I love the earthy, fruity tones of armagnac particularly after a heavy meal here in Bordeaux. Yet we have all been north to Cognac and enjoyed its polished and smooth flavours and slick marketing but never thought to make the trip south to Armagnac, the most ancient brandy dating back some 700 years. I organise wine tours in Bordeaux that get off the beaten track (Sip-wines.com) and was asked by daring clients if we could organise a day’s trip to Armagnac! Why sure and then started the research into where best to go…I headed down there last week with two of my guides to discover and explore….
It is only an hour and a quarter away straight down the motorway. Exiting the A65 at Roquefort you find yourself in a different world of ancient timber framed houses and rolling hills of vines. It is where d’Artagnan came from in Dumas’ Three Musketeers and even today in the atmospheric middle age bastide villages of Labastide d’Armagnac or St Justin he would look quite at home.
The vineyard appellation is the size of St Emilion. Here there are 250 small producers (so it is perfect for us, we specialise in SIP – Small Independent Producers!) that from a mix of grape varieties (Baco Blanc – unique to this region, Colombard and Folle Blanche) make a fruity, hearty brandy that tastes like the grapes it is made from and the wood oak barrels that it is aged in (some are even grown here in Gascony).
Baco Blanc (hybrid between french and american vines created in 1898 which saved the region from Phylloxera by François Baco a self-taught teacher); only allowed in Armagnac for brandy production and liked (and protected from being forbidden) for its ripe fruity flavours and complexity.
Folle Blanche; floral and delicate in flavour, the authentic grape of Armagnac before phylloxera. Ugni Blanc; thin and acidic wines predominate in Cognac
The Gers is also well known for its aromatic crisp simple whites made from Colombard.
All grapes need to have very high acidity and low alcohol levels (up to 9°C) to be perfect for the distillation process. No sulphur can be used so it is the acidity that preserves the wine from oxidation up until the distillation, then it is the high alcohol that does the job.
During the distillation (which takes place straight after the harvest of these white grapes at end of September) the fruity flavours are kept in the spirit. The continuous alembic copper still does not remove all of these ‘impurities’ which leaves added flavours. In general cognacs are smoother with a double distillation but one could say less characterful.
This alembic still produces eaux de vie of between 50 and 52° alcohol
As with wine, with cognac we can taste the evolution of these primary fruity and floral flavours with time into more tobacco, earthy, leafy flavours – like old wine. Armagnac can age even longer as it is protected and preserved by its own alcohol and not prone like wint to oxidation.
As with wine, most armagnacs are vintages (the grapes are the product of one single year) and so vary extensively year to year – as in Bordeaux wit the wine vintages.
That’s what makes it interesting and a headache to market! In Cognac its all about average ages VSOP or XO and the master blender (as with whisky or non-vintage champagne) tries to blend the same taste year in and out. This also happens in Armagnac but the vintages here are what makes it unique.
Darroze is a merchant based in Roquefort who buys up small quantities of these vintages from small producers and bottles them. It began with sales of this delicious digestif produced in small quantities in the locality not far from the Darroze family restaurant at Villeneuve de Marsan. With such great contacts the family started to sell them on…Today they deal with 20 different producers and are currently selling around 70 different vintaged armagnacs in small quantities.
Once distilled the eaux de vie is put into 400 litre oak barrels to age for years. Once the armagnac is thought not to develop in barrel any more (there is a continual micro oxidation and evaporation through the wood grain) it is put into glass demijohns and this stops further development. It is important when buying vintage armagnacs to know the date it was put into demijohn or bottle – not just the vintage!
For private wine tours that focus on the small producer