Behind the French Menu gives a tasty background to French cuisine, French dishes, how they are made and how they should be served.
Where there is a story behind a dish's creation and
that story may aid the diner's enjoyment then that will also be included. Bon appétit!
The grapes used in Armagnac come from vineyards to the southeast of Bordeaux; the area covers part of the old province of Gascogne, Gascony. The other internationally famous French grape brandy is Cognac and Cognac comes from the region to the northeast of Bordeaux. (The only other French AOP Brandy is Calvados, and that includes three apple brandies).
Armagnac South of Bordeaux, Cognac North of Bordeaux.
Many people believe that Armagnac and Cognac taste the same; however, these brandies have palpable differences. It is true that they are both grape brandies and both do come from France. However, there, more or less, the similarities end. The grapes used are different, and the taste and aroma are different. Also, the residents of each area are very unhappy when someone shows their ignorance and treats the two brandies as the same.
The Darroze Collection of vintage Armagnacs.
Vintage Armagnacs must be at least ten years in the barrel before being bottled.
Photograph courtesy of Darroze.
The Armagnac and Cognac differences were reinforced,when, having come from Angouleme to the North East of Bordeaux in the Cognac region. We had chosen to stay in a well-recommended hotel and restaurant to the southeast of Bordeaux. There we were in the heart of the Armagnac growing area and I committed an unpardonable sin, at the end an excellent meal, with my coffee, in the land of Armagnac, I requested a Cognac! It brought a very sniffy response from an otherwise friendly, knowledgeable and helpful sommelier, the wine waiter. "We only serve Armagnacs,” he said; he continued, “this area is the home of Armagnac, you will find no Cognac here.” Now the backers of the superiority of Armagnac to Cognac and visa versa all claim that "their" brandy is far superior. The other is forever doomed to a distant second place. With a withering look, the sommelier let me know how low I had dropped in his daily visitor's rankings. Now for really certified Armagnac supporters no Cognac may ever be acceptable; however, I have learned that that can also be their loss. However, I took the Sommelier's advice and ordered a not too expensive Armagnac....it was excellent. In France, while the arguments over Armagnac and Cognac never end, I follow my taste buds and enjoy them both.
Baron de Sigognac
1974 Vintage Armagnac. The label may be going on fifty, but the Armagnac will only be as old as it was when it was bottled.
There are three Armagnac appellations with different soils that are graded for the wines produced there.
The three appellations that produce AOP Armagnac:
Bas-Armagnac considered the best.
Armagnac-Ténarèze, considered very good, but below Bas-Armagnac.
Haut-Armagnac, where today very little Armagnac is produced, and so this appellation is unlikely to be on many labels.
The Armagnac Appellations are in the departments of Gez, Landes, and Lot-et-Garonne.
Photograph courtesy of Mondo Del Gusto
The grapes produced for the wines that will become Armagnac are not table wines; of the ten different grapes permitted, today only four are generally used: Colombard, Folle Blanche, Baco, and Ugni Blanc. Each Armagnac house may blend the wines from within the same appellation and then decide if they will use only that Eau-de-Vie from a single year. Then the appellation will be noted on the label along with the year of bottling and today to the label is added the number of years in the barrel. If the producer uses Eau-de-vie combinations from different appellations or distils the Armagnac outside the appellation, then no appellation may be noted on the label. The Armagnac producers come from the departments of Gers in the region of Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées region and the departments of Landes and Lot-et-Garonne in Aquitaine. The town of Eauze in the department of Gers is the economic capital of the Armagnac region. The English language website of their tourist information office is:
Most Armagnacs sold are vintage brandies, that means they are not blended with brandies from other years. Unlike blended Armagnacs and Cognacs which have two distillations, the long aging is the source of the great Armagnac taste. Vintage Armagnacs are mostly in the barrel for 15 for years or more, with a minimum of ten, and consequently are more expensive than blended Armagnacs. The single year vintage defines Armagnac; the cognoscenti know which years are the best. After 10,15, 20, 30 years, or at the very very most, 40 years in a barrel, the brandy is transferred to glass containers until they are bottled. Armagnacs, like whiskeys, would deteriorate if they were in a barrel for more than forty years and most will be in a barrel for less than twenty years.
