Domaine du Tariquet, a wine producer in southwest France, have the biggest, shiniest stainless steel storage containers I’ve ever seen. They’re twice as high as a three-story house, and from the top there are amazing views across Gascony. I get a terrible feeling of vertigo just thinking about them. Dwarfed by these giants is an old wooden barn, and in it there’s a still. It’s a rather battered little thing on wheels; it formerly was towed around villages after harvest time to distill smallholder’s wine. Fueled by wood, it’s the only one Tariquet use to distill their Armagnac, a fine brandy made only in Gascony. Wine, mainly Cotes-de-Gascogne white, makes up most of their business. And yet Armin Grassa, the fifth generation of the family to own the domaine, told me: “We are distillers first, winemakers second.”
We are constantly being told that our whiskies, bourbons and gins are ‘small-batch, ‘artisanal’ and ‘cask strength’—even though most of them are actually made in industrial facilities. But in Armagnac the antiquated methods aren’t for show; this is just how thing are done. Here, you won’t see any of those words on labels, because the techniques are normal, the standard—nothing unusual worth mentioning. In their marketing efforts, where there are any, there are no dreamily shot images of tattooed, bearded men. In fact, I don’t think I saw a single beard or tattoo on my visit.
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Armagnac preserves the old methods because production has never been industrialized. Unlike in Cognac, which is dominated by multinationals, most Armagnac producers are family-owned. There is no equivalent to Martell or Hennessey. Armagnac production is tiny compared to it its rich cousin to the north, 6 millions bottles a year to Cognac's 180 million. People often group the two together, but whereas Cognac is almost entirely made from Ugni Blanc, in Armagnac they regularly use four grape varieties: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, and Baco. (There are also six other grape varieties permitted in Armagnac production, but those are only rarely used.) Olivier Bonnafont, the cellar master at Chateau de Maniban, told me, you must have “perfect fruit, perfect wine, perfect alcohol” in order to get the best Armagnac. “It’s about extracting quality from the land,” he added. He has converted the property to organics because he believes it’s the best way to obtain top quality fruit. No sulfur can be added to the wine; distillation would accentuate the sulfuric flavor.