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What you need to know about ARMAGNAC

F. PAUL PACULT'S SPIRIT JOURNAL - Issue 1 - Web Site: www.spiritjournal.com - E-mail: mail@spiritjournal.com - 02 March 2006

This issue's cover story focuses on France's oldest, most individual, most perplexing, most erratic, and most controversial brandy, Armagnac. As a spirits critic in the early 1990s, I first got to know France's
other grape brandy, Cognac, mainly because there was so much more Cognac than Armagnac in the North American marketplace. By the late 1990s my experience with Armagnac advanced by leaps and bounds as [ received samples from noted U.S. importers, most importantly, Henry Preiss, Paul Joseph, and Charles Neal, author of the good if difficult to read book Armagnac: The Definitive Guide to France's Premier Brandy. As I sampled my way through the complex world of Armagnac, I realized that this was a spirits category of huge, if largely untapped, merit and potential.
This past November, I visited Gascony, home of Armagnac, in France's southwest with my wife, SJ Managing Editor Sue Woodley, for an intensive four-day sojourn that helped broaden my understanding and appreciation of this world-class brandy. Producers visited included Gélas, Marquis de Montesquiou, Chateau du Tariquet, Francis Darroze, Les Armagnacs Contemporains, Chateau de Laubade, Clés des Ducs, Janneau, Chateau du Busca Maniban, Larressingle, Delord, Chateau de Briat, Castarède, Domaine d'Espérance, Cames and Baron de Sigognac. We also stopped by a local cooper, Tonnellerie Bartholomo, who supplies many of the region's brandy producers with oak barrels.
Over the ninety-six jam-packed hours, we sampled over 90 bottled and still-in-barrel Armagnacs...as well as at least 100 ways to serve canard (duck), the ubiquitous regional delicacy. Sue and I returned home impressed by the broad spectrum of Armagnac styles, aromas, flavors and textures... and vowed not to eat duck in any form for the next three years. That said, it is also fair to state that while I liked probably two-thirds of the Armagnacs sampled, there were more than a few brandies that I thought were feeble, too old and/or musty, crafted in styles that I didn't care for, or just plain poorly made. Even though Armagnac has been produced in Gascony since the early 1400s, in my mind, it is still a work-in-progress and, therefore, offers towering spikes and fathomless pits in quality.
But there was much more to be learned just by spending time with the region's distillers, growers, and negociants. In terms of global sales and visibility, Armagnac is woefully behind its intramural spirits rival Cognac. What the Cognaçais do far better than the Armagnaçais is, one, provide a more consistently sound product and, two, offer easier access both to Cognac and to understanding French brandy, in general, through aggressive, con-temporary, and well-organized marketing. Though some mistaken and out-of-touch members of the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l'Armagnac (BNIA) seem to feel that remaining an arcane oddity heightens their brandy's "mystique," in fact, the category's relative obscurity only serves to constrain it in an era of unlimited possibilities.
Sadly, what undermines Armagnac even more insidiously is the lack of cohesion and resolve among the producers through the BNIA to address their distant runner-up position in a constructive, positive, and forward-looking way. To change their fortunes, the BNIA needs to take Armagnac to the world, in particular, to North America. Many North American consumers think Armagnac is a type of Cognac and not a historically important brandy category in its own right.
That reality needs to be remedied by the BNIA. Where is the wisdom in staying Cognac's frustrated brides-maid when Armagnac could become Cognac's viable and vigorous competitor? The world will not come to Gascony, no matter how beautifully bucolic it is.
There is one truth that holds firm regarding Armagnac, though, when compared to its more famous cousin: The breadth of Armagnac's roster of characteristics is deeper and more exciting than that owned - or more accurately, offered - by Cognac. (One can't help but wonder why the Cognaçais play it so boringly safe with
their staggering arsenal of wonderful old brandies. Blend, blend, blend = Bland, bland, bland.) When Armagnac is in full flight, especially as exhibited by top-drawer producers/negociants like Francis Darroze, Chateau de Laubade, Chateau du Busca Maniban, Castarède, Delord, Janneau, Marquis de Montesquiou, and Gélas, it can be every bit as breathtaking a sensory experience as the world's most complex consumable distillate, single malt Scotch whisky. Regrettably, too few U.S. consumers are even aware of Armagnac.
Last, for those SJ subscribers who hanker to travel to Gascony to experience Armagnac in its home arena, Sueand I strongly recommend that you lodge at Le Tuco in St. Orens Pouy-Petit, a mere 7 kilometers from Con-dom in the department of Gers (telephone from the U.S. is 011-33-562-283950; email is le.tuco@wanadoo.fr). Dining is very nice indeed at Chateau Bellevue Hotel-Restaurant in Cazaubon (011-33-562-095195; chateau.bellevue@voila.fr) and La Table des Cordeliers in Condom (011-33-562-684 382).
But enough of my blathering... Here in ten digestible gulps is pivotal information that every serious spirits consumer should know about Armagnac.

