The oldest brandy distilled in France, celebrated its 700th years in 2011.
Armagnac is a distinctive kind of brandy produced in the Armagnac region in Gascony, southwest France. It is distilled from wine usually made from a blend of grapes including Baco 22A, Colombard, Folle Blanche and Ugni blanc, traditionally using column stills rather than the pot stills used in the production of cognac, which is made only from Ugni blanc grapes. The resulting spirit is then aged in oak barrels before release.
From the youngest Armagnac to the oldest Vintages, the evolution of Armagnacs is progressive and continuous: there is no sharp aromatic boundary between a VSOP (more than 4 years in wood) and an Hors d'Age (more than 10 years under wood). The aromas of the wine concentrated by the still are enriched, evaporate, superimposed, masked, transformed, sublimated in contact with the barrel and the test of time. The work of the cellar master further enriches the aromatic palette of blended Armagnacs.
The Armagnac Terroir
Bas-Armagnac : poor and acidic clay loam soils. The ‘boulbènes’, characteristic sediment in the region are predominantly silty soils. Light, fruity, delicate and highly reputed eaux-de-vie. Armagnac-Ténarèze: Transitional zone. Here we find ‘boulbènes’ and ‘terreforts’ (Gascon name given to clay-limestone soils that are heavy yet fertile). Full-bodied eaux-de-vie. Haut-Armagnac: South and east is very spread out. The hills are of limestone and clay-limestone.
1- Ugni-Blanc : Main grape for distillation, produce fine eaux-de-vie of high quality. 2-Colombard: The distillation is more rare; it has fruity and spicy aromas. 3- Folle Blanche: the most well known. Produces fine and often floral eaux-de-vie. 4- Baco 22A (hybrid) : a hybrid from Folle Blanche and Noah. Roundness, smoothness and aromas of ripe fruits. Only planted in Armagnac
The undulating valleys, in the West of the region grow vines on meagre and acidic silicous-clay soils. Parts are mixed with ferrous elements that colour the earth, from hence comes the name 'tawny sands', and the boulbènes, are silty sediments characteristic of the region.
West of the Gers and in part of the Landes, the sea left behind a Miocene formation called “sables fauves” or “wild sands”, made up of fine quartz sand, coloured by small amounts of ferrous hydroxides.
This specific area is Called “The grand Bas Armagnac”. True connoisseurs insist that this small north/west corner in Bas-Armagnac produces the very best and it shows in the price, often double.
This area produces light, fruity, delicate and highly praised eaux-de-vie.
The Ténarèze is a transitional zone where one finds boulbènes and strong clay/limestone soils. The eaux-de-vie are generally more full-bodied and reach their full maturity after a long ageing.The aromatic mark, is an impression of violet.
Haut Armagnac in the South and the East is very spread out. Its hills are predominantly chalky with areas of clay/limestone and sometimes a boulbènes covering in the valleys. It is more of a wine region.
Production of Armagnac
There is no addition of oenological products, sulphur included. The wines obtained have a fairly low degree of alcohol,from 8-10% vol., and a high total acidity which is the only way to keep it until distillation without sulphite. Conservation is carried on fine lees after decanting, until distillation
This is done traditionally with the “Armagnac still”, invented in 1818 with a patent of king Louis XVIII: the wine is then distilled continuously. This gentler method helps to better conserve parts of the grapes (thanks to a lower distillation degree), lending it a more specific taste.
On leaving the still, the eau-de-vie is colourless, with between 52 and 60% vol.(72% being the legal maximum).
How the still works: (see diagram opposite).
The wine continuously feeds the still with the coolant from below. It is thanks to this that the alcohol fumes contained in the serpentine or coil cool. It is taken towards the column where it runs down from level to level as far as the boiler. Under the effect of the great heat produced by the firebox or furnace, the vinous fumes rise against the flow and “bubble” in the wine at each level. They become richer in alcohol and with most of the wine’s aromatic substances, and are condensed and then cooled in the coil. On leaving the still, the eau-de-vie is colourless.
