The season is turning, the light cooler, skies overcast, the air crisp in my nostrils. The sun sets before 7pm now. How can it be 13 degrees when it’s still September? Ducking the inevitability of the changing seasons, my mind bends back to July and pulsing sunlight in the south-west of France. Two months ago I was in the Armagnac region, tasting some of the world’s finest and most underrated brandies – but also taking a pedalo out on the Baïse river and wandering astounded around the former monks’ dormitory of the 12th-century Flaran Abbey, where the collector Michael Simonow’s astounding array of paintings by the likes of Soutine, Picasso and Modigliani now hang.
So many of my memories of that week are liquid: attempting various water sports on the manmade Lac d’Uby, where a few euros gets you a day pass to canoes, paddleboards, shallow water warm as soup, and a large, cool, very populated pool. Or sneaking a dip in the private lake at Domaine d’Arton as the estate’s tiny puppy hurled himself off a pier that, given his size, must have been the equivalent of me diving off Dover’s white cliffs. At Domaine d’Aurensan, Caroline Rozes offered me a taste of Le Carré des Fantômes, the Armagnac she makes from the painstakingly sourced ‘phantom’ grape varieties that nobody uses any more. It tasted of honey and liquorice, with a drop of apricot juice: less a flavour of the past (‘they didn’t age their Armagnacs for a long time like we do now,’ she told me) than of imagined pleasures.
Outside Condom’s pale cathedral there stood a dark statue of a quartet of Musketeers, who were real figures in the region long before Alexandre Dumas transformed them into literary legends. Down a nearby alleyway filled with tables, the chef of L’Origan sweated over a wood-fired pizza oven while pedestrians picked their way, seemingly unconcerned, past the lunching clientele. From the terrace of Le Moulin du Petit Gascon, a mill repurposed as a riverside restaurant, I watched sunshine bounce off each ripple with the peaceful rhythm of fingertips strumming a harp – or disappeared grape varieties rolling over the tongue. Plant de Graisse, Mauzac Blanc (sometimes called Blanquette), Meslier St François, Jurançon Blanc, Mauzac Rosé and Clairette de Gascogne: the names were so much prettier than those of the more prevalent varieties, Ugni Blanc (Italy’s Trebbiano), Baco and Colombard. The exception? Folle Blanche, which means mad white lady, or perhaps mad white vine, since vine in French is féminine.
At Domaine d’Espérance, Claire de Montesquiou showed me around her enviable 18th-century house – large, calm, tastefully renovated and lined with books and pictures – and the adjoining winery, while my stepdaughters splashed in her pool. Her husband is a cousin of Victoire de Montesquiou at Domaine d’Arton, an hour’s drive east, and both are descendants of the most heroic musketeer, D’Artagnan. Their attitudes, however, are very different. ‘I hate selling my Armagnacs,’ Claire laughs, ruefully, but she makes sure they are very saleable: from a proof-strength white Armagnac for cocktails, called Cobra Fire (‘It goes like hot buns in America’) to a range of old vintages under a ‘Treasures of D’Artagnan’ label. Victoire and her husband Patrick have handed the reins of the estate to their son and daughter-in-law, who have come up with cocktails in a can and are pursuing Instagram likes with the fervour of their puppy chasing high-jump adrenalin hits.
Who is more astute? I don’t know, but I want to debate the matter while sitting beneath a cupola on a warm summer afternoon sipping a glass of Espérance’s dry white, or lounging beneath a parasol on the lawn at D’Arton, nibbling canapés and drinking their rather good canned cocktails as the sun dips beyond the sloping vines. I am not emotionally ready for sweaters and cardigans.
Armagnac is distilled once in a column still, unlike twice-distilled Cognac, its more famous cousin north of Bordeaux. The process is continuous, the spirit warming the wine to evaporation, the wine cooling the spirit to condensation, and makes a brandy that is fruitier and woodier than Cognac, with top notes of nuts and spice and marmalade – rustic, if by rustic you mean made by the people who then sell it. (I live part of the time in Burgundy, which has led me to conclude that rustic, when used by the English, usually means that we never got seriously involved in the region, as we did in Cognac and Bordeaux, and therefore don’t quite trust the product.) It can be oak-aged for a very long time, and a barrel traditionally sat somewhere in a farmer’s outbuildings waiting for a daughter’s wedding or a failed crop: ‘Armagnac was the bank,’ laughs Caroline. It is the spirit of celebration and disaster.
Armagnac is a winter drink, distilled in the colder months – an attempt, surely, to bottle and preserve summer
It is also a winter drink, distilled in the colder months – an attempt, surely, to bottle and preserve summer, something that, to me, this bright tawny and sensuously perfumed liquid manages better than any other spirit. Everywhere I visited, I was taken into cellars piled with oak barrels, their contents ageing patiently in far warmer conditions than unfortified wine can tolerate. ‘Armagnac begins its life here,’ says Claire, looking around affectionately.
Most producers have warmer and cooler cellars, assigning casks according to the rate of ageing and levels of evaporation they want. I thought about that on a late September afternoon in London, as the sun filtered through the window and then through the bottles of Castarède Armagnac lined up for me to taste. I had come out without a coat so knew exactly how lacking in heat those bright rays were, and I rolled Florence Castarède’s lovely 1979 across my tongue as if its notes of cinnamon, hazelnut and brown sugar could transport me back, not to the end of the 1970s but to the midsummer of 2022. And for just a few moments, they did.