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The History of Armagnac

  • The Ancient Art of Tasting 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.

    Armagnac productionArmagnacs 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.

    Armagnac Armagnac crus

    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.

  • David on Technical Topics - The Growth of the Armagnac Industry

    armagnac regionThe 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.

    grapes for armagnac

    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.

    armagnac bonbonnesEven 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.

  • David on Technical Topics - Armagnac, A Brief History

    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.

    Armagnac in southern France

    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.

    continuous stillBy 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.

    continuous armagnac stillThe 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.

  • Vintage Armagnacs

    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.

  • The history of Armagnac - Late 20th Century

    The dominance of cognac in the French spirit markets has created over the years a market inferiority complex, perhaps partly because the region has always been much poorer than regions to the north, but also because understanding of the spirit and its history has never been fully explored.

    The Bureau National Interprofessionel de l’Armagnac (BNIA),  is much smaller than its Cognac counterpart and cites some of the benefits of the golden nectar, especially the therapeutic qualities claimed by one doctor of medicine, Prior Vital Dufour who was ordained Cardinal of the Catholic church by Pope Clement in 1313. Amongst some of its 40 virtues it is claimed… "it fries the egg, conserves meat cooked or crude, and in the presence of herbs, extracts their virtues. It cures gout, canker and fistula by ingestion, restores the paralysed member by massage and heals wound of the skin by application. It renders men joyous, preserves youth and retards senility".

    In 1909 a decree defined the permitted boundaries for the production of armagnacs, by organising three large boundaries or crus. Bas armagnac has the largest production of armagnac and is regarded by most as having the finest armagnacs. 57% of all production comes from this region.  The main town in the region is Eauze. To the east is the smallest cru of Tenarèze, whose market town and traditional capital of Armagnac is Condom. This region produces about 40% of all armagnacs. This leaves the third cru, Haut Armagnac, with such a small production that their products are rarely seen, the region mainly being created to meet 19th century market demands.

    During the war supplies of the spirits stagnated and markets were difficult to supply, leading to many producers suffering financial difficulties. Today, armagnacs biggest market is Britain followed by Japan, Spain and Germany, but by the turn of the 20th century only 20,429 hectolitres of pure alcohol were produced.

  • The history of Armagnac - 20th Century Growth

    Phylloxera was no less kind to the Armagnaçaise than to those in the rest of France and although a few growers managed to continue producing grapes, the vast majority lost everything they were growing in their vineyards. The Folle Blanche was much in favour in Gascogne, but was also one of the most vulnerable to the louse which found the weakened roots of the heavily cropped vines a wonderful source of food. Many small producers simply gave up and turned their land over to crops that provided easier and more importantly, faster and more accessible revenue. The decline in available brandies from the region also coincided with a lull in demand from British customers, who were the largest source of export trade. Levels of austerity at the end of the century and during the early First World War years had allowed the English to lose interest in the fruity brandies of the region. The Armagnaçaise also had their own problems with access to the export markets mainly as a result of their failure to further their markets in other countries. Replanting after the phylloxera was slower than other regions and only the larger growers who already had an established market were able to afford the cost of replanting.

    In many ways, as is so often the case in French Viniculture, prosperity started to return to the industry with modernisation and greater demand from other countries. A new vine called the Bacco was introduced - it produced fruity wines which cropped later, providing more depth of flavour in the wines and greater flexibility in the harvest. Just at the time when sales were hitting a low, the wars came along which greatly affected sales of cognacs to the north. This enabled the fruity wines of Gascogne to be recognised for their distinctive flavours, finding favour in the bars and restaurants in Britain during the 1920’s when brandies became allied to the fashionable mid-war period.

  • The history of Armagnac – 19th Century Modernisation

    Two important changes happened in the 19th century that changed the fortunes of the Armagnaçaise for the better. The first was the introduction of the continuous still which is essential for extracting armagnac’s particular qualities. The cognac stills used previously were unsuitable for wines from the sandy and clay soils around much of the region. They were also too expensive for the peasants, who needed a simpler and more easily transportable still which could be easily moved from farmhouse to farmhouse, and which used cheaper fuel. They became quickly interested in the continuous still, invented by Edouard Adam from Montpellier. The idea was taken up by Antoine de Melet, Marquis de Bonas, a landowner famous for new ideas. By 1819 a factory in Eaux was making the new still, which was perfected by a peasant called Verdier who gave his name to the final apparatus. Unlike all the other types of continuous stills, the Verdier model retained more of the essential elements in the wines than did the orthodox pot-stills. The brandies from this still developed in time to a more complex spirit than cognac, albeit at the expense of some initial roughness and woodiness.

    The second change was the development in the 1830’s of the river Baise to a canal providing economical transport from the heart of the Tenareze region to Bordeaux, a world centre for trade in wines and spirits which allowed the Armagnaçaise a way to sell their special brandies. By then, unfortunately, the Cognaçaise had a 150 year lead. Nevertheless, the 50 years after the canal was built witnessed the first real breakthrough to the world markets. Some of the most famous names were founded around this time. The first, Castarède, which had previously been at Lavadac moved with other merchants to Condom nearer the centre of the region. The boom was real enough; in 1804 the Gers produced 50,000 hectolitres of pure alcohol, a figure which had doubled by 1872 from 100,000 hectares of vines.

