The Earthy Charms of Gascony's Liquid Gold.
The rustic charms of Gascony, crumbling chateaux, peasants driving geese down the main roads, a gastronomy based on what is grown in the vegetable garden and hunted in the woods, is matched by the rustic charms of its favourite spirit: armagnac. One of the two major grape brandies of France, armagnac pre-dates cognac by some 150 years. It is produced from vineyards to the South and East of Bordeaux and distilled traditionally using single-still distillation, but also via double-distillation as in Cognac.
Armagnac is an esoteric drink. It is generally ignored or misunderstood and has long been difficult to procure. There are historical and geographical reasons for this, compounded by the fact that in the past, much of the armagnac made went north and was blended away in cognac. It was not until 1909 when the French government defined the area and method of production, to preserve the individuality and status of armagnac that it began to be recognised as a spirit in its own right.
At their closest points, Cognac and Armagnac are only 128 kilometres apart, but as brandies they are a world apart in style. While Cognac strives for a smooth, supple spirit, Armagnac goes for a rich, pungent, earthy character with a dancing fire at the back of the throat. "Imagine a length of velvet and another of silk fabric" says Salvatore Calabrese. "Stroke them. The velvet has a deep and rich texture. And that is an armagnac. The silk is pure finesse, and that to me is cognac."
Like all beginnings, the story of Armagnac's evolution is not precise. Its origins were certainly the result of a triple heritage: Romans first bought vines to the region along with viticultural skills. Moors (Arabs) then distilled the wines of the region into spirit, and later, the Celts introduced to Gascon cooperage and the mysteries of spirit maturation. References to "Ayga Ardenterius" or "Aquae Ardens" can be found in medical treatises dating back to c.1310 , some documenting Armagnac for its therapeutic qualities, in particular the texts of Prior Vital Dufour, preserved in the archives of the Vatican. "This water [armagnac]," the Prior notes, "if taken medicinally and soberly is said to have 40 virtues... It enlivens the spirit, partaken in moderation, recalls the past to memory, renders men joyous, preserves youth and retards senility..." (1)
For all of its virtues, it seems only the Gascons knew them and savoured Armagnac. But then, Gascogne trade, unlike its northerly competitor Cognac, was severely limited by the lack of a major river. It remained stifled until the middle of the 19th Century when canals and railways were built. During the 17th and 18th Century, some Armagnac made its way to Bordeaux by ox-cart via the nearest navigable river at Mont-de-Marsan. Once there it may have been delivered to Bordeaux wine merchants, but little if any would have been exported beyond.
Despite these difficulties, Armagnac did have some marketing advantages inside France. Many of the King's musketeers came from the Gascogne province and they introduced the drink to the royal courts. There is a delightful legend of Henry IV of France tasting Armagnac on the day of his birth. His Grandfather is said to have moistened the lips of the child with Armagnac and a taste of garlic from which he is said to have drawn 'wisdom and strength for his whole life'.
Another boon was born from Phylloxera. This devastating vine disease hit the region in 1878, six years after its appearance in Cognac, giving Armagnac temporary dominance of the brandy market. However, the popularity surge was short-lived. Phylloxera too ravaged the majority of Armagnac's vines (some 100,000 hectares) and despite decades of replanting, vineyards remain relatively few today. Up to the second World War, Armagnac had recovered half of their previous plantings, but by 1970 had decreased to a low of 39,000 hectares. Armagnac remains a country of small farmers and small vineyards.
