By Franz Scheurer
Armagnac is the result of its triple heritage:
- Roman for the grape growing skills
- Moorish for the distilling skills and
- Celtic for the barrel making techniques.
France’s reputedly oldest brandy is known by many aliases, such as Ayga Ardenterius or Aquae Ardens and references are found in medical and alchemist treaties and texts going back to 1411, although distillation is thought to have been introduced to the area as early as the 12th Century. It remains to this day a true product of the Gascogne region of France.
Gascogne, unlike its northerly competitor Cognac has no large rivers, severely limiting early development of trade. During the 17th and 18th Century, some of the eau-de-vie from Armagnac made its way to Bordeaux by ox cart to the nearest navigable river at Mont-de-Marsan, where it would have been loaded onto river barges on their way to the Bordeaux wine merchants. Little if any would have been exported from Bordeaux. It was much more likely added to other spirits or used to fortify. Armagnac, however, did have a marketing advantage inside France. Many of the King’s musketeers came from the province of Gascogne and they introduced it to the courts, especially to the ladies.
Originally prized for its medicinal properties it took until the 16th Century for Armagnac to become a popular spirit for the well-heeled consumer and it didn’t reach the height of its popularity until the middle of the 19th Century with the arrival of canals and railways.
Phylloxera hit the region in 1878, some 6 years after its appearance in Cognac, giving Armagnac a short-term advantage over its rival, and wiped out most of the vines. Little by little the areas are being replanted but vineyards are relatively few and far between to this day.
Situated in the heart of Gascogne, the Armagnac vineyards cover around 15,000 hectares mainly in the area of Gers and parts of Landes, Lot and Garonne.
There are three distinct regions, (or ‘crus’) laid down by the decree of 25th May 1909:
In the west: ‘Bas-Armagnac’, with a topsoil called ‘boulbene’, covering a subsoil of clay and sand, producing a delicate and fruity style eau-de-vie, regarded as the best.
In the centre: ‘Armagnac-Tenarèze’ consists of undulating slopes with chalk and boulbene, producing powerful, strongly scented long lived eau-de-vie and
In the east: ‘Haut-Armagnac’ where production was started during the boom in the 19th Century with its chalky soils, but unlike those from Cognac, the wines are unsuitable for distillation and only a very small production survives in the modern world.
Grapes permitted in the production of Armagnac are Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Fol Blanche and Baco Blanc (the only hybrid allowed in any AC product in France) and in a minor part from the ancient traditional varieties of Blanc Dame (Clairette de Gascogne), Graisse, Jurançon Blanc, Mauzac Blanc and Rosé and Meslier St. François.
Vintage is generally in mid October and vinified traditionally to obtain a fresh white wine high in acid with a level of alcohol of 8 to 10%. No artificial yeasts, sulphur or sugar are permitted under any circumstances. Wine is not racked from the lees before entering the still and is often extremely cloudy.
Distillation must begin before the 31st March the following year. Double distilled in a traditional pot still (to 71%, max 72% vol) or single distilled in the ‘alambic Armagnacais’ (Armagnac still), the resulting clear spirit is between 52 and 62 % alcohol.
The spirit is then stored in new 400 to 420 lt oak vats from the local Gascogne forests or the forests of nearby Limousin, acquiring complexity and colour from the ageing process. Stored for varying times in new wood the liquid is then transferred to old wood for the remainder of the ageing process. Alcohol levels gradually decrease with maturation due to evaporation, or as the French call it: “La part des Anges” (the Angel’s allocation).
Once considered sufficiently aged, the spirit is blended to obtain optimum colour, character and complexity, or to maintain the ‘house standard’. Minimum alcohol level must be 40% vol. It is important to note that Armagnac does not mature once it is bottled. Refer to the label for important information as to when it was bottled and its age. In a blended Armagnac the age must always reflect the youngest spirit in the blend.
Trois Etoiles (Three Stars): Wood aged for a minimum of 2 years
V.O, V.S.O.P. or Réserve: Wood aged for a minimum of 5 years
Extra, Napoleon, XO or Vieille Réserve: Wood aged for a minimum of 6 years
Hors d’Age: Wood aged for a minimum of 10 years
There is a good range of Armagnac available in Australia. My personal favourite would have to be the Delord Armagnac and my favourite vintage is 1961.