Saturday, September 25, 2021

Armagnac one of France’s two fabulous AOP grape brandies.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman 

The Armagnac tulip-shaped glass.
Locally it is preferred to a snifter.
Armagnac is South of Bordeaux, Cognac is North of Bordeaux.  

Many people expect that Armagnac and Cognac to have similar tastes; however, these brandies have palpable differences. They are indeed both grape brandies, and both come from France; however, more or less, there their similarities end. The grapes used are different, and the taste and aroma are different. To add to the arguments the residents of both areas are very unhappy when someone shows their ignorance and treats the two brandies as the same.

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 famous French grape brandy is Cognac and comes from northeast of Bordeaux. (Calvados is an AOP apple Brandy). 

A Baron de Lustrac collection of vintage Armagnacs.
Vintage Armagnacs must be at least ten years in the barrel before being bottled.
Photograph courtesy of Dominic Lockyer  

My understanding of Armagnac and Cognac differences were reinforced when we traveled from Angouleme, 50 km (31 miles) from the town of Cognac to a well-recommended hotel and restaurant to the southeast of Bordeaux in the Armagnac region. 

At the end of an excellent meal, with my coffee, in the land of Armagnac, without thinking I requested a Cognac! My request brought a very sniffy response from an otherwise friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful sommelier, the wine steward. "We only serve Armagnacs," he said and 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 vice versa all claim that "their" brandy is far superior. The other brandy 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 knowledgeable sommelier's (wine steward’s) advice and ordered a not too expensive was excellent. While the arguments over Armagnac and Cognac never end in France, I follow my taste buds and enjoy them both.

Baron de Sigognac
1974 Vintage Armagnac, Bas Armagnac.
The label may be going on fifty,
but the Armagnac will only be as old as it was when it was bottled.
Probably twenty years.
Photograph courtesy of Dominic Lockyer

There are three Armagnac appellations with different soils that are graded for the wines produced there:


Bas-Armagnac - Considered by many to be the best.


Armagnac-Ténarèze – Just below Bas-Armagnac.


Haut-Armagnac Today, very little Armagnac is produced in this appellation, so it is unlikely to be on many labels.


Blanche Armagnac


Blanche Armagnac - A colorless Armagnac made with an eau-de-vie from any appellation or blend sold after aging for at least three months in stainless steel containers. The Blanche Armagnac is nearest to a 40% alcohol Marc (Grappa) and most usually seen in cocktails.The Blanche Armagnac can be made from the grapes of any Armagnac appellation or blend. No appellation will appear on the label.

The Armagnac Appellations
Photograph courtesy of France Today   

Ten different grapes may be used to produce the wines that will become Armagnac. These are not grown for table wines, they are grown only for Armagnac, and today only four of the grapes are generally used: Colombard, Folle Blanche, Baco, and Ugni Blanc. 

Each Armagnac house may blend 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, correctly along with the year of bottling. 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 distills the Armagnac outside the appellation, no appellation may be noted. 

The Armagnac producers come from the departments of Gers and Midi-Pyrénées in the region of Occitanie and the departments of Landes and Lot-et-Garonne in Nouvelle 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, which means they come from a particular year and are not blended with eau-de-vies from other years. Unlike blended Armagnacs and Cognacs, which have two distillations, the long aging is the source of the Armagnac taste. Vintage Armagnacs are often aged in a barrel for 15 years or more, with a minimum of ten, and consequently are more expensive than blended Armagnacs. The year of the vintage defines Armagnac; the cognoscenti know which years are the best. After 10,15, 20 years in a barrel (at the most 40 years), the brandy is transferred to glass containers called demijohns until 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 V.S.O.P. Blended Armagnac.
Photograph courtesy of Pierre LANNES

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. Select your blended Armagnac from among those where the youngest eau de vie, the brandy used, will be at least four years old, and then the brandy should be smooth. Blended Armagnacs are produced in much smaller quantities than vintage Armagnacs and have prices similar to Cognacs. It is the single-year vintage 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.


V.S., (Very Special), or ***, three stars – On the label for an Armagnac where the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend was matured in oak barrels for at least one year.


 V.O., (Very Old); V.S.O.P. (V.S.O.P.), (Very Superior Old Pale) and Réserve  The youngest eau-de-vie in these Armagnacs will have been matured in oak barrels for at least four years.


Vielle Réserve, (Ancient Reserve); Extra; (Extra), and Napoléon – All the eau-de-vies in these Armagnacs will have been aged for at least six years in oak barrels.


X.O. (Extra Old). X.O., Hors d'Age - Too Old to Determine. This label may only be used when the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is ten years old.  


XX0, X.X.0. and X0 Premium - This label may only be used when the youngest brandy in the blend is twenty years old. 


Napoleon Armagnac.


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, this has no connection to Napoleon.


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, make it a critical and highly paid job.


Unlike wines, aged brandies in glass bottles 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 you are 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.


Armagnac Casks
Photograph courtesy of Armagnac 700   
Millésimes- Vintage Armagnacs
The year on the bottle indicates the year of the harvest.
The number of years in the barrel is not necessarily reflected on the label.

The brandies chosen to be vintage Armagnacs are selected by the cellar master and stored to age in above-ground buildings or 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 through the wood of the barrel; this 3% is called the angel's share.

Armagnacs, do not come out of the distillation and aging process with the same taste as when you open the bottle. The hand of man gently improves the product. In Armagnac, Cognac, and Calvados, plain water, sugar syrup, and or Boise, a liquid made from boiled oak chips, may be added for more of that "natural" aged oak flavor. That beautiful " warm color" we admire when holding our "snifter" or Armagnac tulip glass, up to the light may come from a touch of caramel that was added. Do not let these artificial additions put you off enjoying your Armagnac, 98% or more is Armagnac; I still enjoy sniffing and admiring the color of my favorite; however, it was made. Creating a great Armagnac is the work of great fruit, great land, 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 with different humidity and temperature. The Armagnac begins to mellow through the long aging period, and its color changes to 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.

