Germain-Robin’s Artisanal Brandy Is A Classic California Spirit

Food & Drink

While brandy can, technically, be made anywhere in the world, it’s hardly associated with California. But Germain-Robin, a craft distiller in Mendocino County, has been slowly but surely changing that perception as word gets out about its exceptional quality intentionally outside the bounds of traditional Cognac style.

In many ways, it’s surprising that great brandy hasn’t always been a part of California’s agricultural profile, given its top-notch wine grapes and coveted vineyard locations. The Germain-Robin brand was founded in 1982 when Hubert Germain-Robin, whose family had been making Cognac for generations (in the Cognac region of France, of course) was exploring northern California for the right location to make brandy, and he encountered history professor and rancher Ansley Coale, with whom he partnered to form Germain-Robin.

From the beginning, the founders were committed to making alambic (pot-distilled) brandy, but what most distinguished Germain-Robin from other distilleries is its decision to use Mendocino County-grown Pinot Noir, Colombard, and Semillon grapes. This was quite a risk, as these wine grapes cold have gone into the tried-and-true wine bottlings the still-burgeoning Mendocino AVA is known for.

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But the upside is that, unlike in France, where the rules of production are strict and government-regulated, California has a decidedly more libertarian attitude where this particular spirit is concerned. (That’s not because California doesn’t like to govern the production of consumable goods; it’s just because brandy hasn’t really taken off as a daily beverage, so there’s not much competition among producers to spark debate about best practices.)

Many brandy connoisseurs think Germain-Robin is every bit as good, if not better, than the libation made in its spiritual home of Cognac. How and why might that be? Well, one reason is Mendocino’s climate, where temperatures can routinely rise to 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and dip to the cool, crisp 5os at night. In this scenario, grapes ripen but still maintain good acidity, which is important for both wine and brandy. The other reason is the choice of grapes, themselves. At some point early on, Germain-Robin began tried Pinot Noir to make its brandy, and a star was born. It’s an expensive grape, to be sure, but it produces a much higher-quality product than many of the warmer-climate varietals used in Cognac.

Germain-Robin still uses Colombard grapes for its more accessible flagship bottling; but the XO, distilled in Pruhlo Charentais pot stills and aged in Limousin oak barrels, highlights all that Pinot Noir can do.

At a recent virtual tasting, I got to explore both “expressions,” as Germain-Robin calls them, the flagship brandy paired with dehydrated shiitake mushroom chips and the XO paired with roasted almonds. While both are delicately fruit-toned, floral, and balanced, the XO has layers upon layers of complexity, opening to savory-umami possibilities, as well.

Honestly, Germain-Robin brandies make one wonder why this isn’t a daily beverage. It’s an ideal after-dinner drink, served at room temperature in a brandy snifter. You can mix it, as well, but don’t. This stuff is too good to disguise with ancillary flavors and aromas.

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