Armagnac: All you need to know

Three Quick Facts About Armagnac

  • The first Armagnac was produced in the early 1400s. This makes it about 200 years older than Cognac, and also the oldest brandy in France.
  • Often called Cognac’s wild sibling, Armagnac's taste is more forward and unrestrained as a result of its single distillation.
  • In recent years, there has been a rise in the demand for Armagnac, in part due to its growing popularity among fans of whisky and bourbon.

The Home of Armagnac

Home of D’Artagnan, the most famous of all musketeers, Gascony is as rural as it gets in France. With none of the spectacular chateaus of neighboring Bordeaux or the glitz and glamour of Cote d’Azure, this region is easy to overlook. Unassuming farmhouses and sleepy medieval villages are scattered across endless fields of corn and sunflower. On any given day, you’re more likely to come across geese and ducks than people - a sign of Gascony's love affair with foie gras.

At first glance, it looks like a place you just pass through on your way to more eventful locations. Give it a couple of days though, and you'll inevitably find that the charm of Gascony lies precisely in its serenity.

There are only two things that can notably stir up the mood in this quiet, rural idyll. One is food (a topic we touch upon later) and the other, of course, is brandy. Roughly between the Adour and Garonne rivers lies the historic county of Armagnac - a tiny but crucial pocket of brandy history waiting to be explored.

A Brandy Few Have Heard Of

Labastide, Gascony
In Gascony, the production of Armagnac is split between around 40 commercial houses. Most of these are still independent, family-owned businesses.
Pictured: Labastide, Gascony

You don’t have to be a brandy aficionado to know that Cognac has been winning the popularity contest for years. As a result, mass producers the size of Hennessy and Remy Martin are nowhere to be seen in Gascony. If you ask local producers for their thoughts on the matter, the explanation you’ll hear most often concerns geography.

Armagnac is a landlocked region, and there is no navigable river that connects it to the Atlantic Ocean. Back in the 17th century when British and Dutch boats started to export French brandy on a big scale, they had no easy way of reaching this part of Gascony. Their focus remained on the coastal region, which gave Cognac producers the opportunity to develop their intuition and lust for trade over the years.

As simplistic as this explanation sounds, it does shed some light on why most people are familiar with Cognac but know barely anything about Armagnac.

Armagnac vs. Cognac: Let's Compare

The three terroirs of the Armagnac Appellation
Source: www.campinglabrouquere.com

Let’s start with a couple of facts that are valid for both brandies. They have both had the status of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), or Protected Designation of Origin, since 1936. In addition, soil variation is just as important for the production of Armagnac as it is for Cognac.

In the case of the Armagnac Appellation, the sub-regions, or terroirs, are just three. The biggest one is Bas Armagnac with 57% of production, followed by Ténarèze (40%), and Haut Armagnac (barely 3%). Each has a specific soil composition that leaves its distinctive mark on the character of the grapes produced there.

From there on, differences start to pile up. The result is two considerably different spirits.

It all starts with the grapes

Just like with Cognac, the type of grapes used to make Armagnac are strictly regulated. There are ten specific grape varieties used in the production, but a mix of four is the most common one:

  • Folle Blanche (a highly fragile sort that got severely damaged during the Phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century)
  • Ugni Blanc
  • Baco 22A (a grape variety developed after the Phylloxera crisis and the only hybrid allowed in the production of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée wines)
  • Colombard

In contrast to this wide variety, more than 90% of the vineyards in the Cognac region are made up of Ugni Blanc grapes.

These grape varieties, in particular Ugni Blanc, are perfect for making wine that is high in acidity and low in alcohol. As unappealing as this combination sounds, the high acidity helps to preserve the wine until it’s time for distillation. It’s important to mention that adding Sulphur Dioxide or sugar is strictly forbidden.

Distillation

A column still used for Armagnac distillation
Ein Column Still in Domaine de Baraillon

This is where things get interesting. Arguably, the biggest difference between the two brandies comes from the difference in the distillation process.

While Cognac goes through two rounds of distillation, Armagnac is distilled only once. A longer distillation process smooths out the wines and strips them of congeners – the chemicals that give alcohol its taste. This results in the subtle, refined taste that Cognac is famous for. Armagnac, on the other hand, preserves its robust character during the single distillation.