Armagnac on French menus:

Terrine de Foie Gras à Armagnac Maison, Chutney Oignons Rouges – A pate of fattened duck liver prepared with Armagnac and served with sweetened red onion chutney.

Paupiettes de Veau aux Pruneaux et à l'Armagnac – Thin slices of veal, rolled and stuffed with prunes and flavored with Armagnac.

Rognons de Veau Flambés à l'Armagnac – Veal kidneys Flambed with Armagnac.

Tartelette Noix de Pécan, Crémeux Verjus, Caramel, Glace Armagnac et Raisin Croquants – A small pecan tart prepared with a creamy verjus flavored with caramel and served with Armagnac ice cream and crunchy grapes. 

Buying a bottle of vintage Armagnac.

To buy a bottle of vintage Armagnac, you need an expert with you or at least an up-to-date book on the different years available from other producers. Armagnacs are, for the most part, made and sold by relatively small 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 then taste another before you decide. Without an expert at your elbow, this is the only way that most of us should buy vintage Armagnacs.

For blended Armagnacs, you do not need an expert; you can travel in the area and taste as many Armagnacs as are on show for a small contribution to the local economy. The best buys are mainly four and six-year-old blends, but, caveat emptor, make sure you taste them before buying.    

Rue Armagnac
Photograph courtesy of Florian
The bottling of vintage Armagnacs

When a vintage Armagnac has been aged long enough in a barrel, it is transferred to large glass bottles called demijohns; the larger of these bottles can hold 40 liters. When the Armagnac is transferred to a regular bottle the date of the vintage must also be on the label and the cork. The Armagnac may have been aged in the barrel for fifteen years, and the label should also show the date it was bottled. If the date indicates 1970, do not let anyone try and tell you that that was aged for fifty years. The Armagnac is maybe ten years old or twenty years old, and its taste, unlike wine, will not changed once it was bottled. Old Armagnacs from great vintage years are costly.  If 1920 was a great year and the Armagnac was produced after it was aged for twenty years, you can still purchase a bottle of that beautiful brandy in 2021.  It will taste as it did in 1940.

Glass demijohn
Photograph courtesy of Jan Helebrant

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.

I read about an Armagnac lover who tests an Armagnac by dipping his finger in the brandy and wiping it on his wrist like perfume. Then after allowing twenty to thirty seconds to pass, during which time the alcohol burns off, he slowly sniffs the aroma of the Armagnac without the alcohol. He claimed this test gave him an excellent idea of what the Armagnac will be like.  I have tried that method; unfortunately, I do not have enough tastings to create a memory store on Armagnac aromas.


Floc de Gascogne Blanc.
Photograph courtesy of Dominic Lockyer
The Armagnac apéritif is called the Floc de Gascogne.

The famous Armagnac apéritifs, which you will be offered in the area and elsewhere, are the Floc de Gascogne Blanc and Rosé.  The white aperitif combines the juice of white grapes that would otherwise have been used for a regular white wine with a matured  Armagnac. The Floc de Gascogne Rosé is called a rosé, though it is red and made from the juice of grapes used in red wines mixed with an Armagnac.

Floc de Gascogne is a refreshing apéritif; it should always be served cool, even better when well-chilled, but never frozen or served with ice. It is pleasant and relatively easy to drink without realizing that it is very alcoholic. This refreshing apéritif has an alcohol content of over 16%! You have been warned: 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 intentionally have the process of fermentation stopped before completion. The result is a wine with a high sugar content created by adding Armagnac, which stops the fermentation.

If you 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 best when drunk very young, and it deteriorates quickly; in any case it is 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 CE. 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 system of 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. The counts disappeared somewhere in the wars between France and England, but the brandy and its name remain.

La Bastide D'Armagnac
The town of Labastide-d'Armagnac in the department of Landes
and was founded in 1291 by Bernard VI, Count of Armagnac.
Photograph courtesy of Pierre_Bn     

Independent Armagnac 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, then they may have labels that only read "Armagnac."  The labels that just reads Armagnac is either because the liquor is a blend of various appellations or because the grapes were grown in one appellation of Armagnac and distilled in another.


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Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2016, 2021
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog write to Bryan Newman

Posts on brandies:
Deciphering Cognac Labels and How to Tell the Age and Grade of a Cognac. 
The Aging and Blending of Cognac, France’s most Famous Brandy. Cognac II.
Pineau de Charentes; the Aperitif of France’s Cognac region. Cognac III.
Cognac the Town, and Visiting Cognac and Tasting the Product. Cognac IV.
Calvados – The Most Famous Apple Brandy in the World. Calvados on French Menus.
Other connected posts:
Agen in South-west France. Home to the Agen Prune, the Gold Standard in Prunes.
Foie Gras - Fattened Goose or Duck Liver. Foie Gras on French Menus. Foie Gras in French Cuisine.
Glace – Ice-cream. Ice-cream on French Menus. Glacé and Glacée are Desserts That are Frozen, Iced, Chilled or Glazed.
Pâtés and Terrines. An introduction to the meat, fish, vegetable and fruit pates on French menus.
Rognons - Kidneys on French menus.
Tastevin – A Sommelier's Odd Looking Cup, Worn on a Neck Chain Around the Neck. The Sign of Wines from Burgundy.
Vinegar, Vinaigrette and Verjus in French Cuisine.
What are the AOCs and AOPs on France's Foods and Wine labels?

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