It must have been five years ago that I became aware of Vecchia Romagna, when a bottle of their Etichetta Nera (Black Label) found its way to our flat. As much as I love and respect Cognac and Armagnac, I’m conscious that good brandy can come from parts of the world other than France, so a storied Italian brand falling into my lap like so was very welcome. The Etichetta Nera is and was a very decent pick, especially given the price. Enjoyably full as a sipper, with tropical fruit and spice notes, it was an excellent go-to for cocktails as well. That it came in a striking three-faced bottle didn’t hurt, and guests noticing that in the cocktail bar hastened an already swift rate of depletion.
A couple of years later saw my interest in Vecchia Romagna consolidated, as during a delightful trip to Northern Italy for a wedding, I did the only sensible thing for a person of my interests and went to scope out any drinks that were unavailable or rather more expensive back home. Naturally, Vecchia Romagna was amongst those which caught my eye. A day or two later, cue a very nervous flight home, worrying if the brandy and multitude of amari stuffed into the hold luggage had survived, and then a good spell enjoying the fruits of our travels once it was confirmed that they all had.
So, rather discursively, that was the score between me and Vecchia Romagna when an invite to attend the launch of their Riserva 18 popped into my inbox. Where the Etichetta Nera is an excellent introduction, the Riserva 18 is a somewhat more rarefied creation.
As the name suggests, it’s made from spirits that have all been aged a minimum of eighteen years, ranging up to thirty five years of maturation. The spirit itself is distilled from a wine made with Trebbiano grapes, which is to say the same variety under a different name (Ugni Blanc/St. Émilion) as is predominant in Cognac’s production. Distillation is split between pot and column stills. Aging is spread between large (4000-5000 litre) Slovenian oak barriques and smaller (400 litre) French oak barrels, with this edition unique in finishing for an additional spell in Amarone della Valpolicella barrels. After blending, the brandy is left for three months to let the flavours settle and harmonise.
The launch was held at Luca and, well, if you’re going to extol the virtues of an Italian drink, this was an excellent place to entrust the paired food to. The drinks had been overseen by cocktail notable and brand ambassador Rudi Carraro, and on arrival I was handed a delightful Italian Crusta, using the Etichetta Nera, lifted with a touch of patchouli. Some polite small-talk with the disgustingly charming and well-turned-out Italian contingent who’d come in to help explain the Riserva 18 led neatly to an antipasto of burrata with a pumpkin caponata and pickled walnuts.
With the secondo (a cannon of hebridean lamb, borlotti bean bagna cauda, roasted salsify, and spinach), came an accompanying Old Fashioned, using their Tre Botti (Three Barrels), fig, the always-welcome Amaro Montenegro and a spritz of bergamot. Tasted separately, the Tre Botti was a little more “grown-up” than the Etichetta Nera, with hints of leather and less perceptual sweetness, though dried tropical fruit notes were still evident, as was citrus peel, dates and figs and vanilla with a hint of bitter almond.
With the dolce (dark chocolate delice, salted caramel and nocciola ice cream), came the first taste of the Riserva 18. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t make its way into a cocktail, but taken on its own, it was a fascinating, complex, and very enjoyable drink. While there was a definite continuity between the three brandies, in the Riserva 18 you saw less tropical notes and a more overtly vinous edge, with orchard fruit, more hazelnut and walnut, dried fruit, a touch more leather and then spice and vanilla on the nose. There was an intriguing build as you sipped it, very easy at the beginning, with a growing intensity, hints of coffee beans alongside the fruit and spice, then showing a little more wood, nut skin and wine tannins at the end. An absolutely delightful expression of Vecchia Romagna’s craft, showing a fine balance between the full and overt and the nuanced and layered.
While there are definite nods to Cognac in the grape variety, the (partial) use of Charentais-style pot stills and French oak for distilling and aging, this stands on its own feet as a distinct and admirable brandy with an identity of its own. As an aside on the identity front, the packaging for the Riserva 18 is exceedingly handsome, avoiding the gaudiness of some ultra-premium spirits packaging and retaining a nod of continuity with the rest of the range.
Obviously, a brandy released in limited runs of 5000 and priced at around £130 each is something that not everyone will be in the market for, but it is a confident statement that Vecchia Romagna is making brandy that stands comparison amongst other prestige bottlings. And, if it gives the Etichetta Nera and Tre Botti a bit more attention, too, then so much the better.