The Armagnac Region
Armagnac is located in the heart of the ancient province of Gascony in the southwest corner of France. The region runs inland from the flat coastal strip to hilly country covered with pine, oak and cork trees, and denser patches where boar, deer, hare and game birds are hunted. The climate is temperate and mild. The ocean's damp influence, attenuated by the Landes forests, is especially prevalent in the West of the Armagnac region. In the East, the Mediterranean climate is characterised by the Autan wind. The delimited area, containing approximately 40,000 acres (160 kmÂ²) of grape-producing vines, is planted across three counties: Gers, Landes and Lot-et-Garonne. Three separate zones exist within the overall armagnac area:
Bas Armagnac, lieing to the sandier west, where the armagnacs are fuller but supple with a scent of prunes or plums when a little of the spirit is rubbed in the hands. It is named for its lower altitude, rather than lower quality. In the Western part, Sablo-Limoneux is mostly sand, and makes acidic wine. Sablo-Fauves is rich in ferrous minerals that contribute to both colour and flavour in the wines. The Eastern part of Bas-Armagnac has boulbÃ¨ne, a heavy topsoil that covers subsoil of clay and sand. Bas Armagnac is one of the very few places where sandy soil is considered desirable. In fact, Armagnac from the Bas region is considered to have the most finesse, also tending to yield spirits that are very supple in their youth. Plantings are mostly Bacco and Ugni Blanc. The Northwestern portion of the Bas-Armagnac (known casually as the Grand Bas Armagnac) has a concentration of quality producers, especially in the department of Les Landes.
Armagnac Tenareze (in the centre) is a transitional zone consisting of undulating slopes with heavy clay soils mixed with a chalky sandstone that gives an acidic wine and generally yields full flavoured, long lived armagnacs, sometimes powerfully scented. While several excellent independent producers exist in this region, it is more a home to most of Armagnacs negociants. Plantings are dominated by Ugni Blanc and Colombard. Many growers divert a good portion of their crop into excellent Cotes de Gascogne wines or 'Floc de Gasgogne', the regions equivalent of Pineau de Charentes.
Haut Armagnac to the east and south of the chalky soils, is the largest area (nearly 50%) but least planted, offering the poorest quality armagnacs, much of which go into liqueurs, or for the local speciality, prunes in armagnac. Only a handful of independent producers continue to operate in the region.
Similar grape varieties are planted in all three regions of Armagnac, making soil appear to be a significant factor in determining the quality of the brandy. However, each grape has a typical range of aromas and is distinguished by the weight and texture it contributes. There are nine permitted varietals in Armagnac, but four grapes are most commonly used: Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Bacco. As in Cognac, the grower is looking for a thin, high acid white wine. As already mentioned, not all goes to distillation. The Gascons have a big trade with Germany's sekt market, produce a local sparkling wine for making the Gascon aperitif, the pousse rapiere (a measure of armagnac topped up with fizz), and a few better vignerons also offer white table wine. Vintage is generally in mid October.
As with Cognac, Folle Blanche, also known as Picpoul, (which means 'lip-stinger', reflecting its high acidity), was largely replaced by Ugni Blanc [pictured left] after phylloxera. Armagnacs made from high percentages of Folle Blanche offer elegant, feminine characteristics with high pitched aromatics and a light body, especially in the first 15 years of life. Unfortunatley, Folle Blanche is also a low yeilding variety, prone to mildew and rot and today comprises less than 3% of total vineyard plantings. It has largely been replaced by Ugni Blanc, (known as Trebbiano in Italy), which is now over 75% of plantings, comprising about 55% of the grapes used in Armagnac production. Ugni Blanc is relatively easy to grow and gives high yields with low alcohol, high acidity, and neutral flavours with floral aromatics and a spiciness that tends to accentuate during maturation. Colombard is not especially favoured for production of Armagnac. Only 10% of production is distilled, the rest being used for production of locally distilled aperitif or dry table wines.
The Bacco 22A hybrid (a cross of Folle Blanche and the Noah variety of Vitis labrusca) was developed in the 1920s, dominating the Armagnac vineyards until the 1970s. Most Armagnacs of that period are largely based on Bacco. Today Bacco represents 40% of the vines planted in the region, but only 10% is distilled. Bacco produces a full bodied armagnac with plenty of fat and volume, that after ageing can become rustic and lack finesse. The variety is now being phased out and new plantings are banned. One reason for the ban is that Bacco produces wines with a higher level of ethyl carbamate (a known carcinogen) than other varietals. In spite of the fact that the levels are still very low (consumption to a point of danger would be likely to kill first by cirrhosis of the liver) this is felt to be a health hazard. The feeling in Armagnac is that the hybrid contributes important qualities to the spirit, and the ban will lead to a significant degeneration of character.
Other lesser grape varieties planted in Armagnac include Blanquette (Mauzac), Clairette, JuranÃ§on Blanc, Plainte de Greece and Meslier St. Francis.
