What is Armagnac
What exactly is Armagnac, you may ask? For those unfamiliar, Armagnac is a type of brandy that originates from the Armagnac region of Gascony, located in the heart of Southwestern France. As lovers of French premium drinks, we at BonjourDrinks can tell you that Armagnac is France's first brandy, and is renowned for its complex aromas and long finish that is adored by true connoisseurs.
- Armagnac vs. Cognac
- Armagnac Region
- Growth Areas of Armagnac
- What is Armagnac made of?
- Production process
- Armagnac age categories
- The Taste of Armagnac
- How to enjoy Armagnac
- Armagnacs in our shop
It is often compared to Cognac, which is its closest relative, but the two are quite distinct in terms of soil type, climate, grapes, distillation methods, aging techniques, and taste. The history of Armagnac dates back to Roman times, when the region was inhabited by various tribes that were conquered by the Romans. One of the soldiers, Hermann, was given a large piece of land in the region as a reward for his bravery. The territory was later named Hermanius, which was shortened to Arminius and then, over time, became Armagnac.
Today, the Armagnac region is a picturesque agricultural area that is famous for producing high-quality eau de vie. The region's inhabitants are closely connected to the earth and depend on its products for their livelihood. While many small independent producers sell their product only at their domaines and do not export, they form the backbone of the Armagnac region and give it its unique soul.
At BonjourDrinks, we believe that Armagnac is one of the most beautiful eau-de-vies in the world, and we're proud to offer a wide range of Armagnacs for the fine spirit connoisseur.
We're committed to giving these small independent producers a voice in a marketplace that is often dominated by mediocre commercial products that do nothing to enhance the image of Armagnac.
Armagnac vs Cognac
The major similarities between the two French brandies rest in the fact that both Armagnac and Cognac are made from grapes and aged in oak barrels. However, there are a few significant differences to recognise too. Armagnac is typically made from a blend of white grapes, while Cognac is made from a blend of white and black grapes. What is more, Armagnac can be aged in barrels that are made from a variety of different oak, while Cognac is aged in barrels made from Limousin oak. It is these key differences that give
Armagnac its distinct flavor and character that sets it apart from Cognac in its own right. Armagnac’s production region and distillation processes also differ from Cognac. For example, one of the unique aspects of Armagnac production is the use of a single continuous still rather than the double distillation process used in the production of Cognac. The Armagnac method allows producers to gain greater control over the process and results in a spirit with a more complex flavor profile.
Learn more about Cognac and the difference to Armagnac.
The main differences between Armagnac and Cognac
The most important takeaways when it comes to understanding the similarities and differences between the two are as follows:
- They are both brandies produced in Southwest France
- Cognac is double distilled, Armagnac is single distilled
- The process of aeration is often carried out during the maturation of Armagnac F
- ar more Cognac is produced than Armagnac (217 million bottles vs. 6 million bottles in 2019).
- Both have AOC status and their own ruling bodies
- Cognac has a global presence. Armagnac is not so commonly found outside of France (we are working on that!)
- Armagnac is commonly bottled and labeled according to its year of vintage
- There are no huge producers of Armagnac (at least not yet)—most are small craft producers. Compared to the huge Cognac producers such as Hennessy, Remy Martin or Martell.
A Region Rich in Tradition: Gascony, Home of Armagnac
Armagnac is produced in Gascony, a region renowned for its goose and duck specialities – and like many parts of France, priding itself on its seasonal way of life and living off the land. Rest assured, wherever you go in Gascony, you can be sure to find a goose, duck and Armagnac offering on the menu.
Governed by appellation regulations, the Armagnac region covers Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Ténarèze and Haut-Armagnac as defined in 1909. More recently, Blanche d’Armagnac now permits the production and export of clear, unaged spirits.
Gascony is a region in southwest France, located between the Pyrenees mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. The region is well known for its production of Armagnac, a type of brandy made from a blend of white wines. The best Armagnac comes from the eastern part of the region, near the town of Condom.
Here, the combination of the warm climate and the soil of the area create the perfect conditions for producing the spirit. The soil in Gascony is composed of limestone, clay, and sand, and the climate is generally warm and sunny, with plenty of rain during the winter months. This combination of soil and climate helps to create the perfect conditions for the white grapes used in Armagnac production. The grapes used in Armagnac are Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, and Colombard. These grapes are high in acidity and low in sugar, which makes them ideal for creating a spirit with a complex flavor. Gascony is also known for its rolling hills and forests, which provide the perfect backdrop for the Armagnac production process.
The area is also known for its traditional Gascon cuisine, which often features game meats, such as duck, partridge, and venison. All of these elements come together to create the perfect setting for producing Armagnac.