SI Armagnac Fact #1: France boasts three types-of fruit brandies from three officially demarcated brandy-making (Appellation d'Origine Controlée, or AOC) zones: Calvados (apples/Normandy in northwest France), Cognac (grapes/Charente in the west-central region of France) and Armagnac (grapes/Gascony in the southwest of France). Produced at least since the early 15th century and therefore France's oldest brandy, Armagnac is an oak barrel-aged distillate (eau-de-vie) produced from grape wine.

SJ Armagnac Fact #2: There are three brandy districts in Gascony: Bas-Armagnac, whose capital is the town of Eauze, constitutes roughly 57% of total Armagnac brandy production and is famous for its sandy/silty soils which typically produce more delicate, fruity and elegant brandies; Tenarèze Armagnac, with the town of Condom as its hub, accounts for 40% and is known widely for its clay/limestone soils that make hearty, full-bodied and long-lasting brandies; and Haut-Armagnac which contributes but 3% from its limestone soils.

SJ Armagnac Fact #3: Ten grape types are permitted for the production of Armagnac. Primary grape varieties are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Baco 22A, Colombard. Secondary, and far less employed varieties, include Mauzac Blanc, Mauzac Rosé, Plainte de Grèce, Meslier St. François, Jurançon Blanc and Clairette de Gascogne. Some producers focus on a single variety, like Chateau du Busca that produces only brandy made from Ugni Blanc grapes in Tenaréze Armagnac.

SJ Armagnac Fact #4: At the present time, 15,000 hectares, or 37,065 acres, of vineyards in Gascony are devoted to the making of Armagnac, Vin de Pays Cotes de Gascogne (table wines) and Floc, Armagnac's lovely aperitif.

SJ Armagnac Fact #5: Currently, there are 4,000 winegrowers in Gascony, of which approximately 250 produce and bottle Armagnac. There are also 40 negociants, or entrepreneurs who pur-chase Armagnac from grower/distillers and age and bottle Armagnac under their own label.

SJ Armagnac Fact #6: Each year between 9 and 10 million bottles of Armagnac are produced in Gascony. A whopping 65% is sold within France while the balance of 35% is exported to over 130 nations.

SJ Armagnac Fact #7: Distillation is carried out mostly in November and
December of the harvest year once fermentation is completed. Armagnac distillation is unique, in that, 95% of the growers have their wines distilled in the traditional, two-column, continuously running, single distillation system known as Alambic Armagnaçais. By stark contrast, Cognac producers employ the Alambic Charentaise system of double distillation in small batches in copper pot stills. Single distillation creates brandies that are fuller and more robust than those derived from double distillation because more of the base material components remain in the brandy.

SJ Armagnac Fact #8: Some Alambic Armagnaçais stills are operated by roving distillers, who service grape growers by bringing their stills-onwheels directly to the client, distill their wines, then move on to the next client. The spirit that is produced by the stills is clear, ranging from 52% to 72% alcohol.

SJ Armagnac Fact #9: Maturation and mellowing are achieved by placing the new, raw spirit from the still into 400-420 liter oak barrels for at least two years. Black oak from the Gascon for-est of Monlezun is the optimum and customary choice, but oak from the forests of Limousin, Tronçais or Allier are likewise used. Oak trees are allowed to grow for as long as a century before they are cut down and used for barrel staves. Because oak is porous, a certain amount of evaporation occurs. In balmy Gascony the loss of spirit to the air usually happens at an annual rate of between 2% and 5%. Barrels are expensive, currently costing 600 Euros each.

