Just like in Cognac, the Armagnac region suffered from the severe spring weather with the heaviest rainfalls recorded since 1952! Thankfully the barometer has now stabilised and trellising has begun. This essential activity supports the vegetation ensuring good aeration of the grapes and minimal shoot damage by wind. Ripening is also optimised, as leaf exposure to the sun improves and thus, encourages photosynthesis. Of great ecological importance is the efficiency of phytosanitary treatment - the arrangement of the leaves on trellised plants helps this to improve. Finally, trellising also facilitates passage between the vines reducing time spent on viniculture and therefore crop costs. The recent good, stable, summer weather has ensured that this year, the budding and general well-being of the vines are exceptional. Very good news for the 2018 armagnac vintage as if the rain had not stopped, the saturated soils may well have asphyxiated the plants.
How to make Armagnac
Armagnac is probably the oldest known wine spirit in the world but the art of distillation was introduced by the Arabs between 1411 and 1441. In the department of France known as the Landes, they produced an agua ardente, or fire water, which was used initially as a therapeutic cure. Tasting Armagnac for pleasure ensued when it was established that storing the spirit in barrels developed desirable flavours.
Armagnacs are the earliest examples of distilled wines known in France. Traditionally they are made using the Folle grape although others, including Colombard, Ugni Blanc and even more recently, the Baco all contribute to its flavour. Initially distillations were on a pot still but by the 19th century the continuous still was more highly favoured. The distillation process of armagnac allows the spirit to be distilled at a much lower alcohol content range than that of its big brother cognac, produced 100 miles to the north. The lower range produces a greater fruitiness (but less refined) flavour in the spirit.
It is this process that produces the major differences between armagnac and cognac. Armagnac can be distilled between 52 degrees and 72.4 degrees alcohol whilst the lower end of the cognac distillation range is 67 degrees. Armagnacs distilled at the lower end of their range have a distinctive prune flavour which gradually turns to a more crystallised fruit flavour if the alcohol content is nearer the top of the range.
There are no major producers of armagnac and even the largest firms only produce around 1 – 2 million bottles per annum. The highest quality, most refined and complex armagnacs come from the Bas cru where the spirit ages much better. Most of the production occurs in the Tenarézè cru where armagnacs with a more perfumed style are made. It is the least industrial of all French spirits so much of the joy of armagnac comes from the variety produced by its highly individual peasant roots.
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.
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?
The region around Condom in Gascony, known as Gers, is famous for its armagnacs and in particular vintage armagnacs. They are made using grapes similar to those used for making cognacs but by using a single or continuous distillation method. The distillation range is between 52 – 72 %abv which allows a greater fruitiness in the spirit, although usually at the expense of smoothness and refinement of the brandy. In recent years it has become much more difficult to buy vintage armagnacs as there has been a huge demand for bottles with numbers on. The armagnac market is only about one tenth the size of the cognac market which has created the demand for clients to buy rare armagnacs from the smaller producers who still have rare vintages for sale.
Right from the 15th century, the English Kings have come and gone from the armagnac producing region we know as Gascony. The is near perfect for the production of the wines and brandies which have been enjoyed and shipped all over the world. The fruitier flavours than those from the cognac region to the north, and the slightly coarser qclimateualities of armagnac have created a uniqueness that cannot be rivalled anywhere else in the world. The lower distillation range and use of the vertical plate stills, whereby only a single distillation is necessary, is suited well to the fruitier Folle Blanche and Baco grape varieties. It is not for nothing that the flavours of plums and prunes are characteristic of the brandies so loved by the region's peoples. It is quoted in the records in Auch in 1441 as “distilled spirit relieves pain, keeps one young and brings with it joy and relaxation”. Oh what joy!
So it comes with no great surprises that understanding the nature of the spirit and its enormously varied character, that we can both enjoy it ourselves and also pass our knowledge on to others. Remember first and foremost that it is a spirit. It is in most cases supplied at 40% abv, having been aged in oak casks for many years, even decades. Although we may choose to mix white armagnac's with a range of other drinks, adding anything, including water to an armagnac will destroy its balance and contaminate its unique fruitiness, destroying the qualities created over the centuries by skills and experience by the Armagnaçais.
Like cognacs, and for that matter any other spirits, the glass is all important. The tulip glass is favoured with all the great French spirit producers. Pour a quantity into the glass and gently roll it around so that all of the sides are coated in the nectar. Never swirl it, as this will release the strong alcohols, blinding the aroma. Remember that half the enjoyment of the brandy is in the smell. Allow it to stand for a short while before bringing it to the nose to detect the prune aromas. Taste the spirit and allow it to reach all parts of the mouth, particularly the back of the tongue.
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.
The armagnac still in its most used current form is a relatively recent invention, first perfected by a local peasant known as Verdier, who gave it it’s name in the 19th century. Rather like cognac, a super heater is used to warm the wine before it passes into the top of the still, to pass down over the plates until it reaches the bottom one. The spirit rises back to the top and is passed back to the condenser or super heater where it passes through coils, warming the wine as it goes. It is of course a very efficient way of turning wine into brandy.