Origins of Armagnac people
As we explore the history of Armagnac, we discover a land with a rich and varied past. What is today known as the Armagnac region has been controlled by different nations and empires throughout its history. The Roman Empire once ruled over the entire Aquitaine area, with important towns such as Eauze, Auch, and Aire-sur-l'Adour. The region also saw intermittent invasions by barbarians between the seventh and eleventh centuries, leaving some towns and villages devastated. During subsequent centuries, the British/Acquitanian presence was strong, with walled villages or bastides built to protect against peasant upheavals. The 10th century saw the development of villages like Eauze and Condom, while the 11th and 13th centuries saw the construction of castles represented by black circles on maps. Despite the challenges of history, the Armagnac people have persisted and thrived, creating a unique and flavorful spirit that has come to define the region.
Famous Gascons & Armagnacais
Come, join us on a journey through history as we explore the lives of some of Gascony's most celebrated figures. From the legendary King Henry IV to the valiant musketeer D'Artagnan, this is a tale of bravery, patriotism, and heroism.
Henry IV, born in 1553 in the foothills of the Pyrenees, was a complex man. His father was a devout Catholic, while his mother, Jeanne d' Albret, was a Protestant and Queen of Navarre. As King of Navarre, Henry IV led the Hugenots in their struggle against the French Roman Catholics. But Henry IV was not a die-hard Protestant, and he converted to Catholicism several times for political reasons. After becoming France's king, he won over his subjects with his calm rule, peaceful resolution with Spain, and his love of life's simple pleasures. Henry IV's famous pledge that every family in his kingdom would have a chicken in their pot every Sunday endeared him to his people. In 1599, he issued Europe's first long-lasting proclamation for religious tolerance, ending France's numerous civil wars.
D'Artagnan, the most famous musketeer of Gascony, was born Charles de Batz in 1615 at Chateau de Castelmore near Lupiac. He served with the French guards in Paris and became part of the King's Musketeers at age 42. D'Artagnan was known for his bravery and his humanitarian relations with those who served under him. He led troops during the Fronde War, the siege of Dunkerque, and accompanied the royal convoy to St. Jean-de-Luz for the marriage of Louis XIV to the Princess of Spain. D'Artagnan, a true hero of Gascony, died at age 62 in battle against Holland. The Armagnacais, renowned for their bravery and patriotism, were added by King Louis XIII to his Company of the King's Musketeers, an elite military regiment authorized to carry muskets. These soldiers from the region accompanied every subsequent French king to battle after Henry IV's rule, heroically defending the French royalty while under constant fire.
As we reflect on the lives of these famous Gascons throughout history, we're reminded of the enduring legacy they left behind. From the complexity of Henry IV's rule to D'Artagnan's bravery, these heroes continue to inspire and captivate us to this day.
Taylor about the Armagnac region and Aurian A25
Growth Areas of Armagnac
As we explore the Armagnac region, we can see the striking link between the soil and the vines that grow in it. The region was once part of a deep channel that flowed between the Pyrénées and the Massif Central, which formed over millions of years while the ocean that covered Southwestern France gradually relocated. The valleys created crevices that developed as the currents of water shifted, and the submerged rubble gradually transformed into layers of clay as the water flowed through the valleys.
Armagnac has different growth areas like Cognac. Armagnac is divided into three areas: Bas-Armagnac, Ténarèze, and Haut-Armagnac. All three together constitute a 15,000 hectare vineyard (shared with the IGP Côtes de Gascogne and PDO Floc de Gascogne, of which 4200 hectares are exclusively for the production of Armagnac).
The Bas-Armagnac, an area with lower altitude, is a relatively flat area covered in sand and marine sediment, which blows from the immense pine forests nearby. As we move East into the Ténarèze, gentle hills begin to break up the flat expanses of land, and the soil becomes harder with layers of clay. Further east in the Haut-Armagnac, flat land is rare, and parcels of sand are rare, while the limestone content within the clay rises.
The different-sized grains of minerals and organic matter that make up soil play five essential roles for vines: support, nutrients, drainage of water, reflection from the sun, and heat retention at night. Sand is a large-grained soil that drains water rapidly, while other soils are made of smaller material that has been compressed over the years, such as gravel, limestone, or chalk, and drains water slowly, allowing vines a steady water supply. Clay contains the most minute particles of all and allows little room for water to pass, hoarding water underground in stagnant pools.
While most plants thrive on the rich, clay-based soil, it rarely provides the raw ingredients for wines with any delicacy. Instead, vines tend to flourish on land rarely suitable for other plantings - some say the vines must suffer. Different soils retain differing degrees of heat, with compressed soils like clay tending to stay cooler, producing late-ripening grapes. Sand, on the other hand, tends to heat more quickly and provide roots with more growth potential. During cold weather, vines that grow on sand are much more susceptible to frosts, as was evidenced in 1997 when at least 60% of the year's harvest was lost.
Bas-Armagnac is the westernmost region of the Armagnac vineyard, located principally in the Landes department. It is the most extensive terroir, covering 8000 hectares, and was largely spared from phylloxera due to its sandy soils. These soils are composed of pure sand, boulbenes (small pieces of limestone) and sables fauves (tawny-colored, iron-rich sand).
