I distilled my first grape brandy in November 2016 since then I learned and experimented a lot, from different grape varieties to different yeasts to using a pot still versus a column still to a full grape distillate versus just the juice.
Below I've compiled a list of my learnings layered on top of the recommendations from the manuscript interview between Elie Skofis and interviewer Ruth Teiser which was conducted in 1987.
This is a great guide and starting point to explain a few points and showcase what you can do to produce a great brandy.
Dr. Guymon's impact on today's production of higher quality brandies was in his emphasis on the following:
1. Proper grape maturity -- high acid and low pH.
So, what does this mean? You always hear that you need high acid wines to create a great brandy. This contradicts the first piece of the sentence, which states "Proper grape maturity". In winemaking terms, proper grape maturity usually means Brix levels of 24 and above this, of course, this varies from grape to grape and there are some exceptions but usually, it means higher Brix than what you will be needing for a high acid wine.
To further expand and clarify, you can have a fully matured grape that is also high in acid, but good luck finding these grapes at a commercial vineyard. Plantings like Ugni Blanc or Baco which by nature when reach full maturity are very high acid are a rare commodity in the United States.
High acid wines help brandy distillations in two ways. First, they help preserve the fruitiness and structure during the distillation as high acid wine correlates with high ester and high fatty acid contents. Second, high acidic wines are preserved better while we wait to process those wine (since zero/small amounts of SO2 goes in you need the acidity to help preserve the juice).
Of course, we handled the grapes right. We brought them in low in sugar and high acid - Elie Skofis
2. Preference for white or lightly-colored varieties
I agree, although I have distilled red grape varieties like Tempranillo, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, white grape varieties tend to produce excellent aged and un-aged brandies.
Furthermore, it's also important to consider that if you are a brandy distillery it helps you get to market quicker with an un-aged brandy, thus you are more likely to use a white grape variety as it will produce a more aromatic and softer distillate.
3. Separation of juice from skins or pomace prior to fermentation and handling them as a dry white table wine.
My first brandy batch was a small lot Riesling, which I decided to treat like a red wine fermentation and ferment with the full grape cluster (skins, seeds), this helped in extracting more color, thus producing an orange wine.
The wine/mash was then distilled as a whole, so no pressing was done to separate the skins from the juice.
Currently, I'm producing a juice only grape brandy but unfortunately, time will have to tell as to the differences between full cluster distillations versus juice.
4. Low SO2 - (not over 75 ppm in the brandy wine fermentation).
All I can say is that 75 ppm is high, and I attribute this to the style of winemaking back in the 80s, which was very high doses of SO2. Current trends and winemaking have lowered dramatically the additions of SO2, and although you can see levels of 75+ most winemakers don't dose their wines with such high levels.
In general, for brandy production I add zero SO2 during pressing or after the wine is done fermenting, and although you do get naturally occurring SO2 levels as part of your fermentation there are no extra additions. Low or zero additions of SO2 help with minimizing aldehyde accumulation during distillations.
5. Fermentation temperature lower than 75F.
I totally agree here, and I do believe with temperature-controlled tanks you can have better control and thus a better quality wine for distillation, especially for whites grapes.
6. Distillation of the fermented wine immediately after fermentation with a partial racking from heavy fermentation lees.
Also, agree with trying to use the wine as quickly as possible, it's crucial to the wine especially when SO2, as mentioned above, is not added to the final wine.
7. If wine fortified, only high-quality wine spirits used.
Although I have not used a fortified wine to distill, I would concur that I would only purchase high-quality wine spirits, and especially a focus on the spirit being grape-based as most likely then you get into weird TTB territory for the type and class of the spirit.
The above deals with distilling materials which, in my opinion, are the keystone to quality brandy - Elie Skofis
I hope you find this useful and applicable to your brandy operation. For any comments, suggestions or tips and techniques to try to feel free to leave a comment to reach out via social media.