Armagnacs, as we have discovered earlier, are distilled at a lower range than the cognacs made a couple of hundred miles to the north, and for some reason the alcoholic strength seems to diminish more slowly than does cognac. The barrels have traditionally come from the local forest of Monlezun which locals believe have emphasised the heaviness of the spirit, which comes from a combination of both the soil and grape varieties. Due to the shortage of the local Gascon oak, producers have been forced to experiment with the cognac woods from both the Limousin and Tronçais forests. This has led to some head shaking, but analyses show that there is no great difference between the three types.
The newly distilled spirits are usually put into new oak barrels for up to a year, to give them a quick fix of tannin from the oak before they are shipped into older barrels. The process of maturation is of course similar to that of cognac - but the final character of the spirit depends less on the lignin and vanillin in the wood than it does on the more neutral spirit from Cognac. The terroir, the warmth, the fruity, almost herbal earthiness comes through more strongly in armagnac, reducing the importance of the rancio which is so necessary in good cognacs. Unfortunately so too does the woodiness. Production has always been a peasant based industry and some of the older armagnacs have been kept for far too long in barrels. However this is a somewhat esoteric consideration for the average armagnac buyer who may buy only 5-10 year old spirits. Those that have matured more than 20 years in cask provide the very essence of the spirit, many will have a vintage date largely because of the premium price they will fetch. The actual year of most old armagnacs seems to be not overly relevant and there are many vintages dating from 1888.
This is one of the joys of armagnac. It is the least industrial of the great spirits, the one where amateurs can most legitimately hope to find a little known bottle which they can cherish, because it offers unique qualities not found even in the next cask in the cellar from which it came.