Friday, March 21, 2008

History of Armagnac

Armagnac is historically the oldest brandy in France, with references dating back as far as 1411 when it was used mainly for therapeutic reasons – hence nowadays a brandy being the drink of choice to calm the nerves following shock. This was 200 years before the first mention of Cognac and has always cast a shadow over the brandy it likes to see as a smaller, non-threatening, younger brother. Nowadays however it is Armagnac which is the rising star and big brother Cognac has a lot to watch out for!

Made in the Pays de Gascogne in the far south west of France, Armagnac has three distinct producing regions:

Bas armagnac: produces the most prestigious Armagnacs with a particular bouquet of plum.
Ténarèze: produces some highly perfumed spirits which are sometimes rather coarser than those from the other areas. It is responsible for most of the production of Armagnac.
Haut armagnac: this appellation has the largest territory but the smallest vineyard area with the smallest production of the three areas.

Armagnac is still mainly produced by small scale rural growers with some producers sharing mobile stills that are driven around the countryside at production time. The locals used to joke that when crows travelled over the region they flew upside down so they couldn’t see how poor the area was! Whether this is the case nowadays is doubtful but in comparison with Cognac where global producers are commonplace, this loyalty to the roots of the traditions of the Armagnac industry is one of many factors that secure a place in the hearts of consumers for this historical spirit
Key differences between Armagnac and Cognac:
Grapes Whilst Cognac is made largely from the Ugni Blanc grape, Armagnac’s base wine is made from a blend of several varieties to include Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche.

Distillation The still used in Cognac is based on double distillation (the alcohol is obtained by heating twice) and the brandy has an average alcoholic content of 72° when leaving the still, the still mainly used for Armagnac is based on continuous distillation (although the same method as for Cognac can also be used) and the brandy it produces has an alcoholic content of 54 to 60. This continuous distillation gives a spirit rich in aroma (one of the reasons that Armagnac is noticeably more fragrant than Cognac) with a finish to match it’s reputation as ‘the dancing fire’.

Ageing Cognac is aged mainly in French oak casks from Limousin or Tronçais.
Armagnac is aged in French oak primarily from the Monlezun forest in Bas Armagnac.

Vintage dated Armaganc (a single harvest’s unblended produce) has long been one of the many marks of the individuality of the region (although vintage dating is becoming increasingly popular in Cognac).

The Oxford Wine Company is a local specialist in this particular area (having strong relationships with producers such as Delord, Gelas and Château de Tariquet) and displays single vintages ranging from 1900 to 1990, these prove popular with both connoisseurs and those seeking something a bit different for a special birthday or anniversary.

John Chapman