Armagnac is the oldest wine based eau-de-vie produced in the heart of Gascony, South West France. It is produced by a single distillation of white wine in an Armagnac alambic (still) and then left to age for many years in oak barrels. It is available in vintages, or indeed in several different blends.
The Armagnac production areas and its elaboration strictly follow the rules and regulations laid down by the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée attributed to this eau-de-vie in 1936.
Armagnac is a hand crafted product, produced in small quantities by the winemakers and negotiant houses, custodians of the time-honoured savoir-faire.
In Armagnac, the terroir comes in three parts. Bas-Armagnac, Ténarèze Armagnac and Haut Armagnac form an area of vines in the form of a vine leaf and extend over 15000 hectares planted in three departments: the Gers, the Landes and the Lot-et-Garonne.
The climate is gentle and temperate. In the West of the Appellation, it is the damp oceanic influence, moderated by the Landes forest that presides, whilst in the East, it is more of a Mediterranean climate that prevails with a predominant Autan winds.
The undulating valleys of Bas-Armagnac in the West of the region grow vines on meagre and acidic silicious-clay soils. Parts are mixed with ferrous elements that colour the earth, from hence comes the name 'tawny sands', and the boulbènes, are silty sediments characteristic of the region. This area produces light, fruity, delicate and highly praised eaux-de-vie.
The centre of Ténarèze Armagnac is a transitional zone where one finds boulbènes and strong clay/limestone soils. The eaux-de-vie are generally more full-bodied and reach their full maturity after a long ageing.
Haut Armagnac in the South and the East is very spread out. Its hills are predominantly chalky with areas of clay/limestone and sometimes a boulbènes covering in the valleys. The vines here are represented in small plots.
Among the ten varieties authorised in the production of Armagnac, four main ones lend their character to this eau-de-vie :
Ugni-Blanc is the distillation variety par excellence. is the ideal variety for distilling as it gives acidic wines that are low in alcohol and produces elegant, quality eaux de vie. It can be grown easily in Bas-Armagnac and in Armagnac-Tenareze.
Folle Blanche is the most well known. It is the historic Armagnac variety that dominated the vineyards before the total destruction by phylloxéra in 1878 and was called 'piquepoult'. Today, grown on rootstock, its cultivation is more difficult and vulnerable, therefore it is less widely represented. Folle Blanche produces delicate eaux-de-vie that often display a floral character and a great degree of finesse that are particularly valued in Blanche or young Armagnacs.
Baco 22 A is an unconventional variety in the French vineyards. It is a hybrid, son of Folle Blanche and Noah that was created by Monsieur François Baco, a Landais schoolmaster following the plague of phylloxera. It is particularly suited to the sands in Bas-Armagnac where it gives round, suave eaux-de-vie with aromas of ripe fruits, especially after a long ageing.
Colombard....The Clairette de Gascogne, the white Jurançon, the Plant de graisse, the Meslier Saint François or the white and rosé Mauzac are the older varieties permitted though are quite rare today and represent only a few hectares of vines.
A natural vinification
The grapes harvested in October are pressed and the juice left to ferment naturally without any addition of oenological products. The wines are generally acidic and low in alcohol; it has therefore a good conservation capacity retaining all the freshness and aromas until distillation.
Distillation takes place during the winter, no later than 31st March on the year following the harvest; for several years now, this date has been brought forward by an annual decree.
The wine is often distilled at the property, sometimes with the help of a roving distiller who will travel from cellar to cellar distilling the growers' wines, or in distilleries by specialist distillers or cooperatives.
Most Armagnac (approximately 95%) is produced in a still that is peculiar to this type of brandy: the Armagnac continuous still, made from pure copper and distilling just once. Some houses, however, remain attached to the double distillation pot still.
