When one considers France, what often comes to mind is exceptional wines, fine Champagne, and Cognac, the crème de la crème of brandy. Yet let’s not forget France’s other premier spirit, Armagnac.
Today I am in the southwest of France, in the Gascony region. This is the land between the Ardou and Garonne rivers which lay at the foothills of the Pyranees Mountains. I am also joined by long- time friend and fellow sommelier, Denise Roland. We are in the town of Labastide d’ Armagnac at the Café Barbotan. Our surroundings not only exude an elegance of a bygone era, this charming setting is also filled with the character that is typically Gascone. I can easily see why it is one of Denise’s favorites to enjoy drinks with friends.
Armagnac is the oldest brandy distilled in France. It is quite distinctive in character. Armagnac is typically made from a blend of grapes which include Colombard, Baco Blanc, Folle-Blanche, and Ugni Blanc.
The distillation of Armagnac is done with column stills rather than the pot stills used for Cognac. Since Armagnac is distilled only once, with an alcohol content of 52%, it is then aged in oak barrels. The final beverage is more fragrant and tasty spirit than Cognac. This is due to the extensive aging in oak barrels. This softens the taste, adds to the complexity of flavors, and deepens its dark brown color.
Historically, Armagnac came into prominence in the 14th century. Cardinal Vital Du Four, a French scholastic philosopher and former bishop of Albano, who claimed that Armagnac had therapeutic effects. He strongly believed it had 40 virtues and encouraged the widespread consumption of the beverage. In part, his efforts did spread the popularity of the spirit and between the 15th-17th centuries, Armagnac was widely traded by Dutch merchants throughout Europe.
Since Armagnac pairs best with desserts and fruits, Denise spared no expense to fill our table with an assortment of seasonal fruits.
“Are you ready for our first selection?” She queried.
Chateau de Pellehaut Reserve de Gaston is the premier cuvee of Domaine de Pellehaut. It has been meticulously blended from barrels of 20 year old Ugni Blanc and 10 year old Folle Blanche. Light in color, and with a fresh nose, wonderful grape, apple, and plum aromas thrill the senses. It is light on the palate with notes of creamy chocolate and berries. The finish is clean, crisp, and fruity. The alcohol content is 40% with a price tag of $80.
“This is a charming brandy. I know that it is perhaps on the light-side for your palate,” Denise cast me a furtive smile. “It’s just that I adore the fruitiness of this Armagnac.”
Our next selection, Armagnac Castarede Vintage 1979 is dark amber in color. One immediately recognizes that this is a well-crafted spirit that has been scrupulously blended from Colombard grapes along with Folle Blanche, and Ugni Blanc. The nose is delicate, yet with aromatic hints of peach and prune. The mouth feel is extremely long with an abundance of fruit character and just a hint of spice. The finish is long and enjoyable. The alcohol content is 40% with a price tag of $95.
Bas-Armagnac Delord is by far the most unusual Armagnac that either Denise or I have tried in a very long time. On the eye it is deep, dark, and alluring. There is a sense of anticipation. The nose is quite rich and creamy. On the palate is where this Armagnac takes a turn. There is a distinct and almost whole meal quality on the tongue. We also picked up hints of tobacco and smoke. This is definitely one for a specific type of connoisseur; the person who enjoys a good cigar while drinking Armagnac. The alcohol content is 42% with a price tag of $100.
“Overall, it is well-made and definitely aims to please its target audience.”
“Let’s move on,” Denise exhibited a tone of calm finality.
Our final selection, Bas-Armagnac Francis Darroz has been aged for 20 years. The grapes in this spirit come from over 30 estates in Gascony. On the eye it is dark with hues of gold shining through. The nose is aromatic and fills the nostrils with a multitude of savory scents. On the palate, it is evident that our Francis Darroz has been harmoniously blended to create a spirit that is delightfully smooth and evenly textured. It is an eau-de-vie which displays just the right amount of oak on the palate to round out the finish. It is 40% alcohol with a price tag of $105.
“Clearly one of my favorites,” Denise flashed me an even smile.”
“I especially like the care and aging that went in this Darroz. It is indeed an exceptional selection.”
“But that my friends is another story …”