The common still of the Armagnac region is the alambic armagnacais, a modified form of the continuous still, which was introduced to the region after phylloxera as a cheaper way of producing spirit. Looking like an upturned torch, it allows the alcoholic vapour to bubble up through the base wine on its way to the condenser, giving a spirit with a low strength, around 53% Alc./Vol., that retains more flavouring elements, and even some impurities. It is this combination that contributes to armagnac its rustic, earthy character.
In days past, much of this distilling was done by specialist owners of ambulatory stills that moved from vineyard to vineyard [pictured above right]. The farmer would pay to have his wine distilled, perhaps lay down a cask or two for the wedding of a son or daughter, and as an insurance policy against hard times. The rest he would sell as and when he needed money. This practise continues today, but to a lesser degree. The production of armagnac is now concentrated in the hands of a small number of specialist houses. The pot still, which was banned in 1936, was reintroduced in 1972 and is in use, making armagnacs that seem a little more cognac in style. However these distillations go into blends, and the overall character of armagnac is not being eroded.
The final element in the characteristic flavour of armagnac is its maturation in the sappy oak of Monlezun, split with axes, not sawn, to preserve this sappy character. After about six months in this special oak, the new spirit develops a sickness, and gives off a smell like rotting wood. The cellarmaster cures this by adding some healthy spirit. Ageing in the barrel removes a part of the alcohol by evaporation (known as "part des anges", "angel's tribute") and allows more complex aromatic compounds to appear by oxidation, which further improves the flavour. Monlezun ages armagnac much faster than Troncais does cognac, and after five to ten years the spirit is fully mature. After thirty five to forty years it actually kills the spirit, so if it is to be kept any longer it is taken out and put into large glass bottles, called Dame Jeannes. From then on, the armagnac does not age, and can be bottled for sale from the next year on. In recent years Limousin and Troncais oak casks have been increased to the mix of casks as suitable Monlezun oak becomes harder to find.
Within armagnac, like cognac, there are four groups of permitted additives, each with a different role:
1. Water is the most natural additive, normally used to cut excessive alcohol or heat (essential for double-distilled products) but also for more insidious purposes, like increasing the amount of spirit to sell and lower duties and taxes. Whereas 80 proof is the normal for the final strength of most cognacs, the character of single-distilled armagnacs are tremendously altered through reduction.
2. Bois is a second permitted additive, created by boiling wood chips in water, then removing the chips and slowly reducing the remaining liquid. What one is left with is a dark brown liquid that is replete with wood flavour and tannin. It gives the impression of oak aging to a final spirit and can offer secondary wood aromas like vanilla and grilled nuts.
3. Sugar syrup may be used to add sweetness to armagnac, normally if the armagnac is too tannic. It is viscous, and can either be dark or light. Legally, 2% of an armagnac's content can be sugar syrup.
4. A final shortcut is caramel, a dark, bitter liquid made from burned sugar. It is used to adjust a spirits colour and establish consistency or give the spirit the impression of being older.
Armagnac has its age requirements, like cognac, with the dating period starting on September 1st in the year after the harvest. Three Star in France will mean a minimum of one year, though for Britain and and the US, the requirement is three years. The Classifications are as follows:
- Trois Etoiles (Three Stars): Wood aged for a minimum of 2 years
- V.O, V.S.O.P. or RÃ©serve: Wood aged for a minimum of 5 years
- Extra, Napoleon, XO or Vieille RÃ©serve: Wood aged for a minimum of 6 years
- Hors d'Age: Wood aged for a minimum of 10 years
One or two houses confine themselves to offering only Bas Armagnac blends, and will say so on the label. In a blended Armagnac the age statement must always reflect the youngest spirit in the blend. Blended Armagnacs frequently have a greater percentage of older vintages in their mix than comparable Cognacs, making them a better value for the discerning buyer. And of course, to the chagrin of the cognac makers, Gascogne's also do a thriving trade in those vintage dated armagnacs (such as the wonderful brandies of Domaine Boingneres & Janneau). However, as with most of the noble spirits, age itself is not a gaurantee of a better drink. Most armagnacs peak, with regard to their fruit, alcohol and tannin balance, between their 18th and 30th birthdays. It is possible to obtain outstanding armagnacs distilled 30, 40, or 50 years ago; yet the majority that have remained in wood this entire time are overly dry and dominated by secondary aromas.