The stills differ considerably as well. Instead of the column still used in Cognac, Armagnac is distilled in a column still called Alambic Armagnacais. A video produced by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l'Armagnac (BNIA) does a great job of visualizing the distillation process and lets you take a peek inside the column still.


Legally, Armagnac can be distilled from 52% to 72.4% alcohol by volume (abv). Most often, however, it comes out of the still at around 52-60% abv.

It’s worth mentioning that a column still doesn’t separate the heads and tails from the heart of the distillate with much precision. Typically, the heart is the purest part of the spirit that has no unwanted flavors and is ready for consummation. For this reason, a young eau-de-vie might taste a bit funky. If aged long enough, however, the initially heavy flavors give Armagnac that richness and complexity that it’s famous for.

Maturation

Dame Jeanne bottles used for storing brandy after maturation.

Even here Armagnac differs from Cognac. While all Cognac has to be aged for at least two years, the rule in Gascony says a minimum of one year in a barrel. In reality, of course, both spirits are often aged over the course of decades. Armagnac typically sits in Gascon oak barrels. It spends the first couple of years in a young barrel before being moved to a used one. This limits the impact that wood has on the flavor.

A longer maturation partially tames the wild side of Armagnac and smooths out its edges. The eau-de-vie is rich in flavor even right after distillation, but the time spent in a barrel elevates it and adds to its complexity. Once maturation is finished, the spirit is transferred into large glass containers called Dame Jeanne.

Am I Drinking Armagnac or Whisky?

Your first instinct may be to scoff at this question. However, it’s far from only beginners that would have a hard time telling between a good, aged Armagnac and a dram of unpeated Scotch whisky in a blind tasting.

The single distillation and the cask maturation make for a complex, oaky spirit with lots of character. A much-discussed article published by VinePair describes how “whisky-like Armagnac” is becoming more and more popular among bourbon and whisky lovers.

A Quick and Easy Guide To Reading the Label

The age categories on both Cognac and Armagnac labels often raise lots of questions. Perhaps to spare people some of the confusion, the BNIA has simplified their rules, and there are only four categories you need to be familiar with.

  • VS, or Very Special, is eau-de-vie that has spent a minimum of one year in an oak cask.
  • VSOP, or Very Special Old Pale, is Armagnac in which the youngest eau-de-vie has been aged for a minimum of 4 years.
  • Hors d’Age, or XO, means that the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least 10 years old.
  • And, finally, Vintage is Armagnac coming from a single harvest. If you’re celebrating an anniversary or a birthday, a bottle of vintage Armagnac with the right harvest year on the label can be a very precious gift.

How to Drink Armagnac Like a True Gascon

To appreciate Armagnac's complexity, you can follow the same 4-step guide we have outlined for Cognac. Nevertheless, Armagnac doesn't have the subtlety of its sibling, and neither does Gascony, for that matter. This eccentric spirit makes for a great aperitif, but you can successfully pair it with the main course as well.

Apéritif: Meet Armagnac Blanche

Traditionally kept for personal use, Armagnac Blanche is a relatively new addition to the AOC family. It follows the same strict standards as regular Armagnac but is bottled right after distillation. The result is a colorless eau-de-vie with especially bold fruity and flowery aromas. Smoked salmon, charcuterie, or even caviar are all great matches for this clear spirit.

Main Course: Foie Gras, Goose Fat, and Pigeon Stew

In Gascony, these aren't considered delicacies but rather casual, everyday meals. The local cuisine is luxurious but also unapologetically robust, much like Armagnac itself. Goose fat is present in most dishes, and so is the rich and buttery foie gras. You may not have these lying around in your fridge, but fear not – you can still recreate the cozy, rustic spirit of Gascony with these traditional meals:

The cuisine in this part of France is anything but subtle. Be sure to pair the main course with an older Armagnac that can stand up to the bold tastes of the food.

Digestif in the Glass, Digestif on the Plate

Whether you prefer to end a meal with a cheese platter or a sweet treat, a glass of VS or VSOP brandy will be the perfect addition. But it doesn't end here. Armagnac is such an integral part of Gascon cuisine that it's often used for cooking too.

If you're up for a challenge, you can test your flaming skills with this recipe for a fairly simple, mouthwatering apple pie - the beloved Pastis Gascon.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AryE2rHjyRU

Santé!