By Bruce Collier
Armagnac isn’t that well known outside of France where, at age 700, it is the oldest brandy distilled in that country. Though exported worldwide, unlike its superstar cousin Cognac, Armagnac sales are pretty limited.
Armagnac takes its name from the place where it is distilled. Armagnac is located in the southwest of France, in the region known as Gascony—home of Cyrano de Bergerac, D’Artagnan (the Fourth Musketeer), and foie gras, that fatty, luxurious, un-PC goose and duck liver so evocative of classic French gastronomy. Truffles come from there as well.
Armagnac comes from three principal districts (appellations)—Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Tenereze, and Haut-Armagnac. Bas-Armagnac seems to be the most commonly available, at least where I looked.
Armagnac is eau-de-vie (“water of life,” which is also what “whisky” means). It is distilled from a blend of white wine grapes—the main ones are Ugni blanc, Folle blanche, Columbard and a disease-resistant hybrid called Baco 22A. Unlike Cognac, which is distilled twice, Armagnac is distilled only once, in a column still, at around 104 proof (52 percent alcohol) It is aged in oak barrels of differing varieties, local preferred. Most Armagnac is bottled at around 80 proof, though there are higher-proof bottlings.
There are six general classifications, based on time spent aging in the barrel. VS is at least two years old, VSOP at least four, XO and Napoleon at least six, Hors d’Age at least 10, and Armagnac of a vintage year. The age refers to that of the youngest Armagnac in the blend.
From its creation, Armagnac enjoyed a high reputation, especially in the Catholic Church. A 14th century French priest, Prior Vital DuFour (later a cardinal) listed the “forty virtues” of Armagnac. He said it healed wounds, restored paralyzed limbs (with massage), and cured both gout and hepatitis (not likely, but tell that to a French cardinal).
If Cognac is the Scotch whisky of France, Armagnac would probably be the bourbon. Its image is that of country, small batch artisan production, family tradition. With a touch of musketeer swagger.
I try to buy locally for these articles, but this time I had to range afield to find Armagnac. I bought one locally, four from an online liquor dealer, and one from a department store in Paris last year. Prices ranged from the mid-$30 to mid-$70 range. All were from Bas-Armagnac.
I tried all of these neat, in a Glencairn glass.
$42.99 (Found Locally)
The nose is mild, with a touch of sweet-and-sour sauce. The taste is sweet—grapes, sherry, cream and vanilla. Both fruitiness and body become fuller with airing. It is warming, peppery, with notes of fruit peel, banana, wood, butter, pears and honey.
MARIE DUFFAU NAPOLEON
The nose is toasty, with a sherry-like nuttiness (“rancio”). The taste is grape soda, sherry and whipped cream. With air you get raisins, figs and concentrated fruit preserves, caramel and fruit sauce. There is no burn, just lushness and warmth. It was the cheapest I tried, and a great value.
Reportedly 10 years old, this one’s nose comes on strong, with ripe pears, candied fruit, fig preserves, sweet apple juice and fig bars. The taste is lighter and drier than the nose promises, with spice, pepper and canned peaches. The finish is short.
TARIQUET CASK STRENGTH
I bought this in Paris. It’s unusual, not only because of the higher proof, but also because it’s made exclusively from Folle blanche grapes. Folle blanche reportedly is used for its aroma. This one is all about the nose—canned fruit in syrup, toasty toffee. After an hour I could smell overripe peaches and nectarines. The taste is on the dry side, with that distinctive nuttiness predominating. There’s warmth, but no burn.
CHATEAU DE LAUBADE HORS D’AGE (Minimum 10 Years Old)
There’s no age statement (“intemporel” or “timeless”). The color had a pinkish tinge, like a dark rosé wine, in contrast to the rich browns of the others. The nose is earthy, almost funky, like soil. The taste is less fruity, drier, more austere and woody. There’s that Spanish rancio again, with subtle raisin and fig notes on the finish. This was the driest Armagnac I tasted. It would make a great aperitif.
DELORD (25 Years Old)
I had great expectations for this one, so I let it breathe about five hours before I sampled it. It’s deep brown, like rum. The nose is pure dried fruit—raisins, figs, then warmed honey and sweet cured tobacco. The taste is sweet and full-bodied, with heat and some fire, which smoothes down to a low smolder. It’s a regular dessert cart—jam, fruit and nut, vanilla and almond pastry, even some chutney and garam masala. This one is for the fireplace, the leather books and the deep thoughts.
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