As harvest approaches, the grapes are
carefully monitored to assure that they reach just the right maturity
prior to being harvested, which typically occurs in Gascony in
late September or early October. After the grapes are harvested
and pressed, the juice is fermented to produce a white wine with
an alcohol content of approximately 10-11% and a high acidic content.
Soon thereafter, the wine is distilled to make an eau-de-vie, which
is then immediately placed in French oak barrels where it is aged
until it has properly matured.
How does Terroir impact the Armagnac?
All Armagnac is produced within an area officially designated
by the French government as Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC)
that has three distinct sub regions — the Bas-Armagnac, Tenareze
and Haut-Armagnac. The Bas Armagnac produces the highest quality
Armagnac, particularly a small area in the western portion historically
known as the “Grand Bas Armagnac”.
There are several reasons why this specific area — the “Grand
Bas-Armagnac” -- produces such extraordinary Armagnac. The climate,
with its mild sunny autumns, is ideal for the ripening grapes.
And it is blessed by gentle breezes and moisture from the Atlantic
Ocean, while the nearby forests form a natural barrier regulating
both temperature and precipitation and creating a unique microclimate.
Equally important is the wonderful tawny sandy soils so perfect
for producing outstanding spirits. The region was once part of
a deep ocean channel which left deposits of sand and marine sediment
above the clay layers. While most plants thrive on a rich, clay-based
soil, vines flourish in sandy soil. These sandy soils drain and
heat quickly and produce grapes with the higher acidity levels
required to produce the very finest Armagnac.
How do grape varieties impact the Armagnac?
The three major grape varieties in the Bas Armagnac region are
Bacco, Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche. Prior to the late 1800’s,
Folle Blanch was the primary grape variety grown to produce Armagnac.
Armagnac made from Folle Blanche tends to mature early and have
a light, fine texture with a fresh and fruity flavor and floral
aromatics. It is sometimes described as having feminine characteristics.
Nearly all the vines in Armagnac were destroyed by the phylloxera
epidemic at the end of the nineteenth century.
Bacco is a hybrid that was developed by a local school teacher
named Francois Bacco from Folle Blanche and Noah, an American grape,
and has produced much of the very fine Armagnac over the last century. The
spirit produced by Bacco develops more slowly, but after 10 -12
years produces a rich, full bodied and complex flavor with a bouquet
that typically suggests dried fruit. It has more masculine traits.
Ugni Blanc, the grape used to produce essentially all Cognac,
is less powerful than Bacco and less aromatic than Folle Blanche,
but provides structure and tends to accentuate the spice flavors
from the oak barrels. It is rarely used alone in making the finer
Armagnacs but performs an important role in blending with the other
more dominant grapes. In combination, these three grape varieties
produce the world’s finest brandy.
How is Armagnac distilled?
The objective of all distillation is to heat wine until it produces
steam, capture the flavorants in that steam in a pure and unaltered
fashion, and then reconvert the steam to a liquid spirit called “eau
de vie.” Armagnac is traditionally distilled a single time in a
continuous still known as an Alambic Armagnacais. These ancient
copper stills — ungainly copper contraptions that are frequently
mounted on wheels and can be seen on the country roads throughout
Gascony in the winter as the “distillateurs” go from vineyard to
vineyard distilling each vineyard’s production at the domaine — retain
many of the flavorants and aromatics that other stills eliminate.
The distillation of Armagnac is both science and art. Under the
watchful eye of the distillateur, the wine enters the alambic and
warms slowly as it rises through a column intersected with copper
coils containing the cooling eau de vie. When it reaches the top
of the first column the wine passes into the main column where
it cascades down through a number of artfully constructed plates.
As it reaches the bottom of the main column, it begins to evaporate
due to the carefully maintained temperature. The rising alcoholic
vapors are thereby forced into contact with the incoming wine enhancing
the fruit elements so dramatic in Armagnac. As the enhanced vapors
reach the top of the main column they flow into the coils where
they cool as they descend through the first column, thereby warming
the incoming wine and completing the magical cycle of a continuous
The eau de vie leaves the alambic in a slow but steady stream
ready to enter a new oak barrel handcrafted from French oak where
the next stage of its journey begins. The use of the single distillation
process to distill Armagnac is perhaps the single most important
factor in setting Armagnac apart from other brandies. Double-distillation
is typically used to produce Cognac, calvados, whiskey and other
Although more time consuming and requiring more aging than spirits
produced with the double-distillation process, the single distillation
process used to produce Armagnac results in a lower alcohol spirit
(typically 52-55% as compared to more than 70%) which retains more
of the wine’s aromas and character. This richer spirit is reflected
in the greater complexity and fuller-bodied taste of mature Armagnac
and captures the essence of the region itself. Distilling to a
lower degree also eliminates the need to dilute the final product
with the addition of water thereby permitting Loujan Bas Armagnacs
to be bottled at cask strength through a natural process resulting
in the evaporation of the alcohol while it ages in the barrel.
How is Armagnac aged?
