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  • 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.

  • How to make Cognac - Serving & Drinking Cognac

    Appropriately, at Christmas we often visualise the elderly gentleman lowering his nose into a large balloon glass containing a brown liquid, presumably cognac. While endowing brandy with a certain social status, the image is misleading. Cognacs, especially those which we understand to be of a high enough quality, are to be savoured. Even the most experienced brandy tasters find it difficult to taste quantities of the spirit, since it burns the mouth and only small quantities of different cognacs can be tasted at any one time. Even so, copious quantities of water are necessary to cleanse the mouth. That said, the tasting of fine cognacs, with so many varied tastes and aromas, is a uniquely satisfying experience and one that only a few privileged people are able to enjoy.

    In the past the tasting of brandy was bedevilled by the enormous balloon glasses traditionally used and which are a total disaster. Most brandies and all cognacs are sold at 40% and it is the alcohol that collects in the glass that will significantly reduce the enjoyment of the cognac, as it will collect in the balloon and mask the aroma of the cognac being tasted. Similarly, the belief in heating the brandy is also destructive, since too warm a brandy will evaporate too quickly.

    The best temperature for cognac is between 15-18 degrees - but small variations either side are not critical, since one normally tastes smaller quantities than a wine and it quickly adapts to body temperature. The professional and connoisseur taster now uses the small tulip shaped glass. Cognac poured into the glass should be run round the side of the glass, but never swirled as you do wine, as this releases more alcohol above the surface, thus blinding the aroma. Understanding and enjoying the brandy is as much about the aroma as is the taste. A good sommelier will show his skill by carefully running the cognac round the glass and placing it quietly on the table, for the aroma to build and for his clients enjoyment.

  • How to make Cognac - VSOP or Vintage?

    During the late 19th century it became an aristocratic tradition to supply cognacs that had aged in damp cellars for many years, rather like those from Delamain and Hine, companies that had produced some fine old cognacs.

    However, during the last century the Chinese had started to develop a liking for dark sweet cognacs and the big houses quickly developed the knack of adding generous proportions of sugar syrup and caramel to satisfy their needs. This in effect enabled the use of younger cognacs to be blended, thus avoiding costly ageing for many years in barrels. Eventually this was replaced by the more selective buyers choosing early landed or late bottled cognacs that had been shipped to the UK and aged in cellars. It is this ageing process that makes all the difference, as the sticky syrupy style of cognacs blended with additives is easily noticeable and can destroy the very essence of the house style and quality.

    All the cognacs we buy today are sold at 40% alc,  but of course they start life at between 67-70%. A very broad average of strength reduction is 1 degree every year and the vast majority have to be slowly diluted, usually over a period of a year or more, to provide a completely harmonious blend.  Every house or producer has their own style and most would prefer to maintain that style, but economic needs have in the past dictated that they sell quantities to the bigger houses or negoçiants for blending with hundreds of other cognacs. In more recent times the consumer has become increasingly aware of different tastes and the effect of ageing on individual cognacs. This and the upsurge in world demand for cognac has led to a reversal of this situation, and today it is the big houses who are in desperate need of greater quantities of young and neutral cognacs to fuel their markets, with products which are far from pure and no longer resemble the true identity of their producer.

  • How to make Cognac - Storage and blending

    Storing cognacs may sound a rather easy process of placing old barrels on their sides in cellars  (Chais), in neat rows and often about three high, for as long as it takes to mature. This rather simplistic view is indeed the essence of the process, but there are many more complex limitations to consider. It is perhaps fortunate that over the centuries the Cognacais have developed cognacs to suit the area.

    Typically, those from the Champagnes are slow to develop, but the damp conditions created by the Charente river keep the oak barrels damp, blocking the spirit from dissipating into the surrounding air too quickly. Conversely, cognacs from the Fins Bois tend to mature more quickly and the drier conditions provide a faster maturing spirit.

    Cognacs are stored for specific uses and the greater quantity (more than 90%), are specifically used for reducing down and blending with other cognacs. These are sold to the big negoçiants, who will use them from around 3 years old to develop sub blends for further blending and eventually selling as VS, VSOP or XO type products. But many of the more skilled and dedicated producers will keep their products for selling under their own name, as products they are happy to add their name to as fine examples of their families history. Brandy Classics exclusively sell these "single producer" artisan cognacs, as we believe they provide much greater variety and depth than the more homogenous "blended" products.

    In most cases cognacs are now stored in 350 or 400 litre barrels. The cellars are usually dark and quite dirty places, with a strong musty but rich spirit aroma, partly created by the spirit and tannins in the wood, and partly by the mould on the walls and roofs of the cellars. Almost all producers have a common problem in that most cognacs have to be reduced with water, as ageing can take as long as 70 to 80 years to provide the very optimum qualities from the brandy. This of course is not a cost effective option for the big houses, who do not have the option of supplying the pure single estate brandies with such fine flavours.

