The Perfect Guest Brings Armagnac!
You have been invited to a pleasant dinner party. And since you know a thing or two about wines, you might please your host and hostess with a fine bottle of wine. Why not try something different? A well-chosen spirit, Armagnac or Cognac, will last longer, and your host and hostess will keep you in mind as a thoughtful guest.
Armagnac and Cognac both come from indifferent white grapes, Folle Blanche (for floral notes) and Ugni Blanc (for finesse). Here the resemblance ends, for the climate in Gascony is ruder than the maritime climate of the Charente region where Cognac is made. Their soils are also different. Both grapes are carefully harvested, distilled and aged in casks to develop into the spirits we enjoy. But note carefully that neither drink ages in the bottle. If you have a vintage spirit, you should ask how long it has been aged, and when it was placed in the bottle. A bottle marked 1980 (for the vintage year) which was bottled in 1985 is just five years old!
Armagnac does retain a rich, somewhat earthy flavor. It also carries a swashbuckling background. Both are distilled spirits – converting the grape juice first into steam, then back into liquid form through a process of evaporation and condensation. Unlike Cognac, which is produced in the maritime Charente Region and distilled twice, Armagnac is distilled just once. Those who prefer the latter say that it therefore has more flavor, reflecting both the Gascon terroir and the single distillation, while Cognac fanciers say their twice-distilled spirit is more profound.
Armagnac is produced in the Departement of Gers or Landes in the French southwest. It is a potent drink, with a minimum alcoholic content of 40% (80 proof). The categories are:
- V.S. (at least two years old)
- VSOP (at least 5 years old)
- XO (at least 6 years old)
- Hors d’Age (10 years old)
The older the spirit, generally the smoother the spirit. The main spirits are Bas Armagnac and Armagnac (further classified as Tenareze and Haut Armagnac). Each has its fans.
- Bas Armagnac: Eauze in the Landes is the center of the region.
- I recommend the Chateau du Tariquet, which also produces a good quality, inexpensive table wine.
- Bas Armagnac is thought to be somewhat spicier than Tenareze and Haut Armagnac, produced in the Gers.
- Armagnac: In the Tenareze district of the Gers Departement, the Chateau de Larressingle , which dates from 1250, is a landmark producer.
- Janneau, one of the largest producers, is here.
- So is the Chateau de Maillac.
- For gourmets, here is the Le Cordellier Restaurant, where the chef Jean-Louis Pallidin got his start.
- In Auch in the Gers, Armagnac de Montal is a source of pride. The town itself boasts a grand statue of D’Artagnan (actually Charles de Batz, born in 1615 at the Chateau de Castelmore near Eauze). The Hotel de France, Place de la Liberation, is surely the home of the finest in Gascon cooking. And the Cathedrale de Sainte Marie is worth a trip to the region. Hundreds of wooden statues were carved in the choir stalls by a pupil of Michelangelo. It was saved from destruction by arson in the French Revolution by a miracle. A member of the crowd looked at the carvings and said that “no aristocrat could have carved them – the faces of the people are too honest.” And so the finest wooden sculptures in the French Provinces were saved for your enjoyment today.
Here are some comparative prices. Clearly the older the spirit, the more expensive it will be.
- Desbons Reserve VSOP Bas Armagnac is a comparative bargain at $37
- Chateau de Larressingle VSOP Armagnac costs $51
- Chateau de Laubade Bas Armagnac vintage 1995 costs $88
Vintage years have become trendy over the past 20 years, and the older, the pricier. They deserve a place on your host’s bar, along with fine Cognac! Just be sure that the spirit has been well aged before being bottled!