In Spain there two regions with DO-controlled brandy production. To qualify for the DO the spirit must by aged in the Jerez region in Andalucía, or the Penedès region in Catalonia, although the base wines generally come from La Mancha. These brandies are often deep in colour and very soft and sweet.
The strongest contender for the first distilled spirit in Europe is brandy from Andalucía, where distillation was practiced from 900 AD. The Moors were also familiar with the technique, which they used to produce perfume and medicine. Spirits production in the Jerez region is not documented until the sixteenth century, when Aqua Vita was being used to fortify the local wines to stabilize them for transport. The history of what is now Jerez brandy can be read in the names that are still used: the pot still is known as an alquitaras - from the Arabic al-gattara - and the premium distillate as holandas - from the name of the country where much of the produce was exported: Holanda, or Holland (the Dutch also coined the term brandewijn, ‘burned wine’, a very literal description which gave us the word ‘brandy’).
The grapes used in the production of Spanish brandy are Airen and Palomino. They come from vineyards in Extremadura and La Mancha and give a wine which is high in alcohol and low in acidity. Two methods of distillation are permitted: column or pot. These are used to produce three different distillates: pot still spirits known as holandas, which must be distilled to between 60 and 70% ABV; and two different aguardientes: a lower strength one of up to 85% ABV and a higher strength one of between 86 and 94.5% ABV.
These three distillates give the blender a wide range of flavour components to play with, mixing different percentages of the fuller-bodied holandas with the lighter aguardientes. In general, the entry level solera brands will be all aguardiente, while the top-designation of Solera Gran Reserva tends to be made from 100% holandas spirit. By law the final blend must contain a minimum of 50% of spirits that have been distilled to under 86%.
The maturation process for brandy de Jerez differs a lot from other brandies. Rather than using the static ageing employed in Cognac and Armagnac, distillers employ the solera system as used by the sherry industry (although some top producers in Penedès prefer to use the static system to age their brandies, which they also distil in a cognac style still). The solera is a collection of casks arranged in layers, each layer containing brandies of different average age. The casks are replenished with the same volume from the tier above when a brandy is bottled and so on back through the system. Because of not more than 33% of the volume of each cask can be removed at any one time, this means that there is some brandy which never leaves the solera. While logic might suggest that adding the younger brandies would dominate the older ones, the opposite happens and the younger stock takes on some of the character of the older one. The warm climate in Andalucía too helps to soften the character of the brandies as they age.
This method of blending allows flavours to be developed, gives greater oxidation and also changes the manner in which the spirit interacts with the oak, which must have contained sherry for at least three years prior to being used for brandy. These are usually made from American oak and give different flavours to the final spirit depending on the origin. For example ex-oloroso casks lend aromas of walnut, plum, and figs; Pedro Ximenez gives raisin and sweet notes; and fino gives vanilla, fresh fruits and grilled nuts.
Brandy has a rating system to describe its quality and condition; these indicators can usually be found near the brand name on the label.
The Brandy de Jerez Regulatory Council uses the following classifications:
• Brandy de Jerez Solera – one year old.
• Brandy de Jerez Solera Reserva – three years old.
• Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva – ten years old.