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French Armagnac

Armagnac, from the Gascony region of the same name in southwest France, is one of the country’s oldest distilled spirits. Despite its ancient origins, it often sits in the shadow of its more famous cousin, Cognac. While both originate from specific regions in France and bear similarities, distinct differences set them apart. Added to that, Armagnac is a truly fantastic spirit in its own right. So, let’s dig a little deeper…

The Roots and Regions of Armagnac

Armagnac’s historical roots plunge deeply back to the 14th century. Predating Cognac, it was originally utilised for therapeutic purposes before its recognition as a delightful, sippable brandy. The production of Armagnac is confined to the designated Armagnac region, which is subdivided into three key production zones: Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Ténarèze, and Haut-Armagnac, each offering unique characteristics due to their respective terroirs.

Art of Production

One of the key differences between Armagnac and Cognac lies in their distillation methods. Armagnac is typically single-distilled at a lower proof through a continuous column still, a process that allows it to retain richer, more robust flavours. Cognac, contrastingly, is double-distilled using pot stills, yielding a lighter, smoother spirit. Armagnac's distillation season is short, usually from late October to late January when the harvested and fermented white wine becomes the brandy under meticulous observation.

The Ageing Process

Oak barrels play a crucial role in the ageing of Armagnac, predominantly employing local Monlezun oak. The spirit undergoes significant maturation, developing its nuanced flavour profile while housed in Gascony’s damp cellars. Labels on the bottle, such as VS, VSOP, and XO, denote the age and quality of the Armagnac, with ageing classifications varying from at least two years (VS) to six years (XO) in the barrel.

Aromas and Flavours

Armagnac presents a potent yet smooth drinking experience, encapsulating deep, rich flavours that have matured and melded during the ageing process. Common tasting notes may include plums, violets, and prunes, while older Armagnacs can exhibit nuances of nuts, chocolate, and spices, presenting a complexity savoured by enthusiasts.

Trials and Tribulations

Throughout its centuries-long history, Armagnac has weathered multiple challenges, including the devastating Phylloxera outbreak in the late 19th century, which decimated vineyards across France. Post-WWII presented a resurgence, with producers emphasising quality and tradition, crafting a spirit that eloquently speaks to the region’s rich heritage.

Iconic Brands and Houses

Numerous houses and brands have established excellent reputations within the Armagnac industry. Noteworthy among them include Château de Laubade, recognised for its vintage offerings and commitment to sustainable practices. Domaine Boingnères, a smaller-scale producer, is applauded for its meticulous craftsmanship and complex, flavourful expressions. Domaine d’Espérance and Darroze are other names synonymous with quality and tradition in the Armagnac market.

Armagnac in the Glass

While often enjoyed neat, Armagnac also serves as a versatile component in cocktails, such as the renowned Armagnac Old Fashioned. Older expressions, however, are typically reserved for sipping, allowing the imbiber to fully appreciate the depth and complexity that has developed through extended ageing.

What’s the difference between Armagnac and Cognac?

Despite their similarities, including geographical indications and a basis of grape distillation, Armagnac and Cognac present marked distinctions. Beyond the differences in distillation and ageing, their flavour profiles exhibit contrast — Armagnac often showcases a bolder, more rustic palate, while Cognac leans towards a smoother, more refined sipping experience. Their respective regions of production also imbue them with distinctive terroir-related characteristics.

Armagnac Today

Today, Armagnac sustains its reputation as a meticulously crafted spirit that embodies the essence and history of its region. Producers, from larger houses to smaller domaines, uphold traditions while embracing modernity, ensuring that Armagnac remains relevant and respected in the global spirits landscape.

The spirit encapsulates not merely the methodical practices of distillation and ageing but also symbolises a regional identity, echoing the traditions, skills, and natural resources of Gascony. It resonates as a spirit steeped in historical richness, providing a luscious, evocative drinking experience that conveys the very essence of its French roots.

Armagnac, while holding a lower global profile compared to Cognac, resonates deeply with those who explore its textured, multi-faceted expressions. From the vineyards of Gascony, through the careful distillation and extended maturation, to the final, exquisite sips, it tells a story — one of heritage, resilience, and the profound beauty of time-honoured craftsmanship. Whether sipped slowly from a snifter or mixed thoughtfully into a cocktail, it continues to share its historical, flavourful narrative with the world.

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