  • How to make Cognac - From Still to Barrel

    Cognac must be distilled between the range of 67–72 degrees and many producers will try and get it to the higher end of the range to maximise on the purity of the distillate. Whatever the strength of the vapours, the temperature is quite likely to be very hot and the vapour will rise quickly from the boiler to the chapiteau, the onion shaped pot on top of the boiler. The smaller the chapiteau, the more efficiently the wine vapours are carried on up to the col de cygnet (swans neck). The shorter the col de cygnet, the less spirit will be rectified before it goes round the top bend - at which point it will start to condense as it passes back through the super heater or chauffe-vin, this time to cool the spirit rather than to heat the wine. The final stage of bringing the vapour back to a liquid is through a large condenser with huge coils in a water filled tank , cooling it to a level where it can be tasted by the distiller to judge the quality of the distillation and where the strength can be measured.

    The final eau de vie or water of life, a water clear liquid is, once the burnt heads are removed, diverted into a new oak barrel.

    Cognac Barrels

    Typically barrels are made from oak from the Limousin Forests, some 70 km to the east of the town of Cognac. This has not always been the case though. During the 17th and early 18th centuries other woods were used, since travel was more difficult and transporting heavy timber arduous. There is some evidence to suggest that elm or possibly even ash may have been used from the local forest which would account partly for the dry hazel nut taste of very early cognacs. These timbers would never have been highly successful, as the grain in elm is neither straight or easy to bend and oak would even in early days have been preferred.

    It is the Forests of Limousin, to the east of Angoulême, that was the predominant reason for the success of Cognac. The trees grow large and thick and the wood is relatively porous allowing both physical and chemical processes to occur in the brandies. Oak from the forest of Tronçais near Burgundy is also used, but the grain is much tighter and the maturing process is considerably increased. However, it suits some houses who seek to develop their cognacs for shorter periods, since the wood contains more lignin and less tannins than Limousin.

    Physically, oak is hard, supple and watertight, making it ideal for storage and transportation, but it is also dense, thus allowing only slow evaporation. Wood for the barrels has to be carefully chosen, ensuring that it is free from knots and imperfections. The wood comes from old trees, greater than 50 years old and the staves are split rather than cut to ensure the grain is straight. The staves are air dried outside for about six years before being taken and shaped into curved staves and formed into barrels. Sun and rain remove many of the soluble elements in the wood, including the bitter tannins which would introduce bitterness into the brandy.

    Chemically, oak is two thirds neutral and crucially contains little or none of the of the resinous substances found in other woods that can pollute the spirit with undesirable tastes. Like cognac, the actual making of the barrels is a great skill passed down from generations and one that deserves recognition. It can never be mechanised and visiting a cooperage is a memorable experience. Each stave is shaped carefully and then placed together using a metal ring to hold the staves in place. After a complete circle of staves is formed, further rings are added. A groove is then formed at the end of the staves to hold the end plate, held in with pegs. No glue or nails are ever used in the barrels construction.

    New oak from either the forests of Limousin or Tronçais contains many harmful chemicals which need to be removed before the brandies are allowed to be placed inside them. The completed barrel cannot be used until it has been toasted to remove some of the harmful wood tannins which can introduce bitterness to the brandy. There is however a small percentage of useful tannins left in the wood and a larger level of Lignins which, when combined with the hemicellulose which makes up most of the rest, gradually dissolves into the maturing spirit, imparting the agreeable sweetness found in older brandies.

    The Tannins impart colour to the maturing spirit,  but too much exposure can create a bitter harshness to the brandy. Young brandies are usually only kept in new barrels for perhaps between 6 – 12 months before being transferred to older and mainly neutral barrels, thus creating a more readily drinkable brandy at a younger age. The process of ageing is slow. Naturally the more the brandy comes into contact with the barrel the more effectively it matures, so smaller barriques will tend to provide a better cognac over time than the larger 350 litre barrels. Different variations in the wood, toasting and size of the barrel will change the style of the cognac during its long ageing.

    But there is one more ingredient that will provide a major variation in the flavour of the cognac - water, or more significantly the dampness of the cellar in which the cognacs are stored. Many old cellars have earth floors and those closer to the Charente will have a greater degree of dampness than others in the Bois crus. The water molecule is larger than that of spirit, so will block the quick release of the spirits through the wood, allowing more time for the tannins and lignins to dissolve in the spirit, which in the case of brandy aged for 40 or more years will develop the much sought after “rancio”.

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