Southwest France’s Gascogny region — dubbed France’s Tuscany — is a gourmand’s paradise, from textile and design to literature, food, and spirits. For brandy connoisseurs, there is Armagnac, France’s premier brandy.
For more than 600 years, Armagnac has been aged in oak barrels, its artisanal recipe handed down through the generations among a small group of family-owned estates. Most Americans are familiar with Armagnac’s better-known, younger cousin, Cognac (twice-distilled) — an oversight due mainly to marketing. Both are distilled grape brandies, but different.
Not unlike fine wine, cigars, or jazz, Armagnac is a pleasure to be savored — the journey surpasses the destination. “I like the delicate aroma in the glass,” says Armagnac enthusiast John DeWitt Gregory, a law professor at Hofstra University. He favors the producer Armagnac Cames.
“As I swirl the drink in the [brandy snifter], the aroma is dramatically released and enhanced, presenting a delicious aroma of vanilla.” The heady aromas wafting from this elixir are legion: a mÃ©lange of spices (such as vanilla, cinnamon, or licorice), fruits (prune, fig, or apple), and candies (butterscotch, toffee, or chocolate). But in practice, the alchemy of Armagnac is a blending of Gascogny grapes: Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanche, Colombard, and Baco 22A, followed by a patented, single distillation and aging (most likely invented by the Moors).
“The first sensation on the tongue is spicy, or peppery,” offers Gregory. “The excellent finish is remarkably long-lasting.” As with cigars and wine, soil content influences the spirit’s flavor. The region’s sandy clay yields its distinctive flavors. Soils and climates for the Armagnac and Cognac also differ.
According to Charles Neal, author of Armagnac: The Definitive Guide to France’s Premier Brandy (Flame Grape Press; $30), most Armagnacs peak between 18 and 30 years.
GUIDE TOARMAGNAC LABELS
- Vintages are Armagnacs aged 10 or more years and are so exceptional, there is no need for blending.
- Armagnac is aged less than 6 years.
- Blanche d’armagnac (white spirit) is the distilled spirit with no aging.
- Vieil Armagnac (old Armagnac) is blendings aged more than 6 years. In blends, the aging length of the youngest brandy determines the category of the Armagnac.
- Three Stars or V.S. (Very Superior) is aged 2 years, minimum.
- VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) is aged 5 years, minimum.
- XO (Extra Old, including Napoleon and Vieille Reserve) is aged 6 years, minimum.
- Hors d’age is aged 10 years or more.
- Traditionally, Armagnac is served in a brandy glass at the end of a meal; it is often paired with chocolate, fruit desserts, coffee, and cigars. “My most marvelous experience was the marriage of Armagnac with a fine Dominican cigar, in this case, a Reserva Dominicana Churchill,” says Gregory.
- La Compagnie des Mousqetaires d’Armagnac is an elite brotherhood of Armagnac aficianados that was founded 30 years ago. Members include, among others, jazz legend Wynton Marsalis; financier, philosopher, and philanthropist George Soros; and U.S. Ambassador to France Howard Leach.
For more information, visit BNIA Armagnac, the official Armagnac Website, at www.armagnac.fr.