We were lucky enough to be invited over to the fourth London Armagnac Academy, a yearly one day masterclass telling all about the somewhat-overlooked brandy. Here’s what we learned…
We popped up to London for an entire day of deliciously educational Armagnac fun. Our hosts were Hannah Lanfear, founder of The Mixing Class and UK Armagnac educator, and Amanda Garnham, who has spent more than 16 years as press attachée and educator for the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (B.N.I.A.). Together, the dynamic duo taught us (nearly) everything there is to know, and, best of all, we tasted more than 40 Armagnacs. But there was a serious side too, at the end of the day there was a 100 question exam, with the highest scorer winning a trip to Armagnac itself as a reward. Talk about motivation! Spoiler, it wasn’t me…
Garnham, who lives in the region, jokily bestows upon herself the title of ‘the granny of Armagnac’, sets the scene of what Armagnac is like as a place before we delve into the details of the spirit. It is a region in Gascony, south-west France, filled with vineyards, castles and geese. Lots of geese. Which also means lots of foie gras. In Gascon, the average life expectancy is five years longer than that of the rest of France, despite all the decadent food and brandy. This phenomenon even has a name: the Gascon paradox. While recounting her travels over to the region, Lanfear nostalgically tells us that “Armagnac melts away the London mindset.” I have to admit, it does sound wonderfully romantic, and I already feel warmer in our little room in a fairly gloomy London.
Armagnac has had quite the time of it. There’s evidence of production as far back as the 14th century, though it was by the end of the 16th century that it became commonplace at local French markets. Back in the 17th and 18th century, Armagnac was originally exported through Bordeaux, with the aim to then blend it with water to rehydrate it after. We know, imagine that! Madness. Soon enough, the consumers realised that it was delicious without dilution, and the rest is history.
Armagnac is understandably often talked about in the same circles as Cognac, though culturally they couldn’t be more different. For one, the difference in the size of each region and, consequently, its market, is huge. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is by pointing out that, over the course of a year, Cognac loses more to the angel’s share than Armagnac produces in the entire year, which is around 6.6 million bottles.
Armagnac vineyards cover just 2,420 hectares, while Cognac has 75,000 hectares. Because it is much smaller, Armagnac isn’t commercial in the same way, and has no desire to compete with Cognac. Success of that level would lose what makes it unique. Garnham tells us that, though the word is banded around without meaning these days, “Armagnac has always been craft, but never really talked about it.” It stays small because of the size of the AOC, and even at its maximum production it couldn’t satisfy a market anywhere near the size of Cognac.
Thanks to its smaller size, Armagnac has kept its biodiversity. There are ten main grape varieties that can be used to make it, whereas almost all Cognac is made from only one, Ugni Blanc. There are trees and shrubs surrounding the vineyards which encourage insects and bats, and other crops breaking up what would otherwise be a monoculture.
Garnham notes that, although the region is charming all year round, distillation is the most romantic time of year, called La Flamme de l’Armagnac. Producers will hold parties for entire villages (though sometimes that’s only 50 or so people), and traditionally children will light the alembic still. The still becomes the social hub of the community thanks to its warmth, and also because it must be tended to 24 hours a day. Although, only 48 houses in Armagnac own their own copper still, so to support the rest of the houses, there are five travelling distillers. Essentially, this is a large tractor with a copper still on the back of it, going from house to house over the course of distillation, which runs from harvest in October until 31 March, though generally distillation is completed by the end of January. You wouldn’t want to get stuck behind one of those on a single track road.
Though some houses use double distillation as with Cognac, most Armagnac producers use the region’s traditional alembic. This is a simple continuous still, sometimes with as few as four plates, very different to the sort of high efficiency columns used to make grain whisky. They are often wood-fired and the spirit comes off at between 60 and 70% ABV so there are lots of congeners.
In Armagnac, the spirit is almost like a form of currency. Traditionally, Garnham tells us, a family will distil Armagnac each year and keep it in the cellar, much like money in a bank though with better rates of interest. Over time as it gets older it becomes more valuable, and say the family needs a new car, or has to prep for a wedding, they’ll dig out the Armagnac and sell it. Ditch your savings account and start investing in brandy, though if our lack of self-restraint with a contactless card is anything to go by, not drinking our savings would be even harder.
How do I drink it?
The mystery that surrounds Armagnac means that people aren’t quite sure how to drink it. Garnham notes that it doesn’t make much sense to add water or ice to your Armagnac, the reason being that the blend has been married and balanced to (hopefully) perfection before bottling, and water will undo that balancing act. Like with an older whisky, older Armagnacs are designed for sipping. However, younger Armagnacs are totally delicious with tonic and ice, or even alongside desserts. Armagnac-stewed prunes is a particularly tasty combo, and pair this with foie gras to live like a real Gascon local. Armagnac suffers from the same holdbacks as many aged spirits (looking at you, whisky), and mixing it shouldn’t be seen as a sin. Cocktails are a fun way to introduce people to the brandy.
Garnham leaves each of us a Gascon oak acorn on our table, so we can take a bit of Armagnac with us. Though, after a day of learning and tasting this delicious spirit, I’m pining to visit in person…
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