  • The history of Armagnac – 16th, 17th and 18th Century

    During the 16th century, a spirit distilled from a wine in Toulouse known as aygue ardente or eau de vie became popular with the Dutch to supply their ships. They were happy to buy their the spirit at Bayonne, which after some time became known as Armagnac, and was found comparable in quality to the brandy from Cognac. Local historians claimed its international fame, but in reality armagnac remained something of a rustic curiosity. This was a puzzle since the region had an ample supply of acid wine and plenty of wood to burn. It had contact with the Dutch to provide a market and an older indigenous tradition of distillation than Cognac. Indeed, we can still see the earliest known brûleries set up at the Château de Busca in Maniban in the 17th century, by Thomas de Maniban, a member of the legal aristocracy who successfully sold fine wines of the region.

    The armagnacais lacked the commercial aggressiveness to sell their fine spirits and as a result armagnac did not compete as a rival to cognac in the market which counted – the fashionable society of Restoration London - and became submerged in the mass of brandies from Bordeaux and “Nants” which were considered  inferior to cognac. By the end of the 17th century armagnac was a well-integrated rural industry. Yet even when the Bordeaux monopoly collapsed during the 18th century, it remained largely local because of transport problems. Crucially the river Baise, which empties into the Garonne, was not navigable beyond Pont-de-Bordes at Lavadac at the very northern end of the region. It was this single difficulty that largely prevented the eaux de vie from being shipped to the ports, particularly Bordeaux, where merchants were trading in the local wines and eaux de vie with the merchants from England, Ireland and Holland. Armagnacs great variation from cognac, its great fruitiness and excitement to drink has kept the local and traditional methods alive through the 18th and 19th centuries for our enjoyment today.

  • The history of Armagnac - 14 and 15th Century

    Geographically, Armagnac appears for the first time in the middle of the tenth century. By the fifteenth century, the English kings had come and gone for the past 450 years Armagnac (indeed the whole of Gascony) has been a happy country without much history.

    In the 14th and 15th centuries, Bayonne, the nearest port had the unusual freedom to trade in wine. This was important as the only ways to get produce from the region was by the rivers, since no roads existed to ship their wines to the ports. In many ways the easiest outlet was the long haul down the river to Bordeaux. This was a problem though, since through the Middle Ages the merchants of Bordeaux protected their own wines by refusing to allow the sale of wines from the Haut Pays, the river basins of the Garonne and the Dordogne before Christmas each year. Wines were fragile then, so the ruling effectively excluded the wines of Cahors, Bergerac, Montbazillac and Armagnac from the lucrative British and Dutch markets. The only alternative was to haul the wines by ox cart to the river Midou for transport to Bayonne on barges - a journey that took 3 days to travel 38 kilometres. Distilling the wine at least increased the value of the contents of the casks so laboriously transported...

    Armagnac had retained an association with Arab science in the Middle Ages through the famous University of Montpellier, closely connected with the great Islamic seat of learning at Salerno. It was not surprising that the Armagnaçaise learnt  the Arab art of distillation before any other French wine making district. According to a document in 1411 in the archives of the Haute Garonne, a man called Antoine distilled wine at Toulouse to obtain aygue ardente, also called aygue de bito or eau de vie (water of life), a definition which emphasizes that the products were originally used for medicinal purposes. A further document in 1441 records that “distilled spirit relieves pain, keeps one young and brings with it joy”.

  • The history of Armagnac – The Oldest French Brandy

    Armagnac, as the locals invariably inform even the most casual visitor, is at once the oldest and youngest spirit in France. Oldest because it was first distilled in the middle of the 15th century and youngest because the Armagnaçaise are still arguing over how it should be made. President de Gaulle talked about the problems of governing a country which made 300 different cheeses. Armagnac has as many ways of making brandy.

    The region of Armagnac has always been a very special example of that elusive concept, la France profounde, even now well away from the madding crowds – and their motorways. They are essentially Gascons, famous as swaggerers, soldiers (d’Artagnam was the most famous), lovers of rich food (truffles and Fois Gras), and drink. Their homeland is as near a rural paradise as makes no difference, gentle, fair, fertile countryside as yet unspoilt by urban sprawls. It is tucked away a hundred miles south of Bordeaux stretching back from the sands of the Landes through a series of gentle valleys with none of the grim monoculture which marks other vineyards, but providing a most agreeable and varied vision of rural bliss.

    That was its attraction – but the corollary was its unsuitability as a production centre for an internationally traded spirit. Armagnac was and still is a reflection of French individualism, while still a deeply united community in which the merchants are, for the most part, members of the same class as the growers. Unlike Cognac, there has never been a class war in Armagnac. By themselves individualism, change and experiment would not be of interest if the brandy was not exciting to drink. It is better than that; earthier than cognac, but, at its best, offering a closeness to nature, a depth of fruit and warmth that even the finest cognacs cannot match. Because the choice of three grapes and two methods of distillation, the brandy’s potential character is enormously varied.

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