The eaux-de-vie from Bas-Armagnac are light, fruity and delicate. They boast intense aromas of fresh fruit and floral notes, with a lightly tannic and slightly sweet taste. The sandy soils provide the vines with low sugar levels and high acidity, resulting in an elegant and balanced spirit. Bas-Armagnac is the main production area for Armagnac brandy and is perfect for enjoying neat or in a cocktail.
Size: around 8,000 ha
Characteristics: Pine forests, poor and acidic clay loam soils
Armagnac-Ténarèze is the central region of the Armagnac vineyard, located between Bas-Armagnac and Haut-Armagnac. It is the most recent of the appellations, created in 1993, and covers 650 hectares of siliceous soil. This soil is composed of boulbènes and terreforts (clay-limestone soils), which provide the vines with additional nutrients and better water retention.
The resulting eaux-de-vie from Armagnac-Ténarèze are full-bodied and powerful, with intense aromas of spice and dried fruits. They require several decades of ageing in order to reach their peak, and are perfect for special occasions or for collecting. The particularity of this region is that the eaux-de-vie are capable of ageing for a very long time, developing complex and interesting flavours over the years.
Size: around 650 ha
Characteristics: Siliceous soil, clay and limestone
Haut-Armagnac is the southernmost region of the Armagnac vineyard, located along the eastern border of the Ténarèze and the southern border of the Bas-Armagnac. It is the largest appellation in Armagnac, covering 500 hectares, yet very few vines remain due to the flat, limestone parcels being used for other crops such as wheat, soybeans, or irrigated corn. The hills of Haut-Armagnac are of limestone and clay-limestone, whilst the valleys are sometimes covered with boulbènes.
Eaux-de-vie from Haut-Armagnac are best drunk young. They are characterised by fresh, fruity aromas with a hint of spice, and a light, smooth body. This is due to the limestone and clay-limestone soils, which are rich in minerals and provide the vines with plenty of nutrients and water, allowing them to produce wines with higher sugar and lower acidity levels. Haut-Armagnac produces a spirited brandy that is perfect for any occasion, from special occasions to casual gatherings.
Size: largest appellation, but only around 500 ha left for vines
Characteristics: Limestone, clay-limestone
The climate within the Armagnac region is influenced by two significant geographical phenomena that surround it. The Atlantic Ocean to the East often attracts cool winds and rain that ensures temperate weather. The hot air mass that comes up from the Mediterranean Sea hovers over the flat land near Toulouse and crosses Gascony. The Bas-Armagnac receives more rain than the rest of the region, mainly due to its proximity to the ocean. The region generally sees snow only a few times a decade, and rain is more common during the relatively short winter season, always accompanied by plenty of heavy fog. The spring is long and humid, the summer hot and humid, autumn long and sunny, and the winter rainy yet short.
Armagnac producers get nervous during two seasons of the year, the spring and the summer. In April, prematurely warm conditions can cause grapes to bud, and if a spring frost occurs, tremendous amounts of buds can be killed, especially in sandy soil. During late summer, a hail storm could occur, putting ripening grapes in grave danger. However, most years see temperate weather throughout the spring and summer, with sunny conditions persisting into September, ensuring plenty of sun, the most important ingredient for full maturation of armagnac's raw material.
The soil and climate of Armagnac play an essential role in the production of the finest eau de vie. The different soils provide unique characteristics to the vines, leading to different flavors and aromas. The climate, while temperate, can also pose a significant threat to the vines. However, with the right conditions, delicate wines are produced that proceed to distillation, patient aging, and bottling for consumption and maximum enjoyment.
Four Soil Types
As we explore the soils of the Armagnac region, we find four distinct types that shape the character of the spirit. The precise soil characteristics are as follows:
The Sablo-Limoneux, or sandy soil, is a highly acidic terroir that yields grapes with high acidity. The vines grown here produce a spirit that is very round in its youth, while also displaying plenty of finesse. This is one of the soil types found in the Bas-Armagnac.
Sables Fauves, or iron-rich sand, gives this terroir its tawny or light brown color. Grapes grown on this sand show lots of suppleness in their youth along with admirable finesse, similar to sand with less iron. This is one of the soil types found in the Bas-Armagnac.
The Argilo-Sablonneux, or Boulbènes soil, a mixture of sand and clay, yields grapes that show good acidity levels. The traces of clay in this terroir make the soil slightly less susceptible to frost than straight sand. This soil stays slightly cooler than sand, retains a bit more water, and the armagnacs produced from vines grown here tend to express themselves especially well after ten years of aging. This is one of the soil types found in the Ténarèze.
Grapes grown on Argilo-Calcaire, or clay with small pieces of limestone, normally display lower acidity than those grown on sand and remain slightly firm in their youth. The porous nature of limestone stores rainwater and slowly releases it to surrounding vegetation, almost like a natural system of irrigation. The grapes attain slightly higher alcohol levels and armagnacs produced from this soil take a good fifteen years to develop, but they decline very slowly as well. This is one of the soil types found in the Armagnac Ténarèze.
