My first experience with Armagnac that distinguished distillate of Gascony, was while teaching in a classroom. It was then and there that I fell for the flavour and aromas. Armagnac is fascinating – bold, yet full of velvety finesse.
The Armagnac region in Gascony, just a few hundred kilometres south of Bordeaux has three sub-regions (Bas Armagnac, Haut Armagnac, and Tenareze).
The best of the best comes from the sandy area covering only 15 – 30 kilometres from north to south consisting of villages Labastide, Arthez, Hontanx and Le Houga, in the French districts (called in France deprtments) Gers and Landes.
Although Armagnac outdates Cognac by more than two centuries, originating in the 16th century, it has played second fiddle to Cognac. The region north of Bordeaux is five times the size of Armagnac.
Worldwide cognac sells as much as 25 times more than Armagnac.
In North America the ratio is 120 to 1, but in France the situation changes drastically. Here the ratio of Armagnac to Cognac is 1 to 3.
There are fundamental differences between the ways the two brandies are produced. For Cognac, the wine is distilled twice, but Armagnac only one, and at relatively low temperatures, which helps foster robustness of flavour.
Cognac is aged in Limousin or Troncais oak casks, Armagnac in Gascony oak aka black oak, known to contain more tannins than Limousin and Troncais.
As a result, Armagnac is racier, rounder, and fruitier than its cousin from the north, with earthier, markedly more pungent aromas.
One could call it more “macho”.
Most the best Armagnac is unblended – the product of a single artisanal distiller in a single year, or vintage.
Vintage Cognac is very rare; skilful blends are the norm, usually perfected by the regisseur (“indentured” blender) that develop a house-style and maintain it for consistency.
Armagnac is more rustic, and reflects the terroir perfectly. Armagnac has “gout de terroir”.
Armagnac still happens to be very rural, isolated from main highways, and rail trucks of France. Here people cling to the old ways, and its undulating topography has been barely touched by modern polluting devices.
As you travel from Condom (a fairly large city in Gascony) to Villeneuve-de-Marsan, you notice fields of sunflowers and corn destined to fatten ducks and geese – for foie gras d’oie and foie gras de canard.
Cognac and Champagne are “corporate products”. There is a lot of money behind both. They must be, and are, constantly advertised, targeted, marketed, and promoted during celebrity events, Armagnac on the other hand remains much an individual effort. Gascons prefer to play outside mainstreams, and like to maintain their traditions and exclusivity.
The age indicated on the label of a bottle of Armagnac is always that of the youngest distillate in the blend, but the youngest must never be less than three years, VSOP five,, Hors d’age 10.
There are others 15, 20, 30 year old, and some even older vintages like 1934, 1965, and1976.
Distillers use ugni blanc, folle blanche, and colombar. A few use baco noir, but it is prohibited.
Distillation occurs in old copper Armagnac still, some dating back to 1804.
Samalens, Janneau and Marquis de Montesquiou are biggest shippers, but the best are Domaine de Jonanda, Domaine d’Ognoas, Chateau de Lacquy, Domaine Boigneres, Darroze, Domaine de St. Aubin, and de Montal.
Marc Darroze buys whole cask then matures them for 25 years and longer. He bottles only when an order comes in.
Darroze’s Armagnac is truly artisanal. Among domains, de Montal stands out.
If you are looking for a fine interesting, individualistic brandy with a taste of its terroir, get a bottle of 25-year-old Armagnac.