The Spirit of Gascony

 


“Armagnac, not the best known, but known by the best,” is a saying in the Gascony region of Southwest France. Indeed, Armagnac, a distilled grape juice that is 150 years older than Cognac, is often confused with its cousin. Yet, although they may be blood relations, they’re not even on speaking terms. The grapes, land, distillation, aromas, tastes and textures are very different.  And for those with the joie d’ vivre of Dumas’ famous Gascogne musketeer, D’Artagnan, a single vineyard, single vintage Armagnac is a more pleasing digestif than most Cognacs. 

Armagnac lies 150 miles south of Cognac and 100 miles east of the Atlantic Coast. The region is divided into three producing sub-regions the Haut-Armagnac, the Tenereze, and the Bas-Armagnac. Yet, more important than its geography is its product. 
From The Cellar
While most of Cognac is controlled by large négociants (blenders of the wines of many producers), it’s the small, independent producers that are the heart of Armagnac. Like estate-bottled wines, traditional Armagnac is a single vintage, single property beverage produced in small quantities.  While a tiny Cognac négociant may bottle 40,000 cases a year, a top independent Armagnac producer sells less than 200. 
 
Distillation is the mother of brandy.  In Armagnac, the juice of Folle Blanche, Baco or Ugni Blanc grapes are boiled in copper stills designed to allow the alcoholic vapors to pass through the incoming wine for an extra dose of fruit flavors.  The steam is then reconverted into liquid.  As opposed to Cognac, which is double distilled, single-distilled Armagnac hoards much of the flavor elements.  In its youth, this gives Armagnac a rustic, earthy taste that gains complexity with time in the barrel.
 
Armagnac reaches its prime with between fifteen to twenty-five years of barrel aging.  Since the aging takes place in the barrel, cellaring a bottle of Armagnac does nothing, but delay your pleasure.  If you find your Château de Briat 1981’s taste has changed, it’s not the spirit, but your palate that’s matured. 
 
Although, a taste is worth a thousand words, the few on an Armagnac label can prove helpful in choosing a decent bottle.  “As a rule of thumb, the higher the alcohol the better the product,” says Charles Neal, the author of Armagnac, The Definitive Guide to France’s Premier Brandy.  “Traditional Armagnac is about 92 to 98 proof.  For a good non-vintage choice, look for Hors d’ Age on the label which means the youngest Armagnac in the blend is 10 years old.”
 
In your glass, you should look for a balance between fruit, alcohol and oak.  The color should be deep amber and aromas may include dried apricots, dried plums, vanilla, buttered toffee with notes of clove, cinnamon or coconut and, perhaps, floral hints.  In the mouth, the feel is rich and thick.
 
Armagnac offers not just a taste of flowers and fruit, but of the soul of Gascony.  A thin, well-filled brandy glass captures the spirit of the Armagnacais
 
One evening in the town of Condom, I sat with Chef Eric Tacheron of Le Dauphin restaurant.  In the middle of his passionate discourse on life’s mysteries, he stopped mid-sentence to consider his glass of Château de Ravignan 1978.    A smile filled his face; he chuckled and flamboyantly swept the glass under his nose several times.
 
“Ah,” he sighed, “Armagnac is not a drink.  It is a way of life.”  He was, of course, preaching to the choir. 
 
Photo credit: Joseph Rosendo

Emmy-award winning as both director and host Joseph Rosendo has been a travel, food and wine journalist and travel broadcaster for more than 30 years. Since 2007, he has hosted, directed and written Joseph Rosendo’s Travelscope®, the award-winning travel television series. Since his first travel story appeared in The Los Angeles Times in 1980, he has been published in countless publications and electronic media outlets including Discovery Channel Radio, the Associated Press, and ABCnews.com. Rosendo is a member of the prestigious Society of American Travel Writers and the Television Academy. Visit www.travelscope.net.

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Comments

  • Although I enjoy a good "XO" Cognac, I have always preferred Armagnac. While Cognac can sometimes go down like a flaming porcupine, Armagnac is always smooth. I have always been surprised by how few people know and enjoy it.

    Nov 07, 2014 at 10:20 AM


  • Snooth User: Takret
    1374479 39

    Charles Neal, the definitive author in English on Armagnac, also has a seminal work on Calvados. If you lake Armagnac you'll love Calvados.

    Nov 07, 2014 at 4:03 PM


  • Snooth User: yomac
    280781 1

    "...a flaming porcupine...."
    Love the visual!

    Nov 07, 2014 at 5:40 PM


  • Snooth User: catseda
    1112970 21

    A great, great piece. Love the writing and the information

    Nov 07, 2014 at 5:59 PM


  • Snooth User: Ddb01
    1534703 15

    Lived in Bordeaux and had the pleasure of going to Cognac and tasting at small houses. We were given older and older vintages and they were marvelous. At that time (1997) I liked the double distilled compared to the earthy Armagnacs I tasted. I still remember the distiller M.Bopp at the Faire Alimentaire who was hawking his Armagnac. For every sample he gave out he took a shot himself. But this is a great article and with my own maturing I am ready to try Armagnac again...Though I have a special love for the California distilled 'Cognac' Germaine Robin..

    Nov 07, 2014 at 7:11 PM


  • The article makes me want to try it. With a 92-98 proof, how long is it good in the bottle in case we don't finish it in a weekend?

    Nov 08, 2014 at 9:31 AM


  • Snooth User: cma238
    1295124 214

    Once you open the bottle, introducing oxygen into the equation, I think the bottle will last for about a year (in a pristine state). No need to devour in a single weekend! It may still be drinkable after many, many years but the flavour will dissipate as the alcohol evaporates.

    Nov 08, 2014 at 2:04 PM


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