The Haut Armagnac production region consists of predominantly calcaire (limestone) soils.
Fun Facts about Armagnac
- Armagnac is the oldest distilled spirit in the world, with records of its production dating back to the 15th century. The spirit is made from a blend of white wines and is aged in oak barrels, resulting in a complex flavor profile with notes of smoke, nuts, and spices. It is also unique in that it is not a vintage spirit, meaning it is made from a blend of multiple vintages.
- The Armagnac region is home to the Château de Gaube, an 18th-century castle. It is located on the banks of the Gave River and is renowned for its stunning architecture and beautiful gardens. It is also one of the main production sites for Armagnac, with its own distillery and aging cellars.
- The process of Armagnac production is tightly regulated and closely monitored by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIA). The BNIA is responsible for overseeing the production process and ensuring that the spirit meets certain standards of quality. They are also responsible for creating the three distinct growth areas of Armagnac: Bas-Armagnac, Ténarèze, and Haut-Armagnac. Each area has its own set of regulations and guidelines for Armagnac production.
What is Armagnac made of?
Armagnac has historically utilized a wider combination of grapes than Cognac.
Only a few grape varieties are allowed to be used in the production of Armagnac. The most frequently used is Ugni Blanc, which occupies 75% of Armagnac vineyards, followed by a hybrid grape variety, Baco, which is often selected for its resistance and productivity. Used in the minority are the rarer and more fragile Colombard and Folle Blanche grapes.These grapes are high in acidity and low in sugar, which makes them ideal for creating a spirit with a complex flavor.
The vines and grapes
As we venture through Armagnac's terrain, we discover that the spirit's unique character lies in its grape varieties. Unlike Cognac, where the neutral Ugni Blanc dominates, Armagnac's varietals produce a wide range of tastes and textures.
The practice of using different grapes has evolved for over four centuries, and it remains a vital aspect of Armagnac's character.
Around 1600, vineyards were mainly planted with Piquepoult, also known as Folle Blanche. It was the staple Armagnac grape until the time of the phylloxera.
Farmers then preferred grapes like Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Plante de Grèce, which were less susceptible to maladies. Baco was later introduced, revolutionizing the vineyards and becoming a favorite among farmers.
The Baco grape is an interesting one, being a hybrid of the Folle Blanche and Noah varieties. It was developed as a hardy grape following the devastation of European vineyards following the phylloxera crisis in the 19th century and named after its creator, Francois Baco. It’s the only hybrid grape allowed to be used in the production of Armagnac.
In recent years, Ugni Blanc has surpassed Bacco in popularity. Its higher price from négociants is a contributing factor as it can be used for table wines and distillation. The grapes used for Armagnac mature at different times, but due to financial limitations, they are mostly picked and fermented together. For some producers, they can afford to pick, ferment, and distill their varietals separately.
Folle Blanche is typically brought in first, followed by Bacco and Ugni Blanc. The average yield of a healthy Armagnac vine is 100-120 hectoliters/hectare, but only 90 hectolitres are allowed to be distilled. The rest must be sold as grape juice or must.
The acidity of Armagnac's grapes is high, and their degrees vary between 8° and 11°. The best Armagnacs come from wines that have breathed through the lees. The wines' tartness, low alcohol, and high acidity make them ideal for continuous distillation, but Charentaise-type pot stills and modern alambics can distill higher alcohol levels. Four grape varieties, including Ugni Blanc and Colombard, are commonly used for continuous distillation.
Currently, ten grape varieties are permitted for Armagnac distillation. While not suitable for table wines, they are ideal for continuous distillation.
As we admire Armagnac's landscapes, we realize that its grape varieties are the essential building blocks that create the spirit's rich and complex character.
Other grapes are also permitted—making 10 types in total. Although rarely used today, Armagnac can also be produced from:
- Plant de Graisse
- Meslier Saint François
- Clairette de Gascogne
- Jurançon Blanc
- Mauzac Blanc
- Mauzac Rosé
Experience the centuries-old tradition of Armagnac production - From Vine to Glass
How is Armagnac made?
- Harvest the grapes
- Distillation of white wines in column stills
- Aging in oak casks
- Loss of some alcoholic content to the surrounding air - "Angel's share"
- Blending, or “marrying,” of the casks to create the desired flavor profile
- Bottling and release for sale
After harvesting, the grape must (grape juice) is vinified in white to obtain a blanc de blanc, according to the traditional method, that doesn’t add sugar or sulphur. The blends are then made to determine the profile of each eau-de-vie. To complete fermentation, the wine must be sufficiently acidic and contain a low degree of alcohol, generally less than 12°GL, before it is ready to begin the distillation process.
Fermentation is the process by which a carbohydrate, such as grapes, is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide. During the fermentation process, yeast breaks down the carbohydrates and produces alcohol as a by-product. In Armagnac production, fermentation plays an integral role in creating the base spirit that is then further refined through distillation (see below).
