Armagnac, a fine brandy made exclusively in Gascony, is finding a new audience internationally.
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.
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.
Whereas Cognac tends to be light and, at the cheaper end, a bit bland, Armagnacs are usually pungent and distinctive. This is partly down to differences in distillation. Cognac is double-distilled in a pot still; meanwhile, most Armagnac is single-distilled in a special still known as an alambic. These wonderful contraptions of beaten copper look like something from Victorian science fiction. Newer ones are made to 19th century specifications by a local firm. Some producers, however, such as Janneau, make some spirit in pot stills. Janneau’s cellarmaster, Philippe Sourbes (who sports the only beard I saw during the trip—and it’s a very light, distinguished one, like you might find on an architect) told me that the alambic produces a spirit with ‘more personality,’ whereas the pot still makes ‘a lighter spirit that needs less aging.’
The soil in the two main growing regions also contributes to the character of the spirit. The Bas Armagnac region is gravelly and produces a lighter more elegant spirit that is drinkable at a younger age. Whereas the heavy clay in Tenareze produces something weightier which needs longer ageing to smooth out. You can see the difference in the landscape. Tenareze looks like Southern England, with rolling hills dotted with small towns and woods. Whereas the Bas Armagnac region looks like the Highlands of Scotland, with pine forests and gorse-covered heath. In fact, I think Armagnac’s flavors have more in common with Scotch whiskey than Cognac. There are fiery, smoky Armagnacs like Islay malts, ones that smell of leather and tobacco like Macallan, and light, pretty brandies reminiscent of Lowland whiskies.
The final factor in the taste of Armagnac is the aging. Thomas Guasch, whose family owns Baron de Sigognac, uses “two types of oak, one from the Pyrenees, black oak, other from Vosges, more fine-grained.” The spirit spends some time in new barrels to take on tannin from the wood before being transferred to older casks. After two years of aging, the product can be sold as VS armagnac, or it can be aged longer to create VSOP, XO, 10 year old etc. Particularly fine barrels will be kept and sold as vintage Armagnac.
The old-fashioned nature of the Armagnac business is certainly part of its charm—but at the same time, some producers in the region are ready to bring the industry up to date. At Delord, one of the biggest exporters to the US, Jacques Delord told me that Armagnac had been “sleeping on its laurels for too long. We had a great product but didn’t sell it.” Some producers I visited were almost touchingly ignorant about sales and marketing. I was told a couple of times, “you (the British) used to buy a lot—but now not so much.” Delord, however, are one of the more dynamic firms. Jacques Delord regularly travels to America, Hong Kong and Japan to spread the word, and sales in the US are rising steadily.
Not only are producers getting better at marketing their product; all the values epitomized in Armagnac—rarity, authenticity, distinctiveness—are what so many spirit drinkers are interested in today. Most producers have vintage brandies for sale dating back to the early 20th century. These are every bit as rare and distinctive as equivalent malt whiskies, but whereas a Macallan 1981 will cost you at least $1,000 a bottle, a Castarade 1981 produced by Chateau de Maniban will cost around 100 euros ($112). At a time when Scotch whiskey is in such demand that distillers are releasing whiskies with no age statements, Armagnac suddenly looks very appealing.
On my return from the region, I opened a bottle of Janneau 18-year-old for my parents. My father, a Scotch man, was converted immediately—but the real surprise was that my mother, who doesn’t drink spirits, also loved it. There’s a winelike, fruity quality to good Armagnac. My wife was similarly converted. We’ve taken to having a little glass most evenings after dinner ‘to help our digestion.’
Here are four great ones to start with, all of which are readily available for purchase in the U.S.:
Castarede VSOP, $47.99
This has the tobacco nose and full body of a much older spirit. There’s so much character for the money.
Château du Tariquet Folle Blanche 15 yr., $55.99
One to give a lover of Islay malts. There’s a smoky, medicinal quality to the nose; like Lagavulin it combines sweetness with fire. The pepperiness is due to it being 100% Folle Blanche.
Delord 25 ans d'age, $62.99
The age statement means that the youngest brandy in here is 25 years old. It’s so luxurious with notes of creme brulee, chocolate and tobacco. Superb.
Francis Darroze Domaine de la Poste 1980, $179.99
Francis Darroze don’t make any brandy; they find superlative old casks, and then bottle and market them. 100% Ugni Blanc, this is extraordinarily harmonious, with layers of chilli, vanilla, fruit and floral notes. Exquisite and, for a spirit this fine, a bargain.