The wine contained in the loader vat is fed continuously into the still through the bottom of the cooling apparatus which is responsible for cooling the alcohol vapour contained in the coil. It rises in the heating chamber and is taken towards the column where it descends from plate to plate towards the boiler heated by gas or wood. At this stage the vinasse, (wine residue), is evacuated from the still via an overflow outlet. The intense heat from the fire forces the vapours to rise in the opposite direction where they bubble in the wine at the level of each plate. These vapours become richer in alcohol and absorb the wines' aromatic substances; they are taken via the swan neck pipe to the coil where they are condensed then cooled. The eau-de-vie is colourless on leaving the still and its alcohol content may vary from 52 to 72 percent by volume (but traditionally it ranges from 52 to 60 percent by volume).
At this stage the Armagnac is still in its fiery youth but it is already very aromatic with fruity scents of prune, pear etc. and often shows floral notes such as lime blossom and vine flowers. Ageing in wood confers complexity and additional mildness.
After distillation the Armagnac is set to age in oak casks called «pieces».
Most of these 400 litre casks are made from wood from the forests of Gascony or the Limousin area and are kept in cellars where the temperature and humidity levels are important factors for the ageing.
The brandies remain in new oak casks until all the oak's extractable substances have been absorbed (from six months to two years). They are then transferred to older barrels to pursue their slow maturation. As the woody flavours gradually become more refined they gain aromas of vanilla and prune, and rancio appears with its characteristic aromas of dried fruits and the degree of alcohol diminishes progressively as the alcohol evaporates (the “angel's share”). The brandy turns a beautiful amber, then mahogany colour.
When the cellarmaster deems the ageing period to be sufficient, he begins blending. This process is called "coupage" and its aim is to assemble various eaux-de-vie of different origins and ages in a harmonious blend. A mixture of distilled water and Armagnac, called «petites eaux », is gradually added to the blend in order to reduce the alcoholic strength (minimum 40 percent by volume.)
Production of single-vintage brandies is particular to Armagnac and they must correspond exclusively to just one year's harvest. Reduction is not systematically carried out because ageing in humid maturation cellars allows the brandies to be sold at their natural degree of alcohol which is generally situated between 40 and 48 percent volume.
Armagnac does not mature further in the bottle. However, it should be stored upright so that the alcohol does not cause the cork to deteriorate.
The label descriptions, outside those of the vintages, always refer to the age of the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend.
Hors d'Age is a marriage of eaux-de-vie where the youngest armagnac has aged in wood for more than 10 years.
The same rule applies to Armagnacs that denote ages of 15 years, 20 years, 30 years, etc..
These include the younger Armagnacs on the market like the Three Star (more than 2 years in wood), V.S.O.P. (more than 5 years) and XO, (more than 6 years).
How to taste it ?
Depending on the desire or the occasion, Armagnac can be appreciated as a pleasant digestif to finish a convivial meal, but also in many other ways.
Floc de Gascogne, AOC since 1990, is a fruity fortified wine. White or rosé, depending on the grape varieties used, it is born of a marriage of fresh grape juice and Armagnac coming from the same estate. It makes the perfect aperitif and can also be drunk during a meal.
Armagnac based Liqueurs liven up a sparkling wine and fruits in l'Armagnac (Agen prunes, cherries, raspberries, oranges…) are delicious during a meal.
Armagnac is an excellent base for cocktails.
L'eau-de-vie blanche, just off the alambic can be drunk ice cold on its own or with a splash of lemon, but also in the middle of a meal as a palate cleanser called the 'trou gascon', where it is sometimes accompanied by a plum or lemon sorbet. Young Armagnac (VS, VSOP ...) a few ice cubes and some sparkling water or tonic make a refreshing and simple-to-make cocktail.
Armagnac in cocktails ?
Drink Armagnac differently and vary the pleasure.
It can be drunk on its own as an aperitif or on ice. However, it is also an excellent base for simple and more elaborate cocktails. It is best to choose a young armagnac like a 3 star for simple cocktails or long drinks where it can be accompanied by ice and sparkling water, tonic or fruit juice. For the more sophisticated cocktails, a mellow and fruity VSOP Armagnac where the woody notes are not too prominent, can be used. Combined with other spirits, fruit juices and diverse ingredients, you will delight your taste buds and discover other ways of enjoying Armagnac !