Armagnac is the oldest brandy in France. It is a grape-based spirit with a 700 year old history. It is produced in the region it’s named for – Armagnac, in Gascony, Southwest France.
The Romans introduced the vine in this privileged region, the Arabs the alambic, and the Celts the barrel. Armagnac is born from the meeting of these three cultures.
The name comes from a knight called Herrman, companion of the fiery Clovis, to whom a kingdom was given as reward for his bravery. Latinised by the medieval ‘capistes’, Hermann would become « Arminius », just until the local language took over, transforming it into Armagnac.
The first evidence of its use dates back to the year 1310 when Maître Vital Dufour, prior of Eauze and Saint Mont, extolled the 40 virtues of this “burning water” in his book « To keep your health and stay on top form ». Therapeutic virtues were attributed to it … Water that burns: « aqua ardens ». A water of immortality with complex aromas and flavours.
“It makes disappear redness and burning of the eyes, and stops them from tearing;
it cures hepatitis, sober consumption adhering. It cures gout, cankers, and fistula by
ingestion; restores the paralyzed member by massage; and heals wounds of the
skin by application. It enlivens the spirit, partaken in moderation, recalls the past to
memory, renders men joyous, preserves youth and retards senility. And when retained
in the mouth, it loosens the tongue and emboldens the wit, if someone timid
from time to time himself permits”
During the 16th century, armagnac became very popular with the Dutch and in the 17th century they bought nearly all the wines from the French Atlantic coast except those in Bordeaux that were English.
Armagnac trading was subject to fluctuations with good and bad years. To overcome the shortcomings, it was kept in reserve and stored in wooden barrels, then a treasure was discovered: the colour, the roundness and the best fragrances that aging can pass on.
In the 18th century, the War of Independence in the US gave a supplementary boost to business where it enjoyed popularity helped by its revolutionary French credentials. But that trade dropped away – Prohibition killed it off.
In 1879, phylloxera hit the region and destroyed half the vineyards. It wasn't worse because the Bas Armagnac region has sandy soils and the phylloxera mites didn't thrive in it.
Since 1941 its production is closely monitored by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIA). Both the Armagnac terroirs and the production methods have to meet strict rules laid down by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée - like Champagne, Bordeaux, and Cognac - this guarantees consumers to acquire unique high quality products.
There are three Terroirs that constitute a vineyard in the form of a vine leaf representing 15 000 hectares of vines, of which today, 4200 hectares are identified exclusively for the production of Armagnac:
Bas-Armagnac to the west, a rolling countryside; the grapes grow in acidic, argillaceous and stony ground, with pockets of iron elements. This terroir produces light, fruity, delicate and highly reputed spirits.
Armagnac-Ténarèze in the centre, is a transitional zone. Here we find clay-limestone soils that are heavy yet fertile. These spirits are generally more full-bodied. They are great after a long ageing.
Haut-Armagnac in the south and east is very spread out. The hills are of limestone and clay-limestone whilst the valleys are sometimes covered with silty soils. The vineyards are scattered like islands over the chalky clay hills.
It’s a lightly-populated area of rolling hills, woodland, rivers and empty roads. A few villages and small towns serve the population of around 180,000 inhabitants and agriculture, often on an artisanal scale, is an important occupation.
The climate is temperate and gentle. The humid oceanic influence reduced by the Landes forest is particularly noticeable in the west of the Appellation. To the east, it is the Mediterranean climate that has an impact with the southerly winds.
Armagnac is made from distilled wine, and grapes are the first factor that gives it an original personality. Among the ten grape varieties authorised for the production of Armagnac, four main ones give their personality to the spirit:
Ugni-blanc is the distillation grape par excellence. Known as Trebbiano in Italy, it produces wines with elevated levels of acidity and low alcohol, yet is fairly neutral in taste. Armagnacs made with Ugni Blanc contain pleasing floral aromatics that tend to accentuate the spice notes from the oak in which they are aged. This variety is well adapted to all of the Armagnac terroirs.
Folle Blanche is the best known. It is the historical grape variety for Armagnac that dominated the vineyards before its destruction by phylloxera in 1878. Its light-tomedium- bodied wine is low in alcohol and high in acidity, making it perfect for distillation into a fine spirit. Armagnacs made from high percentages of Folle Blanche offer seductive characteristics and often floral spirits with great elegance that is particularly valued in young Armagnacs.
Baco (previously called « Baco 22A ») is an originality in the French winegrowing landscape. It is a hybrid,between Folle Blanche and Noah, a labrusca grape. It was invented following phylloxera. It is particularly adapted to the sandy soils of the Bas-Armagnac that give the roundness, smoothness and aromas of ripe fruits to the spirit, particularly after long ageing. Baco is a robust variety and therefore needs less phytosanitary treatments.
