For an after dinner indulgence, a fine French brandy is in a class by itself. Cognac is the great favorite. But Armagnac, from the départements of Landes and Gers south of Bordeaux, also has fervent admirers. It has been enjoyed since the 14th century, and a Latin manuscript from 1310 praises the spirit for “conserving youth and retarding senility.” Both spirits come from indifferent white grapes, Folle Blanche (floral notes) and Ugni Blanc (finesse), which are carefully harvested and then distilled and aged in casks to the spirits we enjoy.
A main difference between the two is that Armagnac is distilled only once, while Cognac is twice distilled. For Cognac lovers, that means a more refined drink. Those who prefer Armagnac discern a certain fiery quality, reflecting perhaps a touch of the Gascon terroir. The best Armagnac is indeed strong, but also smooth, and the XO at the top of the line costs just over half the price of comparable Cognac.
Armagnac is a potent drink. The minimum alcohol content by law is 40% (80 proof), which may be obtained by natural aging, or speeded up by the cellar master. The categories are V.S. (at least two years old), V.S.O.P. or Reserve (at least six years old), and Hors d’Age (at least ten years old).
As a rule of thumb, the older the spirit, the smoother it will be, and the best producers exceed these minimum aging requirements. But bear in mind that, like Cognac, Armagnac no longer ages once bottled. And so a treasured bottle of 1967 Armagnac, which was bottled from the cask in 1977, is just ten years old – not 45!
A favorite which I have visited is the Tariquet Bas Armagnac from Eauze in the Landes. The excellent XO retails for $67, with VSOP at $43 and VS priced at $25. The historic Château Larressingle in the Tenarèze district of the Gers, said to be the first commercial producer of Armagnac, has XO for $74, and VSOP for $41.
But those who want a genuine Gascon experience should head directly for Auch in the Gers. Stop off and visit the Château de Rieutort a few miles from Auch, which produces Armagnac de Montal. The XO when you can find it retails for $90, and the VSOP is $38.
But Auch itself is considered the heart of Gascony. The historic Hôtel de France is noted for its cuisine, and the Cathedral across the square has some 1500 remarkable wooden carvings in the choir that were miraculously saved from destruction by mobs during the French Revolution. It is said that they were about to put the torch to the oak carvings when a voice called out, saying that no aristocrat could possibly have carved such realistic peasant faces. And so this masterpiece was saved.
The statue of D’Artagnan, in the garden of the Hôtel de France, smiles its approval. So will you, after dinner, as you sip your glass of vintage Armagnac!
Bill Shepard, Wine Editor
Copyright ©2012 French Wine Explorers