David McAninch has written this highly entertaining book about Gascony – “France’s Last Best Place” after an 8 month stay in the region. With interesting quotes such as “the quantity of armagnac produced in any given year is equivalent to the angel’s share—the volume of spirit lost to evaporation—of a year’s production of cognac” and “armagnac is to cognac what the Rolling Stones were to the Beatles” it makes fascinating reading for all fans of the amber nectar. Originally sent to research a story about a duck, his love of the local inhabitants and duck-rich cuisine led him to realise what he and so many other tourists had been missing. Take a look at our vast range of vintage armagnacs and bring a piece of Gascony to your home.
Armagnac has never been as popular as cognac, or as expensive, but that may be set to change, particularly in The Americas. Quebec’s liquor board, SAQ, reports a 7.5% growth in armagnac sales so far this year compared to 3% growth in cognac. First produced in the 16th century, armagnac was the original French distilled spirit. Not as polished as cognac, armagnac is only distilled once, but it is low-key and laid back and has a really complex, full-grape flavour. This rusticity and small-scale production give it true authenticity which is helping to increase its appeal. An expected shortage of Scotch whisky has seen customers look for an alternative and armagnac seems to fit the bill better than most. At the bottom end it is extremely cocktail-friendly and at the top end, it provides many collectible vintages. Few other spirits offer aged, rare expressions at such reasonable prices and perhaps most importantly, the armagnac industry has room to grow. Perhaps armagnac's back in fashion and about to come of age?
The difference between armagnac and cognac production is considerable. Originally the predominance of Ugni Blanc and to a very much lesser degree, the Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes in the vineyards of Cognac provided a basis for Armagnac production. Now the use of Folle Blanche is considerably greater and another grape variety is also allowed. Known as Baco, it is a cross between the Folle Blanche and the Noah, a grape not known for making quality wine but in many ways ideal for armagnac since it crops relatively late and in good quantities.
As with cognac the winemaking is relatively basic using natural yeasts to eschew sulphur dioxide, sugar and other additives. The process is designed to produce an acceptably neutral raw material for distillation. There is, however, one crucial difference. The Armagnaçais are allowed to use the continuous presses (forbidden for use in Cognac) which often include the pips, skins and other impurities that further increase the potential richness of the spirit.
This richness is also intensified by the use of a special type of continuous still. Developed during the nineteenth century it is now known as the traditional armagnac still. The ‘jet continu’ (flowing continuously) method of distillation has been responsible for the region’s fame and fortune since the end of the nineteenth century. The wine, 'chauffe-vin', is heated in a cylinder by the pipes containing hot alcoholic vapours from the still. The wine, now heated to 80 degrees, then runs into the upper half of a double still (see diagram). In the old days this would enter from the top but on more modern stills it enters below the top plate.
The clash allows the vapour to absorb some of the qualities and congeners of the incoming wine. The lower the plates the hotter they are thereby ridding the descending wine of an increasing proportion of its alcohol content. As it reaches the lower still the wine is boiling at just over 100 degrees Celcius. The solid residue of the distillation, known as ‘vinasses’, is evacuated through a pipe in the lower half of the still; the ‘têtes’ can then be taken off from the head of the 'chauffe-vin'. The armagnac method of distillation is potentially richer in congeners and fruity and ester-ish flavours, than the stronger spirits made in orthodox pot stills. Even today the armagnac spirit can emerge from the still as low as 52 degrees, a good 15 degrees lower than cognac. This partly explains armagnac’s fruity and slightly coarser qualities.
Armagnac, once distilled, requires careful handling. Made in the traditional way the spirit retains more of the original wine. This is partly due to the impurities which render the spirit unappetizingly raw for a longer time than spirits distilled by other methods. It is these impurities that make armagnac interesting and provide a wealth of different flavours and qualities often dominated by prune flavours.
Read more about Armagnac in Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.
The growth of the Armagnac industry has taken a long time from its very early beginnings. At the turn of the twentieth century the French boundary commission decided to follow local customs and divide the Armagnac region into three, The Bas Armagnac, Ténarèze and Haut Armagnac, each one corresponding to a geological, geographical and commercial reality. The finest of the armagnacs come from the Bas Armagnac region whilst at the other end of the scale, very little is produced in Haut Armagnac, having never really recovered from the Phylloxera outbreak at the end of the nineteenth century.
The outbreak affected the whole of the Armagnac region and by 1937 it was producing only 22,000 hectolitres of spirit, less than a quarter of that produced in the cognac region. The German occupying forces during the second World War were largely unaware of the spirits’ qualities and left most of the locals’ stock intact.
