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  • 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”.

  • How to make Cognac - Distillation

    The vast majority of distillers in the cognac region are bouilleurs de cru, distillers who grow their own grapes, rather than the bouilleurs de profession, distillers whose sole purpose is to distil the wines for growers and merchants. There are probably nearly a thousand of the former group who sell their brandies under their own name, and it is these whose reputations have developed over the centuries from their family skills.  Of course many of these bouillers de cru also sell their cognacs to a blender, who may keep the cognacs for a few years in casks before selling them in the style of the house or negoçiant  who eventually sell the products in the market.

    Distillers all operate under the same strict rules. The wines have to be distilled twice to a maximum strength of not greater than 72 percent, in copper stills with heads that are shaped rather like onions. The distillation must be in two boilings, with the second one not exceeding 25 hectolitres of liquid. Distillation starts in late November and must be completed by 31st March the following year.

    The basic design of the alembic charentais was perfected by the Dutch in the 17th century and it has not changed significantly since then. The basis of the operation is to gently heat the wine to a very high temperature, which makes it evaporate. The very essence of the wine is collected in the head of the still, escapes through a long curved pipe in the top where it runs through a condenser and returns to a liquid. Control of the process is of vital importance - it must not be allowed to get too hot. In the early days distillation was difficult to control, since wood from the local forests, even coal was used for heating.

    Today most stills are heated by natural gas. Oil fire boilers are not allowed as there is risk of contamination from the oil and its residue. Modern distillation has not changed significantly over the years, but control of the process is now much better understood and the various stages at which chemical changes occur can be controlled accurately, thus minimising waste. Whilst there are many standardised practices, the distiller does have a considerable number of choices available that can influence the style and flavour of the final product.

    Most distillation in Cognac evolves around the ugni blanc grape and assuming this is a standard factor (it is not always), the first choice is the size and shape of the still and the still head. On the second distillation, the maximum quantity brouillis allowed in the boiler is 25 hectolitres, however 12 and 15 hectolitre stills are indeed quite common, especially amongst the smaller distillers. Many small firms believe, with some justification, that the flavour can be improved when smaller quantities are heated. A crucial factor though, is the design of the head or chapiteau. This collects the vapours from the boiled wine before escaping through the “swans neck”, the col de cygnet. It is then be condensed in cooled coils, the serpentin, where the vapours condense into liquid.

    In order to extract the fuller flavours from the wines it is desirable to minimise the levels of rectification. Rectification is when the vapours that have condensed in the still head drip back to be re-boiled, thus neutralising the spirit to a greater extent. A straighter sided head will allow more vapours to pass uninterrupted. A further factor which can influence rectification is the height of the swans neck - the shorter the distance the vapour travels before it is condensed and collected in the barrel, the more flavour will be present in the final eau de vie. It is this process, with lower rectification levels, that the big houses who buy from hundreds of producers for blending, are trying to stop, thus encouraging spirit neutrality to make it easier to blend.

    There are many variations allowed in the distillation process which can affect the final quality and taste of the cognacs. One of the areas of modern methods is the argument relating to the use of the chauffe-vin, a simple pot sitting between the boiler and the condenser. Most modern distilleries do use this form of pre-heating the wine before it enters the boiler. The heating is provided by the hot spirit as it passes through pipes which pass through the pre-heater. There is a danger of the wines becoming oxidised if they get too hot and it is sometimes argued that purity is greater if the chauffe-vin is not used.

    Perhaps the greatest influence on taste is created by the use of the lees, the mushy solid content of the grapes, which provide the fruitiness from the yeast found in the lees. The yeasts form a number of esters which tend to enrich the final product, and many distillers use this process when trying to develop greater individuality in their cognacs. The practice of distilling on the lees is forbidden by some of the big negoçiants, who are seeking greater neutrality to simplify blending with hundreds of other brandies.

    Further variations can occur in the cooking time of the wines, which can be as great as 6 to 12 hours, depending on the size of the still and the heating process. The slower the cooking the more thoroughly the essential qualities of the fruit are extracted. This occurs most effectively in the first distillation, which concentrates the wine approximately 3 to 4 times to produce a brouillis at a strength of around 27-30%. Whilst this is a small variation, it can create a huge difference in the taste! It is in this first distillation that most of the important chemical reactions take place.

    The final distillation is required to be between 67 and 72 degrees. The first vapours are too strong and they are set aside from the main part of the distillation, the final vapours are too weak and are added back into the still for re-boiling.

  • How to make Cognac - The harvest and the Wine.

    To visit the Charente in October is one of the most exciting periods of the whole of the Cognac season. There is a huge sense of anticipation - vats and stills are being cleaned, machinery is being serviced and viticulturists are checking the acidity and sugar levels in the grapes. They are also making final checks on the quality and cleanliness of the grapes, ensuring that no mildew or rot exists in the clusters of Ugni Blanc, Colombard or Folle Blanche before they are picked.

    On the chosen day, usually at the end of October, and depending on acidity and sugar levels, the whole region will go into action and the mechanical harvesters will work down the lines of grapes, plucking the clusters from the vines. The grapes will be loaded into trucks and taken as quickly as possible to the presses. It is essential that they are crushed as quickly as possible to prevent sulphur dioxide forming on the skins as a result of warm weather and natural sugars in the grapes. Modern presses are long rotating cylinders with slatted sides. Two stainless steel plates move in from the ends as the drums rotate, releasing the juice until the pulp of the grape comes out. This is the lees and is sometimes used in the wine to produce a fruitier flavour.

    Generally the juice will take about 6-8 weeks before natural fermentation turns it into a wine with an alcohol content of around 8-9%. Around 95% of the wines are made from the Ugni Blanc grapes, but some specialist houses still like the charming qualities of the Colombard and the traditional Folle, which can produce more peachy flavours in the finished cognacs. The wine is a cloudy liquid with a relatively acidic quality, ideal for distilling. It is usually stored in big concrete tanks before being checked for the optimum quality and pumped into the stills boiler for the heating and reduction process.

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