The eau-de-vie goes directly from the alambic to barrels carefully
crafted from French oak until it matures many years later. The
barrels are themselves works of art handcrafted by experienced
tonneliers in the region. The trees used for making barrels are
typically 100 - 150 years old and only approximately 10% of the
wood of each tree can be used for barrels. After the tree is harvested
and the proper sections cut into staves, they are air dried for
Once the staves are properly dried, they are planed and assembled
into a barrel holding 400 - 440 liters of spirit. The barrels are
held together solely by metal hoops; no nails or glue are used.
The cooper then stimulates the sweet components of the barrel by
lightly toasting the inside of the barrel with a slow burning fire.
This toasting plays a critical role in the development of fine
Armagnac as it gives color to the spirit and activates the vanilla
scents and other flavors in the wood that ultimately give such
wonderful nuances to the mature Armagnac.
How does Armagnac evolve as it ages?
The Armagnac is clear as it comes out of the alambic and goes
to the barrel. Slowly the oak does its work as it imparts tannin
and the spirit begins taking on a golden hue. As the Armagnac ages,
evaporation occurs. This loss is referred to as the angel’s share
(“la part d’ange”), and generally results in the loss of 1-3% per
year. Depending on the level of humidity in the chai in which the
barrels are stored the alcohol content is naturally reduced by
as much as ½ percent per year.
The Armagnac is constantly monitored and tasted to make sure
that it is transferred from the new barrels to older barrels at
the optimum time. These older barrels provide a more neutral home
for the Armagnac. During this stage, the color will continue to
darken, albeit more slowly, and the aromatic flavors derived from
the wood become increasingly integrated with the fruit. While
aging, the Armagnac may be periodically aerated to increase oxygen
contact with the spirit.
By the time the Armagnac has aged 8 - 12 years it has acquired
an attractive amber color, the fruit aromas have intensified, and
the natural sweetness has become evident. As the aging process
continues, typically from 12 - 25 years, preserved fruit flavors
arrive, the spirit becomes richer and more complex and the finish
lengthens. Many consider this to be the optimum period of aging
for fine Armagnac, although, as with the very best wines, each
spirit will age differently according to its individual character.
How to enjoy Armagnac? The first goal of tasting Armagnac is
pleasure, so it is important not to become so focused on the techniques
of tasting that they distract from the enjoyment of this unique
experience. It is also important to remember that when one first
tastes Armagnac, the heat of the alcohol briefly anaesthetizes
the taste buds and masks the flavor.
At this stage oxygen is Armagnac’s best friend, so it is important
to allow your Armagnac to breath. Sipping it slowly greatly enhances
the experience. Relax and enjoy, a good Armagnac will conjure up
all the wonderful qualities of Gascony — its people, its traditions,
and its legends.
The first impression of an Armagnac is its color. Look for a
beautiful golden amber color that is pleasing to the eye. Note
also the clarity and intensity of the color. Armagnac is intensely
aromatic, a fact most people find one of its most pleasing characteristics.
And the aromas are as diverse as they are intense. Some of the
most common aromas are fruit (ripe, dried and preserved orange,
prune, quince, apricot, apple, pear), spices (vanilla, cocoa, cinnamon,
mint, pepper), toasted (coffee, coconut, tobacco, leather), almond
and hazelnuts, wood (oak, cedar, hickory), herbal (fern, mint,
jasmine, tea) and floral (dried flowers).
After a first nose without aeration, swirling the Armagnac lightly
in the glass to aerate it will emphasize the aromas that can be
enjoyed by placing the nose about an inch above the rim of the
glass. One should never artificially heat Armagnac and while it
is a pleasant ritual to warm the glass with one’s hand it increases
the release of alcohol and often causes the alcohol aromas to surface
before those of the fruit.
Tasting an Armagnac is a very personal experience with several
different aspects. Sip it delicately, particularly at first, as
the alcohol may be a little strong initially. The second tasting
is much more flavorful. The remarkable amount of fruit a good Armagnac
possesses is truly magical.
But there are several other aspects to one’s enjoyment of fine
Armagnac, all difficult to describe with the written language. Armagnacs
differ, for example, in weight and texture — they differ from light
to medium and full bodied and can be chosen according to one’s
individual preferences. But, as Francis Darroze has often emphasized, “The
important thing when tasting these brandies is … the roundness
in your mouth.”
Armagnacs also differ in intensity, but all fine Armagnacs exhibit
a remarkable richness and complexity. And the best Armagnacs reflect
a balance and finesse, a complex equilibrium between the fruit,
alcohol and tannin.
Finally, there is the finish, which is to many one of the most
critical elements of the Armagnac experience. Good Armagnacs have
a lengthy finish. The finish begins after you have swallowed the
Armagnac and it tells you much about the purity of the Armagnac,
its concentration and balance. It is one’s final impression of
the Armagnac and ideally leaves the taster with a pleasant reminder
of all that has gone before.
What glassware is best for Armagnac?
The brandy snifter is the most common glassware used for Armagnac.
However, more recently the advantages of using a tulip shaped glass
have been recognized. Ideally, whatever glass is used, it should
not be too large and should taper in at the top to concentrate
How should Armagnac be stored?
Unlike wine, once Armagnac enters the bottle it stops evolving
and may be stored indefinitely. Because alcohol attacks the cork,
Armagnac should be stored in an upright position. Armagnac is a
live spirit that reacts to oxygen, so it is wise to always put
the top back on the bottle after pouring.
How to read Armagnac labels?
Armagnac labels are generally very similar to wine labels, but
there are a few differences. The most notable difference is typically
the age statement on the label; a “V.S.” has been aged for a minimum
of two years, a “V.S.O.P.,” “VO,” “Reserve,” or “Reserve Speciale” for
at least five years and a “Napoleon,” “X.O.,” “Vielle Reserve” or “Extra” six
years. An “Hors d’age Armagnac” has spent at least 10 years in
To avoid confusing nomenclature, some Armagnacs are now labeled
to indicate the youngest spirit in the bottle. Thus, if a bottle
is age labeled “10” or “20” years, one is guaranteed that the youngest
spirit in the bottle was aged in oak for no less than the number
of years indicated. Vintage labeled Armagnacs identifying a specific
year must contain spirit made from grapes harvested exclusively
during the year indicated on the label. To be labeled “Bas-Armagnac,” the
bottle must contain only spirit made from grapes grown and distilled
in the Bas-Armagnac region. A bottle labeled “Armagnac” can contain
grapes grown or distilled in any of the Armagnac regions.
How do Armagnacs and Cognacs differ?
While Armagnac is the older of the two brandies, the isolation
of the Armagnac region and the lack of access to a seaport took
it on a much different historical path than Cognac. Cognac capitalized
early on its locational advantages and profited greatly from international
trade, particularly with the British and Dutch markets. A handful
of large Cognac houses grew dramatically, and established recognized
brand names in the international markets.
By contrast, Armagnac was primarily consumed in France. It is
reported that while one bottle of Armagnac is sold in France for
every three bottles of Cognac, in the United States the ratio is
one to 150. To this day Armagnac remains a craft industry with
small, artisanal producers using historic production methods and
little or no advertising or international marketing.
By contrast, the annual output of each of the large Cognac houses
dwarfs the entire output of Armagnac. Cognac’s losses through evaporation
are nearly four times greater than Armagnac’s entire production
each year. It is has been said that it is easy to understand the
difference between Armagnac and Cognac if one thinks of Cognac
as industrially produced worsted cloth and of Armagnac as hand
woven Harris Tweed. However one characterizes the differences,
they are significant and readily explained by the different grape
varieties, terroir, and distillation process.
Armagnac is produced from several different grape varieties—primarily
Bacco, Folle Blanche and Ugni Blanc--grown in sandy soil and warm
temperature. Cognac is produced almost exclusively from Ugni Blanc,
grown in chalky soil with mild temperatures. Armagnac is single-distilled
to a low per cent alcohol (52-55%) while Cognac is double-distilled
to a much higher per cent of alcohol (68-74%). The better Armagnacs
are marketed at their natural cask strength, while Cognac is typically
reduced to 40% alcohol by the addition of water.
In terms of taste, Armagnac is typically richer and fuller bodied
and shows more primary fruit. It is dominated by dried fruit flavors
(orange, plum, quince and apricot), with hints of vanilla, leather,
almonds, and hickory, while Cognac’s fruit is lighter and more
floral. The interaction of Armagnac with the oak barrels typically
produces flavors emphasizing vanilla, caramel, toffee, bourbon
and pepper; in Cognac it more commonly produces spice and herbal
notes. Armagnac is normally more aromatic with smoky and earthy
overtones whereas cognac’s aromas are more muted due to the dilution
from adding water.
And while the better Armagnacs emphasize the differences between
vineyards and vintages, the large Cognac houses typically blend
spirits from a variety of sources to achieve a consistent product
from year to year.
While much mystery remains regarding the early history of Armagnac,
it is clear that it was developed for medicinal purposes. A treatise
dated in 1441 describes more than 30 medicinal uses of Armagnac
and another early treatise recognized Armagnac as “an elixir of
life.” Over the last ten years there has been increasing attention
to the so-called “French Paradox,” referring to the fact that although
the French consume far more saturated animal fat than Americans
do, they experience much lower rates of coronary heart disease
Numerous worldwide studies have documented the fact that moderate
drinkers of alcoholic beverages, particularly red wine, have a
lower incidence of a variety of diseases than nondrinkers. What
is less well known is the fact that the “French Paradox” also exists
within France; areas in Southwestern France where Armagnac consumption
is greatest have a coronary mortality rate as much as one-third
lower than that in Northern France.
ARMAGNAC: The Definitive Guide to France’s Premier Brandy, by
Charles Neal (1998; Flame Grape Press, 710 8th Avenue, San Francisco,
CA 94118 USA) (English).
LE GUIDE DE L’AMATEUR D’ARMAGNAC, by Fernand Cousteaux and Pierre
Casamayor (1985; Daniel Briand-Robert Laffont, 5, Rue Saint-Pantaleon,
Toulouse, France) (French).