Southwest France is a treasure chest of history to be discovered and one of its oldest riches is the noble brandy Armagnac.
Armagnac is France’s most time-honoured spirit that was first recognised in 1310 when Prior Vital Dufour vaunted the 40 virtues of this eau-de-vie (known as the water of immortality because of the preservative effect it had on anything on an organic nature) in his ‘Very useful book for keeping in good health and staying on top form’, the oldest testament to the production and consumption of an eau-de-vie in France that is now kept in the Vatican library in Rome. At that time, Aygue Ardente (Armagnac) was consumed for its medicinal and therapeutic qualities.
The Armagnac region covers the whole of the Gers department and parts of the Landes and Lot-et-Garonne. It is a rural and quite sparsely populated area made up of small mixed farms where sunflowers grow tall, Blonde d’Aquitaine cattle graze and ducks outnumber the people.
There is no industry to speak of here and Armagnac houses are small family businesses, each one handcrafting this extraordinarily diverse spirit that has a fine reputation among connoisseurs around the world.
The growing of vines in this region dates back to Roman times as the superb mosaics with wreaths of grapes and leaves at the Gallo-Roman villa in Seviac, Gers, bear witness. At one time, this was the largest grape growing region in France with 100,000 hectares of vines, though only a quarter were replanted following the scourge of Phylloxera in around 1866.
Three production zones for Armagnac were defined in 1909: Bas Armagnac in the west, Armagnac Tenarèze in the centre and Haut Armagnac in the south and east. 5,200 hectares of vines are used in the production of Armagnac and on a map the 3 areas quite naturally form a vineyard shaped like a vine leaf.
Armagnac achieved its AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée) status in 1936 and the grapes to be used in its production were specified. 10 grape varieties are authorised in its production: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, Baco, Plant de Graisse, Jurançon, Mauzac Rosé, Mauzac Blanc, Meslier St François and Clairette de Gascogne, though the first 4 are the principal grapes used today.
The grapes are harvested in late September or October and the wine is made. The wine is quite fragile as nothing is allowed to be added to it to protect it, like sulphur that is used to preserve wines for drinking, so the winegrower is looking for a wine that is low in alcohol and high in acidity which is the best combination for wines destined to be distilled.
Once the wine is ready after fermentation, it will be distilled using an Armagnac alambic, a still specifically used in 95% of Armagnac production (double distillation is also permitted in Armagnac and was reintroduced in 1972). The Alambic Armagnacais is a hand rolled copper apparatus that was first patented in 1818 and can be fired by wood or gas. Every alambic is unique and 25% of Armagnac ‘continuous’ alambics are still wood fired whilst the rest use gas. Only 60 Armagnac houses own their own alambic so the others use what is known as an Armagnac ambulant, a roving alambic owned by a distiller that travels from estate to estate. When the Armagnac distillation ‘La Flamme de l’Armagnac’ begins at the end of October, it is quite a common sight to see the alambics being transported on the roads throughout the region.
On leaving the alambic, the clear and perfumed eau-de-vie that is at around 55% – 65% abv is put into new oak barrels of 400 litres. These are called ‘pièces’ in Armagnac and the oak, that is recognized as the most notable wood for its tannins and aromas, often comes from the forests of Gascony. The eau-de-vie will stay in these barrels for anything from 6 months to 2 years, where it will take on its lovely amber colour with time and the aromas from the wood. Three very important phenomena occur in the cellar: the extraction of tannins from the barrel, the evaporation called the angel’s share and the evolution of the aromas coming from the wood and the eau-de-vie through slow oxidation of the Armagnac in contact with the air through the barrel.
One of the cellar master’s jobs is to decide when the Armagnac has taken on enough wood after which he will transfer it to another barrel that has been exhausted of its tannins. Once Armagnac is bottled it will stop ageing unlike wine.
In Armagnac you can find many different ages in blends and vintages. The typical blends are VSOP (youngest Armagnac in the blend must be a minimum of 4 years old), XO (minimum of 6 years old), Hors d’Age (minimum of 10 years old)
Vintages are specific to Armagnac and must be at least 10 years old. They are the product of only the harvest of the year marked on the label and often given as the perfect gift to celebrate a birth, wedding or other special anniversary.
Armagnac is a very diverse spirit and no two are the same. It is ideal drunk as a traditional digestive though also lends itself to being served on ice as an aperitif or in cocktails.
By Amanda Garnham, who runs Glamour and Gumboots.
Photos courtesy of the BNIA (Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac)