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Armagnac is the oldest distilled spirit in all of France – predating any other by at least 100 years. The first documentation of its production was in 1310 in the region of South West France known as Gascony (Gascogne). At this time It was considered to have healing powers which the often-quoted Cardinal and Doctor, Vital du Four, describes as follows:
“It makes disappear redness and burning of the eyes, and stops them from tearing; it cures hepatitis, sober consumption adhering. It cures gout, cankers, and fistula by ingestion; and heals wounds of the skin by application. It enlivens the spirit, partaken in moderation, recalls the past to memory, renders men joyous, preserves youth and retards senility. And when retained in the mouth, it loosens the tongue and emboldens the wit, if someone timid from time to time himself permits.”
Armagnac (the place) is the setting of the famous novel “Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas, who based the book on the real life events of a member of the royal guard who lived there. The region has always been considered a little off the beaten path and rustic and these stereotypes are still true today. It is isolated and the local cuisine, consisting mostly of variations on duck confit, foie gras and pork, hasn’t changed much over the centuries.
The production of Armagnac sets this sprit apart, the most important being that it is made with a single distillation only. Producers use a special still, exclusive to Armagnac, called an alambic armagnacais. It is shaped like a column, not like a pot – which is the more common type of still used not just for brandy but for whiskey and many other spirits. The use of the alambic armagnacais combined with the single distillation produces a brandy with more flavor components and a higher abv than those that are produced with more than one distillation. This is what allows the terroir of Armagnac to shine and accounts for the distinct differences in aroma and flavor between vintages, blends and houses.
Based on this, it is no surprise that Armagnac is a region where small producers are still responsible for most of the production, not large houses or brands. Each farm has a different style and different plot of land to work with, resulting in enormous variety. Armagnac is broken down into three sub-regions which also contribute to the characteristics of the finished brandy. Haut-Armagnac is the furthest east and produces the lightest spirit, while Ténarèze, its neighbor to the west, produces the harshest. The majority of Armagnac originates here. It is Bas Armagnac, the furthest east, with its sandy orange soil, which is universally acknowledged to produce the most elegant and refined brandies.
An additional element of production that contributes to the complexity of Armagnac is the type of barrel in which it is aged. Some producers use rare black oak from the local Monlezun forest, which is high in tannin and adds structural complexity and earthiness. Others source their wood from outside the region, usually Alsace and the Limousin forests near Bordeaux.
Four main grapes go into Armagnac: Folle Blance, Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Bacco 22A, although Mauzac, Clairette de Gascogne, white Jurançon, Plant de graisse, and Meslier Saint François are also permitted. They almost never used, but some producers hold onto the vines for historical purposes. The winemaker and master distiller for each producer has a preference on blend and will use each variety according to their desired result: Folle Blanche for richness, Bacco for structure and aging, Ugni Blanc for floral aroma and finally Colombard, while not as distinctive as the others, makes a good quality base wine for distilling. Each grape adds an important component to the blend and the variety of grapes is another factor in Armagnac’s character.
In general, Armagnacs come in four main categories, ranked by how long the brandy is aged in cask after distillation.
VSOP: the youngest brandy in the blend must be aged a minimum of 4 years
XO: the youngest brandy in the blend must be aged a minimum of 5 years
Hors D’Age: the youngest brandy in the blend must be aged a minimum of 10 years.
Vintage: Minimum of 10 years in barrel, but usually much longer. Old vintage Armagnac, which can remain in barrel for over 40 years, is a rare treat. Its rancio, fruit, earth and spice notes and silky texture are incomparable to any other spirit. Even better is that each vintage is different – a unique expression of that year.