Armagnac is such an awkward raw material, needing such careful handling after distillation, that the conditions in which it matures and perhaps more importantly, the age at which it is sold, matter more than any other brandy. Armagnacs made in the traditional way, with the lower than cognac distillation range, will retain more of the character of the original wine. There is however a price to pay. The richness consists of impurities which are unappetizingly raw for a longer time than spirit distilled by other methods. In the past, long maturation was necessary because the old stills were rarely cleaned, which increased the impurities in the spirit and the potential richness. A spirit for drinking in less that seven or eight years in wood, must be distilled to a much higher degree than is possible in a small old fashioned mobile still. Indeed many of these old spirits are incomparable - but only as they have been kept for perhaps thirty or forty years in oak barrels.
Unfortunately, armagnacs can be sold even younger than cognac, at a mere 18 months of age. In the 1960’s this created a price over quality battle, and many armagnacs were sold far too young (some as little as three or four years old). Regulation changes made in 1972 allowed the use of the Cognac. A few of the bigger houses installed the cognac stills, which requires the spirit to be distilled at a higher range than is traditional. It soon became clear that the cognac method of distillation was perfectly suitable for armagnacs destined to be sold young and whilst some people find these new spirits acceptable, most still prefer the more traditional spirits produced by the traditional methods. But the Armagnaçaise are cautious people and were wary of using other methods for cheaper brands, as Armagnacs distilled in this way taste rather harsh on the palate, short and not as complex as the “real thing”.
The variations in distillation styles have inevitably confused some customers. The Scandinavians, who are good customers for the cheaper armagnacs, reject the new style spirits, preferring the wider variation in flavours between armagnacs and cognac. The existence of a rival system spurred the traditional distillers into finding ways of improving their formulae. The first problem was to reduce the queues, the heavy and low strength aroma products. They can be filtered out on the distillation column by introducing a condenser above the still, or by adding more plates above which the wine flows. All these adjustments, combined with increasing the strength of the new armagnac to between 66 and 68 percent - close to that of raw cognac - reduce the quintessential richness of the spirit but do make it more commercial. Interestingly, some of the bigger houses have refused to move down this line and armagnac sales from these houses have improved.
Armagnacs are usually stored after distillation in new oak barrels of around 400 litres. The process accelerates the process of oxidation. For reasons the locals find difficult to explain, the alcoholic strength of armaganac diminishes more slowly in cask than does cognac.
The wines of armagnac are fairly basic, in itself no bad thing. The traditional winemakers eschew the use of sugar, sulphur dioxide and other additives, instead relying on the natural yeasts in the grapes. Unlike the Cognaçaise, wines in Armagnac may be pressed with the continuous presses which are forbidden in Cognac. These are often clumsily operated and allow through pips, skins and other impurities which in many cases further improve the richness of the spirit. This is further assured by the use of the continuous still which allows the spirit to be made without having to stop and recharge the vessel as in Cognac.
The wine is heated to 80 degrees Celsius and runs into the upper half of the still, then flows over a series of plates clashing with the alcohol vapours produced by the heated wine in the lower half of the still. This clash allows the vapours to absorb some of the qualities and the congeners of the incoming wine. The lower the plates the hotter they are, thereby ridding the descending wine of its alcohol content as it reaches the lower still (which contains wine boiling at around 103 degrees Celsius).
The vinasses, the solid residue of distillation are evacuated through a pipe at the lower half of the still; the têtes can be taken off from the head of the chauffe-vin. Despite this attempt at purification, the armagnac method is unique among continuous systems, producing a spirit which is potentially richer in congeners, and in fruity and esterish flavours than the stronger spirit made in orthodox pot-stills. This is especially the case in the older, smaller stills, in which the spirit emerges at a mere 52 per cent alcohol (at least 15 percent lower than that of cognac).
The distillation at the lower end of the range of 52-72 degrees means that the vapour in the still contains a far greater quantity of wine flavours mixed in with the spirit than cognacs, which are distilled in the pot-stills in the controlled range of 67-72 degrees. It is this particular quality which is largely responsible for the fruity flavours of armagnacs, which are best noted for their prune like flavours.
The Armagnaçaise have two advantages over their rivals; the Cognaçaise operate on such a large scale that they do not generally offer brandies from individual estates and unlike the Armagnaçaise, they did not until the mid 1960’s have the legal right to date their brandies. For the past 40 years every French restaurant worthy of a Michelin star has offered a range of single estate single vintage armagnacs. In 1973 when Janneau started to market single vintage armagnacs, Etienne Janneau said, "It was our only weapon against the Cognaçaise, the individual vintages created our image of quality".
Vintages are controlled by the BNIA and if required dates may be checked by the carbon dating process. Armagnacs, distilled in the years when there were atmospheric nuclear tests can be measured by the level of carbon 14 in the spirit and to guarantee further quality, the BNIA has ruled that no individual spirit can be sold unless it is at least ten years old. The growers have 5 years in which to declare the brandies they propose to sell as individual brandies.
Armagnac is a product whose quality derives from sandy soil, albeit a very particular type. The region forms part of what was once a deep channel between the older rocks of the Pyrenees and the Massif Central. As the sea ebbed and flowed it built up irregular layers of sand and clayey rubble from the Pyrenees to the sides of the channel, the region which now forms the Bas armagnac and Tenareze. The climate is hotter than in Cognac and grapes ripen more fully but the breezes from the Bay of Biscay ensure the summer never gets too hot. The taste of armagnacs is automatically associated with the flavour of prunes and plums but strangely enough those grown further to east in Tenareze which combines chalk and sand develop more floral qualities. The many individual qualities found in the Gers Department provides today the excellent fruity brandies we call armagnac.