Gingerbread, prune, violets, truffles, orange peel, vanilla, cinnamon and cream…Just some of the adjectives used at a recent tasting to describe Armagnac, France’s oldest produced brandy. The best of Armagnac is flavorful and aromatic; the more Baco driven, aged examples can be especially rich and viscous with smoky, dried fruit, prune, nut and rancio flavors. Younger Armagnac often are lighter and fruitier with floral aromas; sometimes herbal notes.
Armagnac has long been overshadowed by Cognac, but comparing the two is unfair. The famous bartender Salvatore Calabrese perhaps said it best:
“The difference between cognac and Armagnac? Imagine a length of velvet and another of a silk fabric. Stroke them. The velvet has a deep, rich texture. That is an Armagnac. The silk is pure finesse, and that, to me is a Cognac.”
Armagnac offers a unique product at comparatively bargain prices–which may explain the 6% uptick in export sales in 2012 according to BNIC. The prices range according to age and estate as is the case for most wine and spirits, but an outstanding bottle aged 20 years can be had for under $45 a bottle or £35.
Consumers can find Armagnac in a number of styles and a range of maturation periods spanning from as little as 3 months for Blanche Armagnac to Armagnac that has spent many decades in barrel before release. The new Blanche Armagnac seems to have great potential for mixologists, not to mention other younger Armagnac styles that work have been shown to work well in cocktails.
And unlike in Cognac, Armagnac has a tradition of single vintage releases, for those who like to enjoy a very specific year. A mature example of Armagnac spanning 40 years and slightly beyond is fairly easy to obtain on the market today.
So why is Armagnac relatively unknown to consumers? Perhaps one explanation has to do with its geography. Although the first region to produce brandy in France, Armagnac wasn’t all that accessible outside of landlocked Gascony until the 18th century, when Dutch traders started shipping Armagnac from the Port of Bordeaux.
However, transporting from Armagnac was not very economical as the River Baise was too shallow in certain areas for many months of the year, preventing cargo from being shipped. It was only in 1839 when the River Baise had been deepened and extended in some areas that economical transport to Bordeaux via Condom came about.
For brandy lovers, it may be a blessing in disguise that Armagnac has been slow to export. Armagnac is today dominated by mostly small, family owned distillers, a total of 500 independent producers, 300 cooperatives and 40 negociants. This means that a truly handcrafted, unique product can still be found in Armagnac.
It is interesting to note that Armagnac is a relatively rare product on the market when compared to Cognac and other spirits. Only 5.6 million bottles of Armagnac were produced in 2012 versus 183 million bottles of Cognac, and an estimated 5 billion bottles of vodka. 50% of Armagnac production is consumed domestically with the rest being exported to over 100 countries, with China, Russia, the UK, Germany and Spain leading the way, according to statistics provided by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de L’Armagnac (BNIA).
It took contributions from three cultures to develop Armagnac. First, the Romans who brought wine vines to the region. Second, the Arabs who invented the Alembic, and third, the Celts, who introduced wood barrels into the equation.
Armagnac or Aygue Ardente, the precursor to Armagnac was developed for therapeutic reasons, not for pleasure, which may surprise some. In 1310 Prior Vital du Four, a cardinal, famously wrote about the 40 virtues of the spirit that could miraculously cure hepatitis, cankers and gout to name a few. It was also attributed to preserving youth and retarding senility.
It wasn’t until 1410 according to records, that Armagnac was consumed and sold. Finally, in the 16th Century Armagnac became available in regional markets. By the 18th century, Armagnac was finally exported to international markets via the Port of Bordeaux by the Dutch.
In 1760, Armagnac finally made its way to Versailles and took the French court by storm. Armagnac became the preferred brandy of King Louis XV.
After the US War of Independence, the US boycotted whiskey and cognac, another form of rebellion as these were the preferred spirits of the English. Armagnac helped fill the void and America’s thirst for brandy in the early days.
By the 1850s, the Gers, the department where Armagnac grapes are grown, was the biggest grape growing region in France. Unfortunately, in 1879 phylloxera hits the region destroying half of Armagnac’s vineyards.
In early 1900s, the 3 regions of Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Tenarèze and Haut Armagnac are delimited and the Appellation decree is signed. In May 27, 2005, a new AOC is created for Le Blanche, a fruity and floral water clear brandy made from a choice of Folle Blanche, Ugni-Blanc and Baco.
Now, the Technical Information about Armagnac
There are 10 accepted grapes, with the 4 main ones as follows:
Ugni Blanc – 50% of Armagnac grape production is made with Ugni Blanc, making a high acid, low alcohol wine. When distilled, it makes a very refined, high quality spirit that ages well.
Baco – is the only hybrid allowed in Armagnac grape production and makes up 40% of Armagnac grapes grown and a cross of Folle Blanche and the Noah grape. Baco was invented by François Baco, a Landais schoolmaster at the end of the 19 century in response to the phylloxera devastation. It is particularly adapted to the sandy and boulbène soils of the Bas-Armagnac where it gives smooth, round eaux-de-vie with aromas of ripe fruits, especially after long ageing.
Folle Blanche – makes up only 8% of grape production due to difficulty in grafting, it is the most ancient and best known variety. The Folle Blanche produces a floral, elegant brandy that are shows particularly well in the Blanche and other young Armagnac.
Colombard – only represents about 2% of Armagnac grape production. It is fruity, spicy spirits with some vegetal characteristics and is most often used as part of a blend.
Other varietals allowed, but only a few hectares are grown are Clairette de Gascogne, white Jurançon, Plant de Graisse, Meslier St François or the white and rosé Mauzac.
Located in the heart of Gascony, between the Adour and Garonne Rivers in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Armagnac is divided in 3 regions so defined by the Fallieres Degree in 1909; Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Tenarez and Haut-Armagnac. The best Armagnac’s are thought to come from Bas-Armagnac, which typically comprises of a sandy, boulbènes (mix of sand, clay and iron) soil.
Armagnac-Tenarèze is thought to produce coarser, more full-bodied Armagnac with a soil that is a mix of boulbènes, limestone and clay. Some liken the Armagnac of this region to have violet notes.
Haut Armagnac is the largest territory, but the smallest vineyard area and has a chalky soil. While this region produces good quality, there are few producers remaining here.
Vinification of Base Wine
Grapes fermented to about 8-10 ABV. The addition of Sulfur Dioxide is prohibited. The resulting wine is usually high in acidity. There is no fining or filtering before distillation, lees contact is maintained to add to the flavor profile.
Overview of Armagnac versus Cognac
||Mainly, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Folle Blanche, Baco + 6 others
||Column Distillation- single distillation
||Pot Still – double distillation
||Warm, sunny, drier than Cognac
||Gascon Oak, AKA Black Oak from Monzelun Forest
||Limousin and Tronçais Oak
||Sandy, boulbènes (Bas Armagnac) Limestone, boulbènes (Tenarèze)
What the Armagnac Label Means
• VS or *** Young Armagnac between 1 – 3 years
• VSOP or Napoleon, Armagnac between 4 – 9 years
• XO or Hors d’Age, from 10 years on
• XO Premium, over 20 years and vintages
Special Thanks to Amanda Garnham of Attachée de Presse at Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac for making historical and statistical information available to Elixrr.