Instead of heading north of Bordeaux, we’ll head south-east to a drier, warmer climate where there’s a long, rich history of local consumption of spirits made by individual producers rather than major brands. We’ve covered Cognac so now we’re going to Armagnac (are-muhn-YACK), France’s second great controlled appellation for grape spirits.
The center of the trade is the city of Condom (tell that to your friends with a straight face). While Cognac is broken down into 6 regions, Armagnac has 3 that were defined in 1936: Bas-Armagnac, the most westerly and home to the best spirits, Ténarèze in the center where the fullest-bodied styles come from and Haut-Armagnac to the east, where the wines are often sold off rather than distilled – you’ll see them labeled as Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascgone. When purchasing an Armagnac, the name of the subregion will appear on the label.
Only white grapes can be used for Armagnac production and you’ll recognize some of the names from Cognac production like Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche. There are a few others, too – Colombard, Meslier, Jurançon and a hybrid called Baco 22A (sometimes called Baco Blanc). It’s a hybrid because it’s a cross between the French vitis vinifera Folle Blanche and the American vitis labrusca Noah. Noah itself is a cross between vitis labrusca and vitis riparia. Hybrid=cross across species.
Since 1972 the use of pot stills has been allowed, just like in Cognac, but many producers still use the more primitive and traditional Armagnac still, a continuous still with two copper columns. Another difference between the two regions lies in the oak aging. Most Armagnac producers use the local, sappy Monlezun oak. The combination of still and aging tends to make Armagnac a more rustic version of Cognac. Cognacs may have more floral and grape-y notes while Armagnacs will have more dried fruit and prune characters. Cognacs retain their bite, while Armagnacs are fuller-bodied and rounder.
Some of the labeling terms will be familiar to you, but the minimum aging requirements are a touch different. *** (often written as VS) is one year old, VSOP is 4 years old and XO is five years old. Hors d’Age means the youngest component in the blend is 10 years old. Many producers will age individual casks from a single distillation and sell these with a vintage date.
For a fun and refreshing drink, look for Floc de Gascogne, a fortified sweet wine made with 1/3 Armagnac and 2/3 grape juice from the region. The alcohol clocks in at 16-18% and there are notes of honey, almond and jasmine. I kept my bottle in the fridge and used it as an aperitif.