Scientists have produced an artificial tasting tongue. It is made from sub-microscopic slices of gold and aluminium which create ‘tastebuds’ that are around 500 times smaller than the human equivalent. Subtle differences in how the metals absorb light allow the ‘tongue’ to identify individual spirits with more than 99% accuracy. Picking up differences in complex chemical mixtures, sometimes resulting from barrel type and length of maturation, it is hoped that the ‘tongue’ will be used to identify counterfeit products. Artificial tongues have been produced before, but this is the first time that two different types of nanoscale metal ‘tastebuds’ have been used so the results are faster and more accurate. So, is this a threat to our industry’s sommeliers? Perhaps not. It may well be more sensitive than the most highly tuned palates, but it cannot describe taste nor identify balance, skills which we specialise in here at Hermitage Cognacs. Those skills are of course subjective but put together with experience and knowledge of the marketplace our sommeliers and competition judges are certainly not out of a job yet. However, those who choose to undermine the industry by flooding the market with fake goods should take note.
For many years we have been using a very impressive aroma wheel, set up by the BNIC, to help us describe the different aromas detected in cognac. I suppose it was inevitable that the Armagnaҫais would come up with something similar. So, instead of a wheel, armagnac aromas have been described in a round seashell with a collection of fruit, herbs, nuts and flowers floating mysteriously from the shell aperture. There are a number of other surprises too since the shell is split into three sections. The inner section denotes a range of ages, 4, 10 and 20 years, and linked to each a number of general types of aroma such as heat, cooking, plants, woods, animal and rancio. The outer section lists detailed aromas associated with each. Some are familiar smells such as dates, cedar, cinnamon and plums but those of ether, pharmacy, soap, resin, sap, stables and varnish are much less appealing. I’m not sure how much I would be tempted to taste an armagnac exhibiting any of these aromas!
Even more surprisingly, the chart seems to suggest that certain aromas are linked to armagnac ages. Prune is perhaps the most common aroma and taste found in armagnac but it only appears on the chart alongside the oldest. The concept is good, but come on BNIA, you can do better than this.
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.