Surprisingly, Armagnac is the oldest brandy and youngest at the same time due to a quirk of French appellation controlled laws. It was first distilled in the 15ht century, well before the more famous Cognac, from further north, and is the youngest because the Gasconais, stubborn as they are, still argue on how it should be distilled. The law permits to sell Armagnac after two years of barrel aging but few distillers or blenders sell two-year old products these days.
Located some 160 Km. south of Bordeaux, Armagnac has different soils – sandy and alluvial. Ugni blanc, folle blanche, colombard and Baco 22A are used, although the more popular hybrid grape (Baco) will have to be discontinued after 2010 by law.
may be distilled in tow types of continuous stills, one of which contains five plates in the still; the other being more modern 15. The former distills out at 52 – 53 ABV whereas the latter at 60 ABV. The low alcohol content of five- plate stills is more profound containing more congeners that that of 15-plate stills and reflects the characteristics of the soil much better, but must age much longer than the minimum of two years.
The region has three sub-regions – Bas Armagnac, Haut Armagnac and Tenareze. The best distillates originate in Bas Armagnac.
Gascon brandy is aged in Gascony oak barrels, and unfortunately, some large and less quality oriented producers fail to age long enough to mellow harsh young distillates.
According to the French law the minimum barrel aging for Armagnac is two years, whereas in Cognac it is two-and-a-half.
aged five years or longer may be labeled VO, VSOP or reserve, and six year old product Extra, Napoleon, XO, Vieille reserve or any imaginative name the distiller or blender dreams up.
Armagnac, like many other distillates, had its ups and downs in history. Although it was first produced long before Cognac, it was fist exported only after the construction of the Baise River Canal completed in the 19th century.
Then came the phylloxera vastatrix, followed by World War I. After World WarII, Armagnac was quite popular for a short time, but local distilleries made a crucial mistake by exporting rough and immature products thus ruining a fledgling international market.
Armagnac has soul; it is individualistic and deeply flavoured. It reflects both terroir and the artisan who lovingly creates it.
Even relatively large exporters are small compared to Cognac houses.
De Montal, Janneau, Sempe and Cle des Ducs are major producers and exporters. Of the three, arguably the best is de Montal, whose VS and VSOP are very successful in Ontario. De Montal Armagnac’s various brands are smooth, fruity, and deeply flavoured exuding warmth.
Most small producers rely of ambulant distillers who drive to the property and distill on behalf of the estate. The owner ages the distillates and blends according to his taste and beliefs. These are the artisan blends that may lead to unexpected gustatory pleasures.
Some Armagnac aficionados are known to travel to this lovely and gastronomically rich region to eat well, and hunt fur unusual spirits.