After the War, some cognac houses invested in the area seeing an opportunity for obtaining additional grapes to be used for making cognac but the quantities available were too small to be of real use. Even so the general quality of the brandy, especially in the east of the region, was poor and there was little or no commercial infrastructure in place. In the late 1940s trade had slowed to the point where many of the smaller growers, short of cash, simply gave up.
Even with this reduced vineyard area, demand and production in the 1960s started to grow again. Sales in the domestic market grew faster than exports and mainly comprised young, cheap brandies. This resulted in little being left in the barrels to sell in later years as vintage armagnacs but interest in the fruity brandy had begun to develop. By the start of the 1980s production had risen to nearly 35,000 hectolitres of pure spirit, a level that by 1990 had nearly doubled to 60,000 hl pure. The Armagnaçais had started to realise the many benefits of their spirit over their competitors.
Although cognacs continue to outsell armagnacs by a huge factor, the biggest benefit the Armagnaçais have over their rivals in Cognac is that they can offer so many vintages. Janneau, who started to market vintages in 1973, claimed that it was their biggest weapon against the Cognaçais as it created an image of quality.
There is something unusual occurring in the region of armagnac, the people are Gasçons but the closer you get to the centre, around the small town of Eauz, the more they refer to themselves as Armagnaçais. But whatever they call themselves, they are warm and friendly, lovers of rich food and drink especially truffles and ‘foie gras’, and inhabitants of a rural paradise unspoilt by urban sprawls. The region is tucked away about a hundred miles south of Bordeaux. It stretches back from the sands of the Landes through a series of gentle valleys, which have none of the grim monoculture that marks other vineyards, and provides a most agreeable and varied vision of rural bliss.
However good the area and people, the region is far from the ports and unsuitable for an internationally traded spirit. Armagnac was and remains a reflection of French individualism where its merchants are united as a community and unlike the Cognaçais, still regard themselves as the same class as the growers. By itself individualism would not be of sufficient interest to them but when teamed with a drink as exciting as Armagnac, a unique situation is created. At its best armagnac offers a closeness to nature, a depth of fruit and warmth and a range of vintages that even the finest cognacs cannot match.
In all probability the Armagnaçais were distilling brandy two hundred years before cognac was made, the process being brought over from Africa by the Moors who had used distillation for making perfumes. The spirit produced around the towns of Auch and Bayonne was a local speciality which by the 16th century, had become known as armagnac. But the Armagnaçais lacked the spirit of openness and commercial aggressiveness that those making cognac further north were already exploiting in their trade with the Dutch, English and Irish from the port of La Rochelle. As a result, armagnac did not compete as a rival to cognac in the market that counted - the fashionable society of ‘Restoration’ London – and so it became submerged in the mass of brandies from Bordeaux and Nantes which were considered inferior.
By the nineteenth century armagnac was rescued from its rural seclusion by two dramatic developments. The first was the invention of the continuous still which was essential for extracting armagnacs’ particular qualities from the sandy soil and the second, was that many canals were opened enabling the wines to be transported to the port of Bordeaux.
The continuous still, perfected by a peasant by the name of Verdier, retained more of the essential elements in the wine than did the orthodox small pot stills used in cognac. Perhaps more importantly, this still was more easily transportable from one grower to another. Since many of the growers owned only a few hectares of land and simply couldn’t afford to have their own still, this was a necessity. The continuous still provided the Armagnaçais with a raw brandy which was capable of development, in time, into an even more complex spirit than cognac. Although the new still created some initial roughness and woodiness, these effects were overshadowed by the more defined fruity flavours that emerged from using a lower distillation range.
Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.
According to the regulatory body representing Armagnac producers, the BNIA (Bureau National Interprofessionnel l’Armagnac), Armagnac distillation started on 8 October, the earliest date in living memory. Favourable weather conditions in the spring got the vines off to a good start. This was followed by a very hot July, and then the “right” amount of rain in August, which helped to speed up grape maturation. As a consequence, harvesting started two weeks earlier than usual on 10 September. “It is important to harvest early as the producers are looking for wines that are high in acidity and low in alcohol for the distillation and October can be a very sunny and warm month,” a BNIA spokesperson explained. When harvesting early, it is also important to distil early or keep the wines cold. The harvest itself was deemed “good quality” - it will be very fruity and rich with fine lees, and the producers are expecting a particularly good vintage. So, make a note for the future, 2015 Armagnac should be delicious! And while you're waiting, how about another recent vintage to whet your appetite - the Domaine du Cardinat 1994?