Once uncorked, Armagnac is stable enough that oxygen won't harm it, so you can leave it in the bottle or a decanter indefinitely. However, when storing Armagnac, keep the bottle standing up, not lying on its side, since Armagnac can spoil if it comes in prolonged contact with cork. Armagnac is usually drunk as a digestif, but can also be paired with certain desserts (almond cakes, apple, orange or vanilla tarts and chocolate based specialties) and then of course, with coffee and mildly flavoured cigars. The traditional snifter is not necessarily the ideal choice of glass - arguably the best glass for Armagnac has a rounded belly with a tapered chimney which helps to focus the aromatics. If you don't have glasses like this, a tulip-shaped champagne glass will suffice.
Appreciating the bouquet is the first step. A deep inhalation may singe your nasal passages with powerful alcohol vapours, instead, hold the glass at chest level and let the delicate fragrances waft up. In a minute or so, bring it a little closer - one has to play with the angle of the glass to discover where the fruit aromas surface above the alcohol. A trick learned from the brandy professionals is to stick a finger in the glass and then dab the liquid on the back of your hand - just as you would a perfume sample. Body heat will cause the alcohol to evaporate, leaving behind only the essential aromas of the Armagnac. The aromas can be categorised in different aromatic families depending on the age and quality of the Armagnac:
- fruity aromas: here you'll find nuances of quince, grape and plum, and then with age, prune, orange or apricot conserve
- floral aromas: vine blossom, honey or lime...
- woody aromas: vanilla, spicy, grilled ... maderization: this is the measure of the Armagnac's maturity, it reveals most notably dry fruit aromas, walnuts and hazelnut.
The intricacy of the aroma is itself a gauge of the quality of the Armagnac.
On the palate, ideally an armagnac should display finesse (the most possible flavourants enveloped within the most delicate texture). As with the great wines of Bordeaux, subtle, defined nuances in lieu of monolithic flavours are sought after. Rancio notes should never dominate the fruit; instead, these secondary notes should ideally dance along the surface of the fruit. And as with great wine, a great armagnac finishes with length that not only persists pleasantly, but recurs in waves and remains on the palate for up to several minutes. Extraordinary length is generally indicative of an extraordinary armagnac.
"Good Armagnac can be very good and much better than ordinary Cognac,
but the best Armagnac cannot hope to approach, let alone rival, the best cognac."
It seems many would agree with Andre Simon: For every six bottles of Armagnac sold around the world there are one hundred bottles of cognac sold. While Americans drink thirty-five million bottles of cognac each year (the world's No. 1 consumer by far) to meet growing demand, some cognac producers have shifted to mass production. Consequently, today a typical bottle of cognac is often one-dimensional and lacking individuality. As more people discover alternatives like Armagnac or Calvados, exports of such spirits are increasing in new markets inlcuding China, Denmark, Poland, Vietnam and the Czech Republic. Taking advantage of the turn, the Armagnac Bureau (The Bureau National Interprofessionel de l'Armagnac or B.N.I.A.) is also stepping up activities in traditional markets like the U.K., U.S., Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Russia. The 'liquid gold' of Gascony's rural past is moving towards modernity with plans to broaden the spirit's appeal across all age groups using the cocktail bandwagon (following in the footsteps of the Cognac industry.) Armagnac may not be a niche spirit for much longer.
Notes partly sourced from www.charlesnealselections.com
1. The concept of "French Paradox" has prompted numerous teams of researchers to specify the role of alcohol, grape and wood tannins in the benefits of moderate consumption of wine or alcoholic beverages. For Armagnac, recent scientific studies show that this eau-de-vie has definite therapeutic capacities. Its properties are due to the wood tannins that it contains following the long ageing process in oak barrels. Another medical team has also demonstrated the protective role Armagnac in blood platelet clumping (one of the causes behind cardio-vascular illnesses). All these observations tend to prove that moderate consumption of Armagnac (which is, after all, the best way of savouring it) is part, along with all the gastronomic products of South West France, of a diet and lifestyle which favours the good health of the region's population.