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Armagnac

Armagnac is a place in the south west of France, to the west of Toulouse, in the historic Duchy of Gascony. There are sources reporting distillation in the region as early as 1411, but how close this would be to the modern brandy is hard to say. Certainly the Gascons have been distilling grapes here a long time. As with Cognac, Armagnac began to assume something like its present form in the 17th and 18th century when merchants discovered the effects of ageing in oak on the local spirit. Cognac on the coast near Bordeaux looked to Britain, Holland and the wider world, and became a global industry, whereas inland Armagnac would have been relatively inaccessible until the coming of the railways in the 19th century.

Armagnac today
This explains the very different character of the two industries. Cognac is vast and global, it exports around 98% of its 180 million bottle production whereas Armagnac produces just 6 million about half of which is consumed in France. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of France with its castles and little towns nestled in rolling countryside. Much Armagnac is still made by farmers who also make wine, keep livestock and grow maize and tobacco though there are bigger companies like Delord and Janneau which operate as negociants buying in eaux-de-vie and aged spirits.

The region
The region covers around 2,420 hectares (compared with over 75,000 hectares in Cognac) and is divided into three parts: Bas-Armagnac, Haut-Armagnac, and Armagnac-Ténarèze. Bas-Armagnac means ‘low’ because it is less than 120 metres above sea level. Around 50-60% of production is from this sub-region and the sandy, iron-rich soils are said to produce some of the finest grapes in Armagnac. Then there is the tiny Haut-Armagnac, the high ground, up to about 200 metres above sea level, with mainly chalky soils which produce a rare delicate and fruity spirit. It makes up less than 2% of production. Finally, there's Armagnac Ténarèze making up the rest of production, around 40%, with its rich clay and chalk soils leading to a more robust spirit. A lot of Armagnac will be blends of the three regions.

The most popular grape varieties are ugni blanc, baco, folle blanche, and colombard though there are other ones allowed in production. Armagnacs are usually blends but you do see varietal expressions. Once harvested, the grapes are fermented either with wild or cultured yeast to produce a light acidic wine of about 8% ABV. This must be distilled within a few months as it cannot be preserved with sulphur which would be concentrated during distillation.

Armagnac Distillation
The distillation process is unusual and worth looking at in some detail. In the 18th century, Armagnac would have been made with pot stills but in the early 19th century a unique style of column still was introduced. This is now the standard for the region though one of the biggest producers, Janneau, is unusual in using Cognac-style pot stills and double-distillation to make a smoother, more elegant spirit. The column is known as an alambic Armagnacais, with a maximum of 17 plates but often as few as four. Unlike the Coffey and Stein stills that were being developed in Ireland and Scotland a little later, the alambic Armagnacais produces a low strength alcohol of between 50-70% ABV which is packed full of congeners. These distinctive copper stills look like something out of Jules Verne and are often fueled by wood, even those belonging to large producers like Château du Tariquet. Usually once lit, these will work 24 hours a day until the entire vintage has been distilled. The distillation season runs from October to March. Often villagers will hold a party known as La Flamme de l’Armagnac to celebrate this special time of the year. Only 48 houses in Armagnac own their own copper still, so to support the rest of the houses, there are five travelling distillers who pull their alambic by tractor around the villages.

These unique stills produce a spirit that’s full of character, sometimes a little fiery in youth, but responds well to long-ageing in wood. Traditionally, Armagnac was aged in local oak though nowadays barrels might come from further north in France. Only 400 litre French wood barrels are allowed and a proportion will be kept in new wood to impart spice and tannin. After decades in wood, the best Armagnac develops a character known as ‘rancio’ with notes of dried apricot, pineapple and walnuts. As in Cognac, much Armagnac is sold with statements that designate a minimum age: VS (two years), VSOP (four years) and XO or Hors d’Age (ten years.) You also see age statements like 10 or 20 years old as in whisky and many vintage releases. These last offer astonishing value for money and are often bottled at cask strength. Many producers have demi-johns of vintage Armagnac dating back to the 19th century. In fact this whole region is a mecca for those who love old wood-aged spirits.

Despite its very traditional image, Armagnac producers are innovating with packaging aimed squarely at the whisky consumer, Islay cask finishes (though these are not allowed to be called Armagnac), and an unaged Armagnac Blanche that’s proving very popular with bartenders. Younger fresher Armagnacs are great in simple cocktails like an Old Fashioned or a Sidecar, whereas the older examples are best sipped neat. In Armagnac itself, no meal is complete until you’ve had decent vintage brandy. You can start your meal the Gascony way too, with a glass of chilled Floc de Gascogne, a blend of grape juice and brandy, not dissimilar to Pineau des Charentes.

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