A younger Armagnac is paler in color than and not as smooth as an aged Armagnac. If you want a less expensive, but, smooth Armagnac choose a blended Armagnac, it will have been double distilled. If you do choose a blended Armagnac then choose one where the youngest eau de vie, the brandy used will be at least six years old, and then the brandy should be smooth. Blended Armagnacs are produced in much smaller quantities than Cognac and have prices similar to Cognac. It is the single year Armagnacs which are unique and expensive.
The ages of blended Armagnacs.
Blended Armagnacs show only the official markings that indicate the age of the youngest brandy in the blend. These are:
V.S., (Very Special), or ***, three stars – On the label for an Armagnac where the youngest liquor in the blend was matured in oak barrels for at least two years.
V.O, (Very Old); V.S.O.P.(VSOP), (Very Superior Old Pale) and Réserve – The youngest eau-de-vie in these Cognacs will have been matured in oak barrels for a t least four years.
Vielle Réserve, (Ancient Reserve); Extra; (Extra), Hors d'Âge, (Too old to determine), and Napoléon. – All the Eau-de-vies in these Cognacs will have been aged for at least six years in oak barrels.
X.O. (Extra Old). X.O. may only be used when the youngest brandy in the blend is ten years old. Hors d'Age - Too Old to Determine. An interesting name in itself; however, the age is known. Here like the X.O. the youngest eau-de vie in this blended Armagnac will have been in an oak barrel for at least ten years.
One of the names for a 6-year-old plus blended Armagnac is Napoléon. Now all of the various Napoleons in the history books had long gone before any of the Armagnacs bearing the name were in a barrel. So, unless the Napoleon you are thinking of is one of the family’s descendants, six years old and just a year out of kindergarten, stay with the V.S.O.P. Two years more in a barrel should not double the price nor make a six-year-old kid famous.
The job of choosing the wines and blending those that will be blended with other appellations or blended with different years and twice distilled blends is carried out by the Maitre de Chai’ (pronounced shay), the cellar master. His or her nose and taste buds coupled with his or her knowledge over many years is a very makes it a very important and highly paid job.
Aged brandies in glass bottles, unlike wines, do not change for better or for worse while in a bottle. Remember to check the label when paying for an old Armagnac; it may be a 45-year-old bottle, but are you actually just paying for a ten-year-old Armagnac inside?
After you have paid a small fortune for that excellent bottle of vintage Armagnac, note that, unlike wine, but like whiskey, the bottle must be stored upright as the liquor attacks the cork.
The brandies chosen to be vintage Armagnacs are selected by the Cellar Master. will be stored to ferment in above ground caves called chais (pronounced shays). The way the barrels are stored, the space between the barrels and the temperature and humidity will all affect the final taste. Every year nearly 3% of the contents are lost; this 3% is called the angel’s share.
Find Armagnac in France
Armagnacs along with other Eau-de-vies, brandies, do not come out of the distillation and aging process with the same they taste as when you open the bottle. The hand of man gently improves the product. In both Armagnac, Cognac and Calvados, plain water and or boise, a liquid made from boiled oak chips, may be added for more of that "natural" aged oak flavor. Up to 2% of the product may be sugar syrup and some of that wonderful "natural color" we admire when holding our "snifter" or Armagnac glass, up to the light may come from a touch of caramel that was added. Do not let these man-made additions put you off enjoying your Armagnac; I still enjoy sniffing and drinking my favorite; however, it was made. Creating a great Armagnac is the work of great fruit, great land, and weather and a great man or woman in the cellar.
The Maitre de Chai follows and tests the barrels as they age, and as needed the barrels may be moved to a different chai which has a different humidity and temperature. Through the long period of aging the Armagnac begins to mellow and its color changes to a darker amber. Here the experience, tongue, and nose of the cellar master are of the greatest importance. You will find cellar masters who have been with the same Armagnac house their whole life, and possibly he or she inherited the job.