Distillation with the alambic Charentaise
Join us as we delve into the intriguing process of distilling wine into spirits, exploring the traditional models used in both Cognac and Armagnac. By tracing the wine's journey from its initial state to its final transformation into a spirit, we can gain a deep understanding of the complexities of the distillation process.
The alambic Charentaise, also known as the pot still, is a widely used still for brandies around the world. It consists of several copper domes and holding tanks, and resembles the shape of an onion. The wine is first poured into a central dome, where it gradually flows into a heating tank above a steady gas flame. As the wine boils, vapor rises and collects against the inside of the dome. The vapor then seeks an escape route through a hole that leads to a curved pipe known as the swan's neck. It then flows downward through a coiled pipe around a holding tank filled with cold water, where it reconverts into liquid and exits the still with an alcohol level of around 28°, or 56 proof.
Throughout the distillation process, the distiller carefully monitors and oversees the various stages. The heads, which are the first spirits to come out of the still, are usually impure and discarded. The majority of the distillation, referred to as the brouillis, is kept. Meanwhile, the wine that takes the longest time to distill, called the tails, is often too weak and stripped of flavor to produce anything worth keeping, and is therefore discarded. This rigorous process ensures that only the highest quality spirits are produced.
The first usable distillate, the brouillis, is collected and stored in holding tanks while it awaits its turn for a second pass through the still. It is then reinstated in the still and distilled again, resulting in even less waste material than the first distillation. This time, around 99% of the distilled spirit is kept, with an alcohol strength of between 67° and 72°. The spirit is then transferred straight into oak barrels to begin the aging process.
Interestingly, the pot still was widely used in Armagnac until the early 1800s when the continuous still was developed. Double-distillation was officially banned in 1936 but reinstated in 1972.
As we contemplate the intricate and fascinating process of distilling wine into spirits, we can truly appreciate the dedication and artistry of the distillers who have perfected this craft over the years. Through the use of the alambic Charentaise and other stills, the highest quality brandies are produced with a rich history of tradition and craftsmanship.
Join us as we explore the unique process of distilling traditional Armagnac, a one-time distillation that produces a more complex and flavorful spirit than double-distilled products like whiskey, gin, vodka, and Cognac. The continuous still used in Armagnac is a primitive version of the modern column still, dating back to the beginning of the century. Unlike industrial models, which can potentially heat the wine to the same degree as a pot still, traditional Armagnac stills cannot heat the wine to above 120 proof. Most alambics produce three to four barrels in a 24-hour period and sometimes as little as one or two, compared to industrial stills that can distill up to 20 barrels a day.
Unlike with a pot still, the heads and tails are normally retained in traditional Armagnac, giving it a more complex and flavorful taste - sometimes more rustic too. The alambic armagnacais being squat and stable, smaller and more primitive than its cognac equivalent. The alambic armagnacaise is normally portable, enabling distillation to be performed right on each producer's property.
How does it work? Wine is gravity-fed into the wine-warmer and heated by the upper part of the condensing coil. From there, it flows into the main column, where it gets hotter and hotter as it flows over the copper plates. When it reaches the lower boiler, it finally begins to steam and evaporate. The alcoholic vapors rise back through the plates, continually being forced into contact with the incoming wine, resulting in a vapor saturated with rich wine aromas. The armagnac vapors exit through the top of the column and into the condensing coil, where they cool and change from steam into liquid. The liquid eau-de-vie then flows into the wood cask, where it will age and develop complex nuances.
The amount of alcohol produced ranges from 52° to 60°, depending on the initial alcoholic content of the wine. Each still has a particular capacity for the amount of spirit it can distill in a day, and most portable alambics can distill anywhere from 4 to 6 barrels a day. Nowadays, those who regulate the still normally work in 12-hour shifts.
The non-alcohol components, comprising congeners, esters, and acids, are what give traditional armagnac its flavor. With time, these components age, developing subtle and complex nuances. Armagnac is meant to be drunk after 15 or 20 years of maturation, where the non-alcohols begin to oxidize and express themselves with an interesting nut-scented complexity known as rancio. Unfortunately, the market is dominated by young Armagnacs ranging from 3 to 5 years of age, where double-distillation strips away the esters and acids, and the neutral base is adjusted with permitted additives to create its flavor.
As we reflect on the intricate process of distilling traditional Armagnac, we can truly appreciate the dedication and artistry of the distillers who have perfected this intricate skill.
There are two types of distillation that are authorized in Armagnac making; the first and most predominantly used method is the Per Ascensum, known as Armagnacaise, produced by the first continuous jet still – used for 95% of the production. The result of this single distillation process gives the eau-de-vie more flavor and character than Cognac, which is typically distilled twice. The Per Descensum distillation method, known as the Cognacaise, is also authorised in Armagnac production, producing the spirit by the double-heating still. This Cognac distillation method was authorised in 1972 for Armagnac production although it is not widely used – it produces a refined and fine eau-de-vie that should be enjoyed as a young spirit.