Colombard is today used and valued in the vinification of the Côtes de Gascogne wines. Its distillation is more rare; its fruity and spicy aromas are appreciated in blends and in unaged clear armagnacs like ROXANE.
The grapes harvested in October are pressed and the juice is left to ferment naturally without the addition of any oenological products. The wine is generally low in alcohol and quite acidic; it therefore has a good capacity to retain all of its freshness and aromas until distillation.
For the distillation of Armagnac, the main objective is to heat wine until it boils, purely condense its vapors, and finally reconvert this steam into liquid form again.
Distillation takes place during winter with a limit date of 31st March of the year following the harvest. The wine is often distilled on the estate, sometimes using a traveling distiller who goes from cellar to cellar distilling the winemakers’ wine. It is also produced in distilleries by professional distillers or cooperatives.
Most of Armagnac is obtained using a specific still: a continuous Armagnac alambic. A small, sometimes mobile, continuous column still. The mobile stills have names, and producers will request the same stills each year. The alambic is a pure copper apparatus that truly gives the personality to Armagnac.
The wine permanently feeds the Alambic from the bottom of the cooler. It is thanks to this that the alcohol vapours contained in the serpentine cool down. It is driven towards the distillation column where it goes down from plate to plate until it reaches the boiler. The plates have “bubble caps” of different shapes (spiders, mushrooms, centipedes, or little houses). With the strong heat provided by the furnace, the vapours from the wine pass
back up the column and bubble in the wine at the level of each plate. They become enriched with the alcohol and the aromatic substances in the wine before being condensed then cooled in the serpentine.
On leaving the alambic, the eau-de-vie is clear and transparent and its alcohol degree can vary between 52% and 72%. At this moment, the Armagnac is still full of ardour, though it already has great aromatic richness: very fruity (plum, grape) and often floral (vine flowers or lime flower). The ageing in wood will give it its complexity and increasing softness.
Once it has been distilled, Armagnac is put to age in « pièces »: 400 litre oak casks mostly from the forests of Gascony or Limousin. These two varieties of oak are selected because of their hardness, porosity and extraction characteristics. Each cask has different characteristics and depending on the type of oak used, provides the liquid with its various tannin hues and woody aromas.
Gascony's forests produces tight-grained, rich in tannins, and deeply colored oak. The Limousin forest produces a more opengrained wood that contributes oak extract relatively quickly.
Making the cask where an eau-de-vie is to become armagnac requires performing a series of highly technical tasks that coopers pass on from one generation to another. In their work, they combine their craft and skills with the use of ancestral tools still in use today.
Cask making suffers no improvisation. The “merrains” or boards used to make each cask are culled between the heartwood and sapwood of oak trees that are over 100 years old, the oak is then seasoned for as long as 15 years before it's deemed ready to host newly distilled Armagnac. Then they must be split in order to respect the wood’s grain, and stacked in the open air for about three years where they can lose their sap and the wood’s bitter flavours.
Following this long curing period, the boards are shaped into curved staves. The coopers can now start their work.
They hoop the staves over and around a fire made with wood shavings and oak pieces.
The wood is repeatedly moistened and heated to bend the staves into shape giving out an unforgettable smell of freshly baked bread. How much the wood is charred in this process called “bousinage” – barrel toasting –will strongly influence the characteristics of the eau-de-vie in the cask.
During the heating period, a wire rope placed around the base of the cask is progressively tightened in order to bring the staves closer together, and finally join them without any need for nails or glue.
After the finishing touches, the cask must pass several solidity and boiling water tests to detect possible leaks. Some coopers sign their “master pieces” to demonstrate their full commitment to their work.
Once it has been distilled, Armagnac is put to age in « pièces »: 400 liter oak barrels mostly from the forests of Gascony or Limousin. Gascon oak tends to give more tannin, Limousin more vanilla. Adjusting time levels in newer and second-use oak can compensate for each barrel's physical differences.
These pièces are stored in the cellars where the temperature and the humidity are important for the quality of the ageing. When humidity, dryness and temperature are in balance, the spirit becomes mellow and ages harmoniously. This evolution in the ageing process is made up of three basic stages: extraction, hydrolysis, and oxidation.
- Extraction: The new eau-de-vie is stored in new casks where it dissolves the wood’s extractable substances and acquires a golden yellow colour. Part of the volatile components are eliminated...
Eaux-de-vie undergo an evolution in terms of colour (they progressively pass from being colourless to a marked yellow colour), flavour and bouquet (aroma of oak with a hint of vanilla).
- Hydrolysis: This is a transitory stage that precedes an important evolution of the spirit’s organoleptic characteristics. The eau-de-vie is about to “digest the wood”. Its colour tends to darken.
- Oxidation: The taste softens, the notes of steamed oak disappear and give way to floral aromas with hints of vanilla, the colour deepens. With the years, the eau-de-vie becomes increasingly mellow, the bouquet grows richer, and the “rancio” flavour appears
The spirit will stay in new barrels just until the dissolution level of substances in the wood is optimal. They are then transferred to older barrels for avoiding an excessive extraction of wood and to continue their slow evolution: the substances in the wood become more refined, aromas of vanilla and prunes develop, the « rancio » character appears and the alcohol degree diminishes gradually through evaporation (the angel’s share). The spirit takes on a lovely amber colour that then turns to mahogany.
It is key to oxygenate the spirit while it ages, typically when mixing a bunch of barrels together and redistributing it. When the spirit is moved around within the aging warehouses barrels are not rolled - the spirit is pumped out and pumped into other barrels.
The Angel's Share
While armagnac is ageing in casks, absorbing the best of the oak and developing its most exquisite flavours, it is in contact with the air and gradually loses some of its alcohol and some volume, but without excess. This natural evaporation is poetically referred to as “The Angel’s Share”. These alcohol vapours feed a microscopic fungus known as “torula compniacensis” that covers and blackens the stone walls of the cellars, giving them their characteristic colour.
The oldest armagnacs are usually kept away from the other cellars, in a dark cellar known as “the Paradise”.
Once they have reached maturity, the Master Blender decides to end their ageing process and places them first into very old casks and then into large glass containers called “demijohns”, where they may rest for many decades with no air contact, no more wood extraction and evaporation.
When the spirit is bottled it no longer ages. Unlike wine, bottles of Armagnac should be stored in an upright position so that the alcohol does not attack the cork.
Making armagnac is the work of the Master Blender. Like the “master nose” and his perfumes, the armagnac Master Blender (Maître de Chai) subtly blends together eaux-de-vie of different ages and from different crus. Rigorously, with experience and intuition, he strives to achieve consistency in his blends.
The Master Blender buys eaux-de-vie and follows their development from the moment they come out of the stills. He monitors their ageing, tastes them regularly, and decides whether it is time to change them from one oak cask or from a chai – ageing warehouse – to another so they become rounder or dryer.
It is also he who progressively adds ‘petites eaux’ a blend of Armagnac and distilled water to the eau-de-vie in order to slowly reach the desired alcohol content for its release into the market. This delicate operation is referred to as "reduction".The level of alcohol for consumption (40% vol. minimum) can be achieved by gradually adding ‘petites eaux’ a blend of Armagnac and distilled water that is aged independently and used exclusively for reducing blends
This task requires an extensive experience and allows each Master Blender to fine-tune the product's quality. By creating a blend of the various eaux-de-vie, combining different ages and flavours, the master blender creates genuine harmonies, like a painter or a musician.
The vintage is a specificity in Armagnac that corresponds exclusively to the year of harvest. Reducing vintages is often not necessary particularly if the cellar is humid so they are often available at their natural alcohol strength of ageing that is generally between 40% and 48% vol. Once in bottles, Armagnac no longer ages though it is important to keep the bottle upright so that the alcohol can’t attack the cork.
From the flourishing of the grape on the wine to the bottling, the aromas evolve, refining and asserting their character to give each armagnac an original signature. The journey begins with the grape varieties used. Each variety brings distinctive scents that, if they don’t dominate, contribute to the aromatic richness. These perfumes are liberated during fermentation.
The fermentation aromas coming from the transformation of sugar into alcohol and the origin of fruity and floral notes magnify the aromatic base wine destined for the distillation.
Distillation is the next step of the journey through its role in the balance of flavours in the transformed wine. Certain fragrances disappear whereas others increase their concentration. The alcohol in the wine modifies the volatility of the elements and in turn their aromatic perception.
The aromatic transformation evolves and becomes more subtle during the ageing, the final step in the journey. As well as colour, the symbiotic relationship with the oak brings notes associated with the substances extracted from the wood and aromas of evolution called rancio (oak, vanilla, cocoa and pepper...).
When your nose is above the glass, watch out for the fragrance that will rekindle sensations hitherto dormant; this is the story of the spirit that expresses itself with ardour.
Each Armagnac has its own personality, every individual also has his or her own references and imagination with which to interpret the sensations. Happy tasting …