Buying a bottle of vintage Armagnac.
To buy a bottle of vintage Armagnac, you really do need an expert with you and or at least an up to date book on the different years available from different producers. If the Armagnac House you are visiting, or the Wine shops offer a taste of the Armagnacs from an opened bottle take a taste and pay for it and the taste another before you decide. Without an expert at your elbow, this is the only way that most of us should buy vintage Armagnacs. Armagnacs are for the most part made and sold by relatively small producers.
For blended Armagnacs you do not need an expert, you can travel in the area and taste, for a small contribution to the local economy, as many Armagnacs as are on show on the Roue d'Armagnac. The best buys are mostly six-year-old blends, but, caveat emptor, make sure you have tasted them before you buy.
Photograph courtesy of Florian
When a vintage Armagnac has been aged long enough in a barrel, it is transferred to large glass bottles. That date is the date that now must also be on the label and the cork. It may have been aged in the barrel for fifteen years, and the label will also show the date it was bottled. If the date shows 1970 do not let anyone try and sell you a fifty-year-old Armagnac, there is no such thing. The Armagnac is maybe ten years old and its taste, unlike wine, has not changed since it was bottled.
Vintage Armagnacs show the year of the Vintage and the appellation on the label. Other names such as Millennium or Special etc., may be added to the label. These are unofficial names; they are creations of the marketing department. They signify the personal views of that Armagnac House and not the independent views of anyone outside the house.
I read about an Armagnac lover who dips his finger in the brandy and wipes it on his wrist like a perfume. Then after allowing twenty to thirty seconds to pass during which time the alcohol burns off, he slowly sniffs the aroma of the Cognac without the Alcohol. That format of testing has allowed him to have a very good idea of what the Armagnac will be like and I have used that method. Unfortunately, I do not have enough tastings to create a memory store on Armagnac aromas.
The famous, Armagnac apéritifs, which you will be offered in the area and elsewhere are the Floc de Gascogne Blanc, the white aperitif made by combining the juice of white grapes that would otherwise have been used for a white wine with Armagnac. The Floc de Gascogne Rosé, is called a rosé, though it is a red, is made from the juice of grapes that are used in red wines.
La Bastide D'Armagnac
Photograph courtesy of Andy Kyte
Floc de Gascogne is a very refreshing apéritif, it should always be served cool, even well chilled, but never frozen or served with ice. It so pleasant that is relatively easy to drink without realizing that it is very alcoholic. You have now been warned; this refreshing apéritif has an alcohol content of over 16%! Three or four of these easily quaffed aperitifs and your head may spin with the wonders of Gascogne! Officially, these wines are called Vins de Liqueur; they are wines that intentionally have the process of fermentation stopped before completion. The result is wine with a high sugar content created by adding Armagnac to the wine that stops the fermentation.
If you do buy a bottle or two of Floc de Gascogne to take home make sure that they are this year’s production. Floc de Gascogne is drunk very young and deteriorates quickly, and it is in any case far too enjoyable to leave on the shelf. The apéritifs Pineaux de Charente from Cognac and the aperitif Pommeau from Calvados, are made using similar formulae.
The Counts of Armagnac.
Armagnac is named after the Counts of Armagnac, who ruled over the area from about 960 c.e. The counts remained theoretically under the rule of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II of England during the various English - French wars, but they pledged allegiance to France. Since the distillation used for liquor was only developed in the 13th century, probably the first brandy called Armagnac named after the Counts was made in the 14th century. Somewhere in the wars between France and England the counts disappeared, but the brandy and its name remain.
Independent Estates will always show the domain’s address on the front label, along with the appellation (Bas-Armagnac, Ténarèze, Haut-Armagnac). If not the spirit was bottled by a négociant ( a wholesaler) in another part of France, perhaps in the Charente or Paris then they may have labels that only read "Armagnac." This is because the spirit inside is a blend of the various appellations or because the grapes were grown in one appellation of Armagnac and distilled in another.