A few weeks back we got an email from a listener asking for clarification on Armagnac. I was very excited to get this question, because this is a spirit that I was not at all familiar with, but was interested in educating myself. Geographically, the Armagnac region lies between the Adour and Garonne rivers in the foothills of the Pyrenees. This area has 86,500 acres of grape-producing vines. The Armagnac area was first the first to produce brandy wines. Armagnac has the longest documented history of any of the French Brandies. Although the French tend to get the lion’s share of credit for producing brandies, but the process of distilling grapes comes from the Arabic tradition of using distilled grapes as perfume. In the 15th century it was used for medicinal purposes. It was said to promote courage, reduce pain and improve emotional functioning. Joan of Arc was rumored to have drawn her courage from this particular spirit.
One of the reasons why Armagnac’s were not initially as popular as other brandies related to the landlocked nature of the region. Unlike the coastal region of Cognac, Armagnac had no ports to distribute this spirit. In the early days it had to be shipped by land and eventually moved via canal through the Bordeaux region in the 19th century.
As previously mentioned the namesake of Armagnac comes from the grape growing region by the same name. The area is south of Cognac and is producing a less alcoholic version of the Cognac brandy. Like Cognac it is distilled from white wine grapes, more specifically Folle (Fowl like bowl) Blanche (Blan sh) adding elegance, floral and fruity notes, Ugni Blanc and Baco blanc which adds fullness (no longer used after 2010 because it’s a hybrid and doesn’t meet Appellation controlee standards) and Colombard varietals(herbal notes). Although the afore mentioned varietals make up the majority of the Armagnac blends, there are actually a total of 10 authorized grapes varieties that can be used.
The most well know and elegant of the Armagnac’s are being produced in the Bas district. This is primarily due to the sandy and light clay soil which is laden with higher iron contents than other adjacent districts. The terra noir provides superb growing conditions for the multitude of varietals that comprise the Armagnac spirit.
When beginning to have a discussion about brandies, it is near impossible to get away from the two most prominent French styles which are Cognac and Armagnac. Much like the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne, the primary dividing line is location, location and location. If a brandy is produced in the Cognac area and made via the stringent standards laid out by the control board, then it is technically a Cognac brandy. If it is produced in the Armagnac area of France and up to standards then it is an Armagnac brandy.
So beyond the regional differentiation, these two spirits have very different flavor profiles. Unlike Cognac, Armagnac is distilled only once. This distinction is an important one for two primary reasons: First, it dramatically reduces the alcohol content of the brandy and secondly, Armagnac’s require increased time in the oak barrels, which creates a flavor profile seldom obtained by younger Cognacs.
When considering high alcohol beverages such as cognac, you have the unintended consequence of dulling the pallet as you imbibe. As the proof increases, so does the magnitude of this dulling effect. Because Armagnac traditionally tops out at around 30 proof or 15-16% alcohol by volume the effect is lessoned. Cognac is generally at 80 proof or 40% ABV which will create rapidly increasing diminished returns on your ability to identify and isolate flavors in the beverage. However, higher alcohol contents are not necessarily all bad. The upshot of the double distillation of Cognacs is that they can be consumed at much younger ages. Beyond the proof differences, Cognacs also have a completely different base flavor profile than Armagnac’s due to the type of grape that is utilized in the distillation process. The Ugni Blanc grape, which fairly neutral tasting, dominates the composition of Cognacs. Armagnac’s tend to have a more fruit forward fragrant nose and significant notes of vanilla caramel, toffee and maple syrup on the pallet. Much of the darker flavors listed are primarily imparted via the casking process. Armagnac’s are traditionally finished in black oak casks.
With all this said, it is important to remember that the longer the brandy is aged in the barrel the more evaporation of alcohol will occur. The rate of evaporation for brandy is about 3 percent per year. Although you are losing alcohol, the melding with the wood provides a much more rounded and fragrant spirit. As with many other brandy’s, Armagnac is also held to the aging standards of most spirits in this category. However, it is important to note that when you see an age on the bottle, it refers to the youngest vintage added to the batch.
The following is an example of the age requirements and standards for each of the Armagnac’s you may encounter at retail establishments (Keep in mind that the years of age refer to the youngest vintage in the bottle. For example if it says 10 year, that is the youngest part of the blend and can have much older vintages in the blend):
- VS indicates a minimum of two years in cask.
- VSOP and Reserve labels indicate five years
- XO and Napoleon six years
- Hors d’Age means ten years or more.
Armagnac’s tend to be at their peak at about 30 years of age. Cognacs peak at 50 years.
So, what is the best bang for your proverbial buck? In general, Armagnac’s will tend to be about half the cost of most cognacs. For instance, the XO version of cognacs generally trend in price around 100 dollars. For the same aged standard XO Armagnac you are likely to pay around 60 dollars.
When moving into the Hors d’Age (Minimum of 10 years) Armagnac’s at this standard can be found for approximately 75 dollars. The one that seems to consistently get high marks is Dartigalongue (Dahr Tee GAH Loong) Hors D’Age Bas Armagnac (750ml) Attempting to purchase a Hors d’Age Cognac, you are going to shell out about 200 dollars for the Brillet Hors d’Age (Bore dahge) Grande Champagne Cognac.
Just like most brandies, the older Armagnac’s are considered more complex and of course more expensive. As the Armagnac’s age you will tend to get more hits of maple, toffee, crème brule, vanilla, etc. Other tasting notes have referenced flavors including dried fruits like apricots, prunes and figs, and you may also detect butterscotch, licorice and flowers. Overall, the fruit forwardness of Armagnac’s is a telltale distinction between its cousins from the Cognac region.
When partaking of a fine Armagnac, it is recommended that you use a glass that’s wide on the bottom but tapered at the top. If you don’t have a special glass, you can use a champagne flute. Temperature at serving should be around 66 degrees. This level of chill will serve to round off the alcohol while not diminishing your ability to detect the toasted notes which should be prominent in most XO or Hors d ’age versions of Armagnac.
One final note is in regard to storing and maintaining your spirit. It is very important to keep your bottle in an upright position and not lying on its side. Armagnac will spoil if it comes in prolonged contact with its cork. Unlike wine, it is not as sensitive to changes in temperature, but of course storing in a cooler darker space will tend to prolong its life span.