Requiring levels of skill only obtained through decades of experience, the distillation process usually takes place around the end of October through to mid-November, however, this can vary depending on the weather and availability of the local ‘alembic still’ the mobile distilling machine.
Upon distillation, the alcohol levels are between 50% and 58%, so some producers will age and then dilute to the minimum 40% at the bottling stage, but many prefer to keep that extra few percent.
Made of copper, an alembic contains two chambers, one with a serpent coil inside surrounded by the cold eau-de-vie, which is then heated gently either by a wood fire or gas (which gives a controllable temperature). The vapours are then condensed with the use of a series of small hat-like configurations within the second chamber that trickle out before being barrelled.
The cellar master and their team must test the eau-de-vie by tasting it and working the machine to produce the desired preference and flavor. This is a 24/7 job that can take several weeks, depending on the year’s harvest. Often two workers (traditionally father and son) will take turns of shift – filling the barrels that are usually made of local French oak.
The Armagnac Distillation History
As we delve into the depths of Armagnac's history, we discover the art of distillation, which dates back to the third century in Egypt. The Greeks, too, practiced distillation, and the Arabs perfected it in Northern Africa during the 11th century. The Arabic term for distillation vessel, "alambic," gave birth to Armagnac's traditional distillation apparatus. In the 13th century, distillation made its way to France through the conferences between the Arab school in Salerne and the French school in Montpellier. The first complete thesis on distillation was compiled by Arnaud-de- Villeneuve, head of Pope Clement V's school of medicine in 1246. The exact date when Gascony was exposed to distilled alcohol is uncertain, but historians agree that it was brought from Spain. The first documented distillation in Gascony was in 1348. While the eau de vie was not refined, it was distilled and mainly used for medicinal purposes.
During the late fourteenth century, Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, had a peculiar ritual of soaking his sheets in eau de vie and wrapping his entire body with the moistened fabric. Unfortunately, while entwined one night, a servant's candle set the sheets ablaze, causing the King's death. Despite this unusual event, Gascons continued to make further distillations. In 1480, Gascony's first copper alambic was put into practice, and wine was distilled, but Armagnac had not become a pleasurable spirit yet.
By the 1500s, the art of distillation spread throughout Europe, with new and improved stills invented. However, Armagnac was barely known outside the region, and Gascony's most significant export was sweet Jurançon wine. In the 1700s, we have the first precise details on the copper distillation devices operating in Gascony. Multiple distillations took a lot of energy and money, so experiments were carried out to find a more efficient still. In 1801, Edouard Adam helped provide a solution with a primitive device that processed wine with a single distillation, which minimized fueling costs and allowed the alcoholic vapors to pass through the incoming wine before they condensed, collecting all the fragrance of the wine.
During the mid-eighteenth century, distillation within the region became even more widespread, and Monsieur Gier provided a model for the present Armagnac alambic. His unit was small, fueled with low-cost wood, and could be transported by a team of oxen. With several portable units running around the countryside, each farmer could distill wine before oxidation took place.
This richer spirit contained impurities that kept it raw for a more extended period than those distilled twice at higher temperatures. Even today, very few independent producers survive on Armagnac alone. The risk was higher when attempting to produce Armagnac using this method, but the result was a more complex and aromatic spirit that stood out for its quality.
As we look back on Armagnac's history of distillation, we appreciate the efforts of those who made it the exquisite spirit we know today.
The Mighty Oak: Aging Armagnac in Barrels
In the world of armagnac, white oak barrels are the chosen vessel to store and age the spirit. These barrels are carefully selected, as they play a critical role in developing the flavor and character of the final product.
Aging is an important stage in the production of creating Armagnac. Through the aging process, Armagnac loses its crystalline pure eau-de-vie. It develops its characteristic amber caramel color, while replacing its original floral freshness for its smoothness, aromatic richness and distinct woody and vanilla aromas. Usually, the maturation process reveals no less than 80 aromas, depending, of course, on the terroir.
But first, the Cellar Master must select the right barrels they see fit for the task.
Barrels (400 litres) are made from the same tree, and the strength of the grain will depend upon where the wood is sourced within that tree. The sourced wood is selected locally, just like every other component of the Armagnac-making process, in order to preserve tradition and history. If a rougher grain is opted for initially (usually for the first two to three years), the tannin yield is high. It gives the eau-de-vie its color and taste before it is ready to be transferred to a ‘smooth’ barrel to continue maturing for another number of years.
Barrels do more than just hold the armagnac, they also contribute to its color, tannin content, and flavor profile. In addition, the oak allows for a slow micro oxidation, a vital process that enables the spirit to breathe and mature.
While oak from the Armagnac region was traditionally used, staves from various other French forests are now employed to create these barrels. Each forest's unique characteristics, including soil type and climate, influence the oak's grain structure. Trees grown in dry, poor soil produce tighter grain, while rich soil leads to larger grain. The wider the grain, the greater the potential for tannin and flavor components, such as vanilla and spice, to be secreted. Wide grain also promotes faster oxidation, which is crucial for proper maturation.
The oak trees used for barrels are typically between 100-150 years old. This age ensures the necessary girth of the trunk, an important factor since much of the wood is wasted in the splitting process. Only about 10% of a tree's trunk is used for barrels. The second tier, which is straight, free of knots, and has no twisted grain, is usually chosen for barrels. One well-formed trunk can create two complete barrels. The bottom tier, the most expensive part of the tree, is used in the production of fine oak furniture. The top tier, the largest but least expensive part of the tree, has a variety of uses, including furniture.
While Limousin oak is commonly used for aging, only 35% of armagnac is stored in casks made of this wood. 10% is aged in regional Gascon oak, and 5% is aged in oak from other French forests. The quality of the grain is considered more important than the origin of the wood.
Once the armagnac is placed in the barrels, the long journey of aging and maturation begins. Each barrel holds the promise of an exquisite spirit, infused with the unique characteristics of the oak it calls home.
Depending on the wood and the cellar, the evaporation of the alcohol will be between 2 and 6% per year: this is commonly known as the "Angels' share".
At the end of the maturation process, the eau-de-vie is often around 40°GL, either through the addition of distilled water or "petites eaux", or through natural evaporation which can only happen over several decades. From this point, the Armagnac is finally ready to be bottled for consumption.
In the heart of the Armagnac region lies two forests, Monlezun and Monguilhem, where Gascon oak traditionally grows. The Gascon oak, also known as the quercus silicus, belongs to the white oak family, yet it is often referred to as black oak. The reasons behind this nickname are varied, but some say it's because of the dark sables fauves soil upon which the trees grow. Others cite the pine trees surrounding the oak trees that have a green hue, making the oak trees appear black in comparison. Furthermore, the forests offer ample shade, and the trees' outer surfaces are often covered in ivy and moss, furthering the black appearance.
In the past, it was common to use trees from the region for aging spirits, but today, there are only a few hectares of black oak left in the Armagnac forests. Most independent Armagnac producers plant more corn on their land than the total surface area of trees in the Monlezun forest. However, some producers look to forests in the Gers, Dordogne, or the Pyrénées that have similar soil and moisture conditions found within Armagnac. While the trees from these regional forests do not grow as straight as those in the central forests, their wide grain still secretes tannins and flavors such as vanilla and spice that complement Armagnac's thick, rich eau de vie.
Today, Limousin oak is the primary wood used for aging Armagnac (and Cognac) due to the limited amount of Gascon oak left. The Limousin forest, located about a hundred miles east of the Cognac region, boasts the widest grain of any oak, about eight grains per inch, due to its rich soil and higher rainfall. Its loose pores facilitate a fast rate of oxidation, which allows for the concentration, deep color, and greater extraction of flavors contained in the wood. Although Limousin oak and Gascon oak have similar grain sizes, the former tends to give slightly higher levels of vanilla, while the latter yields more tannins.
Allier & Tronçais
Other French forests, like the Allier and Tronçais, also produce tight-grained wood that contains about 17-18 grains per inch, respectively. Producers who use Tronçais often make quality wine as well and use the barrels to age their best wines. Additionally, their smaller size allows them to be stacked in a chai with a low ceiling, where two 420-liter barrels might not fit. Every top Armagnac producer allows their spirits to be exposed to some new oak, heightening the levels of flavoring components. Over time, the air passes through the wood, interacts with the Armagnac, and carries with it wood secretions such as tannins, vanilla, and spice. Producers must carefully monitor their Armagnacs to prevent them from becoming too tannic or too dark, as these traits are difficult to lessen once present.
After the cooper has assembled the barrel, it's time to toast the wood.
The cooper places the barrel over a slow burning fire, to activate the sweet components of the wood. To get the desired effects, producers employ several levels of toasting. Medium toast is a gentle heating that releases light vanilla elements from the wood, while heavy toast cuts some of the vanilla flavors and increases caramel, licorice, coffee and chocolate nuances.
After the toasting process is complete, the cooper drills a bung hole in the center of the barrel and seals it with a hot poker. The heads and tails of the barrel are made from staves that are held together with wooden dowels, and circular forms are cut and inserted into each end of the barrel. Additional hoops are added, and the barrel is tested for airtightness and sanded clean. Finally, the barrel is topped with a plastic or rubber cork.
Every producer of Armagnac exposes their spirit to new oak, allowing it to receive heightened levels of flavoring components. As the air passes through the wood, it interacts with the Armagnac and carries with it wood secretions that include tannin, vanilla, and spice.
It's important for producers to monitor the amount of tannin the Armagnac absorbs, as too much can make the spirit too dry. A new barrel can provide adequate flavoring substances for a handful of vintages.
Armagnac age categories
Experience the centuries-old tradition of Armagnac production - From Vine to Glass
The youngest Armagnac is known as a VS or 3 star (***) and is aged between 1 and 3 years.
Armagnacs of this classification are made for those that enjoy fruity and fiery eaux-de-vie. It will suit the taste buds of those who are looking for spirits bursting with character, fruitiness and the heat of a VS Armagnac.
Fruity notes dominate the aromas; heat and suppleness combine in the mouth.
It is best enjoyed neat, on the rocks, in cocktails or for adding flavour to dishes.
French regulations state that a VSOP Armagnac is made from a blend of eaux-de-vie whereby the youngest element has been aged for at least 4 years in oak.
However, Armagnac houses often use much older eaux-de-vie in order to bring a richer aromatic palette to the VSOP.
A VSOP usually presents well-balanced aromas of cooked fruit, sometimes candied, with notes of wood and spice.
In the mouth, the light structure brought by the wood is mellow and the eaux-de-vie displays great length.
It is best enjoyed over ice or in cocktails.
For gourmet pairings, the fruity style of this blend and its strength are perfect when slightly chilled and served with foie gras or blue cheeses such as Fourme and Roquefort.
Hors d'Age and XO Armagnacs
The minimum legal age of the youngest eau-de-vie in an Hors d’Age Armagnac is 10 years.
However, the average age is normally well over and above 10 years.
With this blend we find the heart of the Armagnac aromas with a palette of candied fruits (prune, apricot, orange peel) associated with mellow aromas of wood, alongside the occasional patisserie notes and spices add tasty indulgence to the whole.
A touch of rancio and dried fruits confirm the maturity of an XO, while in the mouth it is balanced with good length and a controlled heat.
It is a high-quality eau-de-vie to enjoy neat, during a meal with a dessert, or paired with a cigar.
Old Armagnacs pair well with dishes such as guinea fowl with fruit, roast duck breast with honey, cep mushroom omelette, with fruit based desserts such as a tarte tatin, pear charlotte, candied orange or those made with chocolate like a black forest gateau or chocolate mousse.
The quality of each vintage is partly related to the climatic conditions of that year.
Therefore, the eau-de-vie requires particular care and individual attention during ageing adapted to each eau-de-vie and finally a selection of years will be chosen to be vintages.
Ultimately, each vintage from each producer has its own character, personality and style making it a very top-of-the-range age category for Armagnac.
Blanche Armagnac AOC
Blanche Armagnac young A.O.C (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), is a traditional eau-de-vie and relatively new age classification of Armagnac that was given official authorization in 2005.
It came about from a desire driven by the producers that were used to keeping back a part of their freshly distilled eau-de-vie for their personal reserves.
Blanche Armagnac follows the same production methods as Armagnac, only rather than retaining an amber coloring, it is a white spirit full of freshness.
Specific methods of vinification and selection of distillate ensure its particularly floral and fruity aromas.
So, in order to preserve its aromas and its crystal clear appearance, it is put into inert containers.
Finally and uniquely in the world of AOC, the eaux-de-vie is quality controlled by batc, to authorise its commercialisation, making Blanche Armagnac AOC a technical product adhering to strict standards and of the highest quality.
What does Armagnac taste like?
The eaux-de-vie has a distinct aroma of dried fruits, spices and a hint of smoke, with a smooth and velvety body. Armagnac is a spirit unlike any other, with its unique flavour profile sure to captivate your palate.
With an aromatic palette revealing a hundred or so flavours, Armagnac is truly diverse in terms of flavor, as it is during the maturation process in oak that its aromatic evolution. Young Armagnac is warm and has a floral and fruity bouquet, sometimes even vegetal. Older Armagnacs gain texture and retain aromas of pastry, then candied fruit, with woody and spicy notes. Finally, dried fruit and rancio are the tasting characteristics of Armagnacs that are always over 20 years old, meanwhile, notes of leather, fur, truffles, gunflint, Madeira and sherry are aromas that connoisseurs in particular value highly.
How to enjoy Armagnac
Armagnac is often enjoyed as a “digestif” after-dinner drink, and is most often served neat or on the rocks.
It can also be used in cocktails or as a component in cooking and baking recipes.
With its unique and flavorful aromatic profile, Armagnac is favored by connoisseurs around the world as its rich, complex flavor and long aging process make it a truly special and memorable drink.
Armagnac products in our shop
Armagnac Sempé 1983
Armagnac Sempé XO
Armagnac Puységur 1980
Armagnac Ferté de Partenay 1959
Armagnac Clés des Ducs 1960
Armagnac Clés des Ducs 1992
Armagnac Puysegur 1981
Armagnac Monluc 1981
Armagnac is produced in Gascony, a region renowned for its goose and duck specialities – and like many parts of France, priding itself on its seasonal way of life and living off the land.
Armagnac is made in a three-step process. First, the grapes are harvested and pressed to extract the juice, which is then fermented for two to three weeks. Once the fermentation process is complete, the wine is distilled in an alambic still to create the eaux-de-vie. Finally, the eaux-de-vie is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years, resulting in the finished Armagnac.