SJ Armagnac Fact #10: Label designations for Armagnac are as follows: V.S. = minimum of two years in oak barrels; V.S.O.P. = at least 5 years; X.O. = at least 6 years; Hors d'Age = 10 years or more. Vintage Armagnacs are always made from the grapes of one vintage as indicated on the label. Other bottlings cite specific ages, such as 15 Ans (Years Old), 20 Ans, et cetera.


New brandy reviews


ARMAGNAC France

Château du Busca XO N2 1 Ténarèze Armagnac
(France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 40% abv, $85.
The color looks like newly tanned leather, a burnished brown/topaz hue that's unblemished in its purity. In the first nosings, I pick up soft but sturdy aromas of dried yellow fruit, buttered almonds, and orange blossom; an additional six minutes of air exposure offers the chance for more floral scents to be appreciated, including jasmine and honeysuckle; an understated bouquet that hints rather than dictates. The palate entry is lusciously oily, semisweet, and buttery while the mid-palate stage highlights the oak, cocoa, black tea, and walnut paste. Finishes gracefully, semisweet, and tightly structured. Elegance in a glass.
Spirit Journal Rating: ****/Highly Recommended

Château du Busca Hors d'Age Cigare Ténarèze Armagnac
(France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 40% abv, $75.
The color of this brandy is a brilliant reddish copper/henna hue; impeccable clarity. The initial aromas offer woody, nutty scents that meld beautifully over the span of two minutes; the extra aeration period of seven minutes sees the aroma become a more expressive and integrated bouquet as lovely fragrances of baked pear, mince meat, pine sap, and pipe tobacco make for thrilling sniffing. The palate entry tastes of dried red fruits, maple sugar, and pine; at midpalate, the flavor pro-file is laced with succulent tastes of maple, pear in brandy, sap, oaky vanilla, and pipe smoke. The aftertaste is every bit as fulfilling and gratifying as the sensational late bouquet and mid-palate. A defining Tenarèze moment.
Spirit Journal Rating: *****/Highest Recommendation & Best Buy


Château du Busca Hors d'Age 15 Ans (Years Old) Ténarèze Armagnac
(France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 40% abv, $99.
The solid brown/topaz/sorrel color bewitches the eye; ideal clarity. The wonderfully zesty aroma is spiced with nutmeg, black pepper, lemon, and thyme in the opening two minutes; later inhalations following aeration highlight tightly wound notes of margarine, lanolin, dark caramel, buttery oak, and holiday fruitcake. The palate entry is rich, creamy, and honeyed; at midpalate, there's a strong sense of older spirit in the overall woody/creamy flavor that smacks of rancio beginnings. Finishes semisweet, cocoa- and maple sugar-like, and in-tensely oaky. A musketeer's mouthful of robust, mature, and, most pleasing of all, gentlemanly brandy.
Spirit Journal Rating: *****/Highest Recommendation & Best Buy


Château du Busca 1985 Ténarèze Armagnac
(France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 43% abv, $129.
The color beams under the examination lamp in bright shades of bronze/burnished orange; absolute purity. The early aromatic emphasis is on toasty, vanilla-laden oak; further exposure to air stimulates more can-died, smoky scents, especially toffee, marzipan, and coffee-flavored hard candy that as a team accent the wood/oak core aroma; a hugely complex network of smells. The palate entry is stunningly sophisticated, semi-sweet, cola-like, toffee-like, and down-right spectacular; at midpalate, the richness level reaches stratospheric heights as the broad flavor profile offers totally integrated tastes of nougat, roasted chestnuts, dark chocolate, orange rind, and treacle. Finishes with a deft touch of budding rancio. Holy-moly, this one is an instant classic.
Spirit Journal Rating: *****/Highest Recommendation


Chateau du Busca 1975 Tenarèze Armagnac
(France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA) 41% abv, $170.
Appearance is a dazzling, brilliant copper color; flawless clarity. In the initial inhalations, the fruit component dominates, mostly in the forms of dried cherry and baked banana; additional aeration brings a fine acidity to underpin the fruity ripeness; the very final sniff detects the lovely woody, slightly spicy scent of oak. The palate entry is elegant, off-dry to bittersweet, tannic, and focused on the dried fruit element; at midpalate, the taste profile offers slightly restrained flavors of spice, honey wheat toast, raisins, and prunes. Finishes as smoothly and seamlessly as it starts. Superior distilling, barrel selection, and aging make this a winner.
Spirit Journal Rating: ****/Highly Recommended

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