Bright bergamot and spearmint refresh your palate readying you for another sip. Adding water makes the palate more wood-forward and bitter. I prefer it as is.
This acts more its age. The stew of primary flavors it started out with have been boiled down to purer expressions. While the young fruits are waning, the tertiary notes are starting to bloom. Makes me wonder what an even older bottling of ’89 would be like. An excellent brandy for those that like a more transformed spirit.
Despite coming from the same vintage, having almost identical ABVs, and only 1 year difference in age, these brandies have significant differences. What’s nice about tasting them side-by-side is that you get a glimpse of the arc of this particular vintage. The bottle from 2020 showed a brandy on the brink of transition (but still holding onto its youth), while this year’s bottle had come out the other side (just beginning to flaunt its age). I hope Pellehaut bottles a couple more releases of ’89, as I think it still has a little further to go before it hits its peak.
Looking back on what is written here, I ask, would this kind of vintage tasting have been possible with whisky? Probably not.
While there are vintage releases of whisky, consecutive annual releases of the same vintage are incredibly rare. Also, how much do you think each bottle (of 30+ year old juice) would cost? Probably not $100.
Perhaps if I was tight with a particular whisky distillery (which I’m not) and could arrange for a shipment of some barrel samples to be sent to me (which I can’t), this side-by-side could happen. Even if all that was arranged, would tasting them be terribly helpful to you, the reader? The distillery would likely have no intention of bottling what I tasted anyway. Yet, in the world of Armagnac, all I had to do was pull the bottles off the shelf.
If you still haven’t dipped a toe into brandy let a bartender or retail clerk know and I’m sure they’ll say, “Oh, I have something you should taste.” If so, I hope you take the leap. All they want is to give you something delicious to drink. Don’t be like little Sam. Try the meat, it’s good.