Feisty Spirited Armagnac
Armagnac from the Gascony region of south-western France doesn’t play second fiddle to its more famous spirituous neighbour to the north, Cognac. Documents prove Armagnac was distilled over 700 years ago around 1411, making it by far the oldest eau de vie in the country and beating Cognac to the puncheon by some 150 years. It’s feisty, distinctive and individualistic like the Gascons portrayed in The Three Musketeers and Cyrano de Bergerac.
Armagnac’s heritage is the marriage of three great cultures: the Romans who introduced the grapevine to Gascony, the Moors who brought alembic distillation (they used the alcohol to make perfume) and the Celts who taught the Gascons about oak barrels. By the late 15th century, Armagnac stills were common in Gascony.
Gascony, about an hour and a half drive southwest of Bordeaux is still a highly agricultural region. The department of Gers in the region is the number one producer of duck in France. You know what that means: duck confit, magret, grattons (crispy duck skin), cassoulet and of course foie gras is on the menu. Duck fat replaces oil and butter in cooking. These artery plugging dishes are miraculously neutered by a glass of Armagnac after a meal. (In 2005 researchers at the University of Bordeaux discovered Armagnac drunk moderately and regularly helps prevent heart attacks and thrombosis. Further studies showed rats on a high fat diet and Armagnac did not gain weight versus rats on the same diet that got only the ethanol.)
Armagnac is produced from the distillation of white wine. Ten grape varieties can be used but in practice most growers cultivate just four: ugni blanc (also called Saint-Émilion), colombard, folle blanche (aka piquepoul) and baco blanc (also known as baco 22-A). Folle blanche was once the favoured grape in the area but it has been mostly replaced by baco blanc, a cross of folle blanche and the hybrid Noah. The highly acidic ugni blanc is the common grape used for cognac.
The Armagnac Appellation Contrôlée was defined in 1936 and comprises of three regions. The most important is Bas Armagnac (57% of vineyards), which has a sandy, silt soil structure that yields grapes of higher acid making generally rounder, supple Armagnac with finesse and a characteristic plum fruitiness. Ténarèze (40% of vineyards) is in the centre of the appellation and produces the most robust, rich brandies with aromas of violets. Haut-Armagnac (3%) produces brandies of lower quality and most growers have switched to corn, wheat, soybean and other crops.
Some producers like Larressingle marry the brandies of Bas Armagnac and Ténarèze to create a blend that captures both the robust warmth of Ténarèze and the mellow, fruity elegance of Bas Armagnac. Larressingle XO is a divine example.
Centuries ago Armagnac was distilled twice in pot stills. Since the first half of the 19th century, most Armagnac is made in a simple continuous alembic column still in a single distillation. Mobile distillers still service small farmers quickly performing the alchemic conversion in a few days. Since 1972, pot stills have been permitted in the appellation as well as double distillation but less than a handful do this.
As soon as the Armagnac is distilled, it’s placed in 400 litre oak casks for aging. The famed local oak (black oak) is in limited supply today and many producers now purchase barrels made from staves from forests further north, such as Limousin and Tronçais. (A Gascony legend states that casks should be made from oaks that have watched the vines grow but alas for many today this is no longer practical.)
Once the barrels are filled, the true transformation begins as the spirits age and first take on vanilla notes, which change to caramel and then toffee. Floral notes dissipate with time and flavours and aromas of dried fruits such as prune develop. With more age come nutty aspects and rancio notes akin to aged sherry. Armagnac in fact needs time to tame its feisty character. While the law says two years minimum, many are blends of multiple vintages. The spirits in bottles marked VSOP or Reserve are a minimum of five years old , the youngest in an XO, Napoleon, Extra or Vieille Reserve blend is six and that of Hors d’Age is ten and older.
In reality, some of the oldest in a blend can be much more aged than the law requires. The delightful Armagnac de Montal VSOP for example has brandies that have aged in French oak up to 20 years. The classy Domblat Napoléon 10 Year Old, is just that, and the label indicates it was bottled on July 5, 2012 from cask #4-5. Bas Armagnac Castarède 20 Year Old XO is still lively, perfumed with violets and lavender yet with power and length. Marie Duffau Bas Armagnac Napoléon boasts a minimum of 10 year old brandy and with its great price and sweet approachable warmth, it’s the fastest selling Armagnac in America.
However my favourite are the vintage dated Armagnac, which must all come from the harvest of the stated year. Cognac producers were only given the right to produce single vintage eau-de-vie in recent years. Armagnac on the other hand has been producing them since the beginning. It’s a special thrill to purchase a birth date vintage for a loved one or for pure self indulgence. Producers such as Chabot have stocks that date back to 1888. When you buy a vintage Chabot, it comes with a parchment paper sealed around the bottle with wax that certifies the exact year of harvest and the exact day and year of bottling. All brandies only age while they are in barrel so the date of bottling is a clear indication of the actual “taste” age of the product. The elegant, complex Chabot 1982 I tried was bottled July 12, 2012 and it showed all the beauty of age. Armagnac de Montal 1993 is elegantly aristocratic with ginger notes in the finish.
Normally I throw out a bottle once it’s empty. Not so for my Vintage Armagnac from my birth year. Those who see the bottle on display in my house pretty much can guess why I’ve kept it around. The allure of Armagnac trumps vanity.
For all of Margaret’s picks click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits