Exploring Armagnac: Brandy's Lesser-Known Treasure
First things first. Armagnac is brandy from Gascony in southwest France. But what is brandy?
Brandy is a distilled spirit made from fruit, mostly grapes. The clear spirit is aged in oak where it picks up a warm mahogany color and rich character over time.
The image of a suave, tuxedoed movie hero cradling a relaxing snifter of brandy at the end of a grueling day is a bit of an anachronism for us modern casual southern Californians who continue our post-dinner drinking with what we were drinking before and during our meal.
You have to admit, there is something rather Esquire Man-like to plan one's imbibing menu along the lines of a bon-vivant. with some thought going into what comes after dinner. Should it be a glass of tawny port or should you be guided by Dr. Johnson's admonition: “Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.”
The most famous, successful and most advertised brandies are those double-distilled, oak aged beverages from France called Cognac, a name it gets from the huge region northeast of Bordeaux where it is produced. The biggest houses make north of 15 million cases per year. It is huge business.
Lesser known, but to brandy connoisseurs infinitely more interesting, are the single-distilled, farmhouse brandies from the smaller, more remote Armagnac region in Gascony southeast of Bordeaux. Because they have only been distilled once, brandies from Armagnac contain less water which allows them to retain more individuality and character.
At our recent tasting of brandy's big three--Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados (the famous apple and pear brandy from Normandy)--led by importer and author Charles Neal--it was revealed just how impressive Armagnacs were in this comparative setting.
If Cognac is the city girl, then Armagnac is the country girl, according to an importer's rep I once met. "We love them both, but for different reasons."
The same major grapes go into Armagnac brandies as Cognac with the addition of an Americn-French hybrid called Baco. Unlike Cognac, most Armagnac is produced by small, family-owned distilleries. Young clear brandy (also called eau-de-vie) is made usually by a single distillation using a column still. The resulting distillate is just 104 proof, allowing more flavor and aromatics to emerge initially. The brandy is then aged in local Gascony Black oak and Limousin oak barrels to give it color and character.
There are three major sub-regions of Armagnac. The smallest, and most prestigious is Bas-Armagnac where most of the top brandies are grown. Next is Armagnac Tenareze, which tends to produce more high-toned brandies. The largest sub-region is simply called Armagnac, and the brandies produced here run the range of nice to acceptable to suitable for cooking.
The brandies of Armagnac often use the VS, VSOP (three years), and XO (ten years) designations, but also can use Hors d'Age (the minimum must be older than ten years), and older, rarer Armagnacs are often vintage dated.
For you home chefs and mixologists, keeping bottles of Armagnac on hand can add prove useful for finishing sauces, flaming dishes, steeping fruits like prunes and mixing in an array of classic cocktails.
It may seem like Bourbon mania has pushed fine brandies from the limelight, but the artisans producing these fine artisanal beverages deserve your attention. At the very least, they provided a change from the ordinary, and at their best they can be transcendent.
Armagnacs to Try at Home
The distinctive bent-neck bottle is hard to miss on the shelf, and this large-scale brandy is an affordable introduction to Armagnac. Pleasant, warming and perfectly fine.
$33.99 per bottle
Ugni-Blanc 60% Baco 40%. The youngest of the brandies in this typical Bas-Armagnac blend was aged in oak barrels for at least 3 years. A beautiful amber shade of antique gold. The bouquet initially suggests freshly baked bread and light toffee. Aeration reveals a gentle warmth that intensifies. The palate is bold and youthful, with a touch of vanilla, suffused with the heat of distillation and the youth of roasted oak. A brandy full of supple tenderness.
$36.99 per bottle
Nearly sweet to the taste, with a bright flavor and a fairly round texture. Aged for over 7 years.
$46.99 per bottle
Aged a minimum of 15 years, Complex aromas and flavors feature vanilla most of all, with a hint of sherry-like raisin fruit.
$79.99 per bottle
Dartigalongue is the oldest licensed estate in Armagnac. We've admired the XO brandy from this house for several years, and Hors d'Age bottling is equally compelling. With an average age of 15 years, this armagnac is round, full bodied and somewhat sweet in taste. There are some wood notes in the middle palate.
$54.99 per bottle
Made with Ugni Blanc grapes, this is a classic Armagnac from one of the oldest houses in the region. Rich notes of caramel pair with baked apple and its spices to give a warming sensation that is great for nice chilled night. This Ugni Blanc based Armagnac also has delicate notes of coco that add to the depth of this brandy.
$56.99 per bottle
Owned by the family of Baron de Pichon Longueville, Chateau de Briat is a richly flavored, smooth-tasting, deeply satisfying brandy.
$74.99 per bottle
Extremely rare, only a few bottles are un-casked at a time. A complex, almost racy character emerges as the flavors persist for a long, long time.
$142.99 per bottle
The réserve of Boigneres has been our best-selling Armagnac, but it is rare to be able to encounter a vintage, single-variety brandy from this house. Combining the house-style richness with a lift from the Folle Blanche, this incredible brandy just keeps impressing the longer it lingers on the palate.
$153.99 per bottle
Big notes of cocoa and rich vanilla flavors, baked apple notes add depth and balance out the sweetness well.
$119.99 per bottle
The House of Darroze
The Darroze house doesn't grow grapes, nor does it distill brandy. Instead, these former restaurateurs search the Gascony countryside for outstanding family distillers, acquire and age their brandies in the Darroze chai, then bottle them as rare, individual domaine offerings.
For we lucky few who discover this great producer, we also get to enjoy their age-statement brandies (whose age on the label is the minimum), where brandy from these individual domaines are blended together to make truly outstanding offerings. The 12 year old has a golden color, possessing a lovely aroma of some caramel notes. Smooth and inviting. 86 proof.
$75.99 per bottle
A blend of brandies with a minimum of 20 years age, this 86 proof Armagnac is a bit more complex than the 12 year, with another lovely aroma of caramel, combined with scents and flavors of spice, perhaps cinnamon.
$112.99 per bottle
Made up of 50-50 Baco and Ugni Blanc, this powerful Armagnac measures nearly 98 proof (48.9%), yet it possesses gorgeous aromas and flavors of vanilla and spice. A very rich tasting brandy.
$138.99 per bottle
Composed of 67% Ugni Blanc and 33% Colombard, this outstanding brandy exhibits subtle notes of cinnamon and orange in its aroma and in its lingering aftertaste. Truly wonderful.
$221.99 per bottle
100% Baco. This 40+ year old brandy offers an insanely appealing aroma, and complex flavors only long aging can produce. There is actual tension still in the brandy, more high-toned than our other Darroze offerings.
$268.99 per bottle