Gascony, in the south of France, is a culinary dreamland, home to more ducks than people, and France’s prime source of foie gras. There are vineyards, too, of course, but more than 4,000 hectares of these are earmarked not for wine, but for something else – Armagnac.
To many, Armagnac is the “second” brandy of France, after Cognac. While the latter has more than 17 times the amount of vineyards, Armagnac is actually the oldest eau-du-vie of France, with records of production dating back to 1310. As well as history, it has a certain authenticity on its side too. Individual producers are small – a virtue in today’s world, where the artisan is king.
Armagnac is the oldest eau-du-vie of France, with records of production dating back to 1310
“’Craft spirit’ is not a marketing concept in Armagnac,” says Ithier Bouchard, commercial director at Domaine Tariquet. “We are all small producers, and very dedicated to the product.”
Aside from scale, Bouchard highlights a few other things that make Armagnac stand out. One is the distillation process; the norm in Cognac is double distillation, where the spirit is run through a still in two discreet passes. The great majority of Armagnac producers employ a single distillation in a continuous still. Single distillation usually yields between 55 and 60 percent alcohol content, whereas a double distillation typically produces a spirit with more than 70 percent alcohol. Tariquet is usually at between 53 and 56 percent; Armagnac then typically loses alcohol to evaporation during aging and/or is diluted down to 40-48% before bottling (though some are bottled at cask strength).
“We don’t want to go too high because we are looking for finesse, not strength,” says Bouchard. This demands exacting control of the distillation process; it also puts more pressure on the quality of the grapes, as more of their character comes through in the final product.
Four grape varieties dominate Armagnac production. Ugni Blanc is the most common, and Colombard the rarest; both are grown in Cognac as well. But Armagnac vineyards are also home to a hybrid grape variety, Baco 22A; the only AOC in Europe where such a hybrid – a cross between European and North American grape species, which provides structure and durability – is permitted. The final variety is Folle Blanche, which has a deep history in Armagnac. It largely disappeared after phylloxera, but some top producers grow it, including Domaine Tariquet and Château de Pellehaut. “Folle Blanche is really rare now in Armagnac,” says Aurélie Ville, commercial director at Pellehaut. “But it’s the ancestral grape; at Pellehaut we use it for 50 percent of our Armagnac. It makes delicious young Armagnac, fruity and sweet.”
The production of AOC Armagnac actually authorises ten grapes, and the other six, bygone varieties have been making something of a comeback in recent years. Domaine d’Aurensan, a producer in the Armagnac Tenarèze sub-appellation, has just launched a blend of the six rarest grape varieties authorised for production: Plant de Graisse; Mauzac Blanc; Meslier St François; Jurançon Blanc; Mauzac Rosé; and Clairette de Gascogne. “Le Carré des Fantômes” is named after the single vineyard plot housing these ‘phantom grapes’.
While Armagnac uses common brandy designations such as V.O., V.S.O.P., and X.O., many top-end Armagnacs are bottled as vintage spirits. Pellehaut offers vintages going back to 1973, and older bottlings can also be found; Hedonism Wines in London offers vintages from as far back as the turn of the 20th century. “Since the beginning, we’ve had a decent range,” says the store’s general manager Julien Le Doaré. “A lot of vintages from Sigognac, Lustrac and so on because they are perfect for birthdays. When you see a bottle that’s from 1924, 1950, 1970, the price is high, but it’s good value compared to whisky.” Le Doaré has recently expanded Hedonism’s offerings of non-vintage, blended Armagnacs, having seen more value in those ranges as well.
Le Doaré says Armagnac is an obvious move for those looking to explore brandy more deeply. “From connoisseurs and collectors to those who simply want to move away from the big brandy names, Armagnac is a good way to go – you have a few names like Darroze and Laubade that are big enough to make people feel confident, but you can also dive into the many tiny producers, too.”
Armagnac’s appeal has reached beyond brandy drinkers; as spirit drinkers have begun to explore more widely, many whisky devotees are embracing it as well. “Armagnac is to the brandy category what bourbon is to the world of whisky,” says Flavien Desoblin, owner of the Brandy Library in New York City. “It’s still the underdog of the brandy world, but with heritage, history, and pedigree. If customers want something bold and true, that’s Armagnac. And they fall in love with it.”
Scroll down to discover six award-winning Armagnacs from this year’s IWSC.