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Published: Tuesday, 10/12/2004

Wine has several relatives

For many of us, wine is quite enough most of the time. The distinctive mealtime beverage is welcome at the dinner table in a way that coffee or milk is not.

This is not because wine is alcoholic, for there are many alternatives. Fortified wines - port, sherry, madeira among them - would simply take over a dinner menu; they may have up to 21 percent alcohol, while table (or dinner) wines are relatively mild by comparison, at only 12.5 percent or so alcohol, and very rarely reach 15 percent.

Champagne and other sparkling wines occasionally may find a complementary place in a dinner menu, but they are relatively expensive because making champagne is labor-intensive.

Some dinner wines are mildly sweet, of course, but with few exceptions the most highly esteemed table wines are dry.

Now think of wine-related alcoholic beverages to which I haven't alluded. If you're a purist, brandy leaps to mind - strong and bone dry. And just around a conceptual corner are "flavored wines," as they are sometimes called; what sets these apart, like brandy, are the wines from which they're made and the way they're made.

Consider cognac. It is made in a legally defined district north and east of Bordeaux from the juices of three varieties of wines: ugni blanc, columbard, and folle blanche, none of which is generally considered very good (for the quality of cognac is not related to the vintage).

What sometimes contributes to the confusion of cognacs with wine is that two of the preferred six sources of cognac are areas named "petite champagne" and "grande champagne," neither having anything to do with the wines of the same name.

Where wine and cognac part company is the repeated distillation of the fermented wine. Each distillation increases the alcohol in the distillate and neutralizes other taste elements. Flavor and color are the result of barrel aging. Though the distilled product matures in a barrel, it is fixed once bottled, and tastes the same after 25 years in a bottle as on the day it was bottled.

Cognac has a first cousin, so to speak, a similar brandy called armagnac, made in a similar process. Many people find it rather coarse, but it has its fans.

Very different and more widely attractive are other liqueurs, among them the oldest wine-based and brandy-based with which most wine lovers probably are familiar. These are brandies sweetened with herbs and spices, in every case according to treasured formulas that seem to date back to the late medieval discovery of distillation and the recognition of alcohol. An old bottle of wine is one thing, but when you sip a pony shot of B&B or Chartreuse, green or yellow, you're enjoying a gift of centuries.

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