The Armagnac is still full of spirit, so to speak, but it is already very rich aromatically: very fruity (plum,
raisin, etc) and often floral (vine flower and lime (tree).
Ageing in oak helps these eaux-de-vie to become finer and richer after various complex reactions during which the tannic and aromatic matter in the wood dissolves in the alcohol.
Young eaux-de-vie stay in new barrels (400 litres) until such time as the level of the dissolving wood substances isoptimal.
They are then transferred to older casks (reddish in colour) to complete the transformations already under way. Throughoutthe ageing process, the degree of alcohol gradually drops by way of alcohol evaporation – the so-called “Angels’ share”.
The volume also drops, by water evaporation, giving rise to a concentration of the eau-de-vie. These casks are stored in chais, where both temperature and humidity are important for the quality of the ageing; the woody substances becomemore refined, vanilla and prune aromas develop, the “rancio”character appears. The eau-de-vie takes on a lovely amber then mahogany hue.
When the ageing is deemed sufficient, the blending starts, i.e.the harmonious mixing of several eaux-de-vie of differing origin and age. The degree of consumption (40% vol.minimum) can be obtained by the progressive addition of“petites eaux”—literally “lesser waters”—formed of a mixture of distilled water and Armagnac
The vintage represents exclusively the year of the harvest.
When the ageing storeroom is humid, eaux-de-vie are sold at their natural degree of ageing, usually between 40% and 48% vol Otherwise reduction is practised.
Armagnac versus Cognac
While Armagnac is undoubtedly the oldest brandy in France, its little brother Cognac is more popular outside the country. These two grape-based spirits are similar in many ways, but each has its own identity.
Let's take stock of their similarities and their specificities, because between these two, there is no war of flavor. armagnac Vs cognac : why choose
The first difference between cognac and armagnac is the terroir.
The terroirs of the Cognac and Armagnac regions, both in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, are separated by about 300 kilometers, which leads to differences in soil.
Under the Armagnac, we find fine quartz sands, continental and fluvial sediments and siliceous clay. This terroir is divided into 3 crus:
The bas-armagnac or black armagnac is partly found in the Landes. It is characterized by clayey-siliceous soils poor in limestone, sometimes acid.
The haut-armagnac or white armagnac is characterized by predominantly limestone soils except in its southern part where we find the boulbènes clay-siliceous.
The Ténarèze is a transitional land that can be found in part in the Lot et Garonne. There the vine is cultivated on soils with a dominant clay-limestone composition.
The Grape Varieties
In Cognac 97% of the grape variety used is Ugni-Blanc which gives fine and high quality eaux-de-vie. It is also used in Armagnac (55%).
In Armagnac, we also find Folle Blanche (2%) which produces fine and floral eaux-de-vie, Colombard with fruity and spicy aromas appreciated in blends, Baco (hybrid of Folle Blanche and American Noah) which produces round eaux-de-vie with ripe fruit aromas (35%).
The differences in the use of grape varieties between these two regions stem from the fact that Armagnac produces wine intended for consumption without being distilled. This is not the case in Cognac where the very acidic wine is not pleasant as is.
The method of distillation and aging
The vast majority of Armagnac is obtained with the Armagnac continuous still. The patent for this machine was registered in 1818 and perfected over time by the distillers. The brandy obtained after distillation has an alcoholic strength of between 52% and 72%.
On the contrary, the distillation on the Charentais alembic includes two distillations. The first heating allows to obtain an alcohol at 20-30 degrees called "brouilli" which will be redistilled in "good heating" at 70-71 degrees. This last distillation will become cognac.
A point of similarity, the labels of cognac and armagnac share the same indications of the number of years of aging:
VS Very Special: at least 2 years
VSOP Very Superior Old Pale: at least 4 years
XO Extra Old: aged at least 10 years