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  Not Just Wine Issue 19, May 2004   
ArmagnacArmagnac Wine ParadeWine Parade  Contents 
Issue 18, April 2004 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 20, June 2004

Armagnac

The most ancient wine brandy of France it is the result of the distillation of selected white wines produced in the Gascony region

 The region in which Armagnac is produced is located in the South-West part of France in an area known as Gascony, the region of Musketeers. The area includes three departments: “Gers”, a part of “Lot et Garonne” and an area of“Landes”. In this area are found many rivers and the two most important ones are Adour and Garonne. The territory of Armagnac, having an area of 10,500 hectares (about 26,000 acres), is divided into three regions: Ténarèze (5,200 hectares, 12,800 acres), Bas-Armagnac (5,130 hectares, 12,650 acres) and Haut-Armagnac (160 hectares, 400 acres), each one of them having peculiar characteristics according to the geological formation, as the type of soil greatly influences the value and the character of the brandy. As opposed to Cognac, which gets its finesse and value thanks to soils rich in limestone, Armagnac gives its best in siliceous soils.

 Ténarèze is characterized by not very accentuated peaks, in other words placid hills covered by vineyards and woods. Haut-Armagnac is an area in which are found low sloped hills divided in characteristic valley asymmetrically disposed which give the view a typical aspect. Bas-Armagnac is characterized by placid and smooth slopes where at the base are found cultivation of grains, in the middle vineyards find their ideal habitat, whereas the tips are covered by oak woods.

 

A Little of History

 It seems Armagnac is the most ancient wine brandy of the world. Maybe it is not the noblest one but according to its history and its origins, it seems to be one of the most charming and mysterious brandies. Armagnac was very renowned since the Middle Age for its therapeutic qualities, it will then become a brandy of common consumption. Researches done in libraries have allowed the discovery of a document dated back to 1411 which tells about a man, whose name was Antoine, who became famous in Toulouse because he was a talented wine distiller, as well as for his Aygue ardente or aygordent (burning water).

 In a manuscript written in Gascony dialect and dated back to the same year, known as Manuscript of Auch, are being described the many ways and the possible use of wine brandies: it is the first document which clearly refer to the consumption and the “side” effects described as “…it gives vivacity to the mind and cheerfulness…”. At Toulouse in 1430 became famous Mr. and Mrs. Nouvel for their skill in distillating wine and for the quality of their brandies. In 1431, in a document about the heritage of Count Vic-Fezensac, they were mentioned “barrels” and a “press” therefore evidencing the importance of wood casks and in particular their effects in the aging of a distillate. In 1461 brandies were just one of the many goods traded in the market of Saint-Séver, however, besides being an exchange good, they were also subjected to taxes.


The crus of Armagnac
The crus of Armagnac

 The exact date of the origin of Armagnac is not easily definable, but it is however clear that it is earlier than Cognac - which was created for the first time around 1600 - and even then Whisky, which was mentioned for the first time in a written document around 1494. Since Roman times the people of Gascony have always paid attention to the cultivation of vine, and the products of this territory were also appreciated abroad. In the twelfth century Gascony viticulturists began commercial relationships with English and Dutch. At those times the trading routes were few as well as scarcely safe and goods were transported through rivers, anyway transporting wine was always risky, not because of the risk of robberies or mercenary acts, indeed for its tendency to deteriorate. A distilled product ensured a higher reliability and longevity and the guarantee of a preemptive profit.

 In the beginning of the seventeenth century Dutch owned the most powerful commercial fleet of the world and they traveled in the neighboring coasts and territories in search for business. They had countless businesses with French viticulturists and in particular with Armagnac producers, because the product had a volume lower than four fifths than wine, it was less susceptible to spoilage, and therefore Dutch merchants traded lots of Armagnac destined to the consumption in Netherlands as well as, after some slight processing, to be exported in other countries of Northern Europe. This “processing” consisted in adding some brandy to wines in order to raise the alcoholic percentage, both because they were more resistant to transportation, that is less sensible to spoilage, but also because consumers of Northern Europe preferred wines with pretty high alcoholic percentages.

 In order to have an idea of the notoriety of Armagnac it is enough to observe the development of the vineyard acreage in the Gers area: in 1804 the acreage destined to the cultivation of vine was 72 hectares (177 acres), in 1850 was 96,000 hectares (237,000 acres) and in 1872 was 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) with a production of 100,000 hectoliters of alcohol (more than 2,6 millions of gallons). Some years later phylloxera struck the territory of Armagnac destroying vineyards and strongly compromising an economy based on vine and its derivatives. Farmers who was severely damaged by this flagellum, not having proper resources in order to proceed with the necessary and expensive replanting, were subject of a severe diminution of the production that in 1937 was just 5,000 hectoliters (132,000 gallons) also because of the bad meteorological conditions. At the vigil of the World War II - in 1939 - they were only produced 22,000 hectoliters of alcohol (581,000 gallons) and the cultivated acreage was just 53,000 hectares (131,000 acres). The grave crisis which took place in the Armagnac region was slowly recovered and today vineyards have an acreage of 28,000 hectares (69,200 acres) of which 15,000 (37,000 acres) reserved to the production of wines destined to distillation. The current average yearly production is of about 50,000 hectoliters of Armagnac (1,3 millions of gallons) which is commercialized in more than 130 countries in the world.

 

Production of Armagnac

 A decree of 1909 has delimited the production area and recognizes the appellation “Armagnac” in three production areas corresponding to the three “crus”: Bas-Armagnac, Ténarèze and Haut Armagnac, three areas with peculiar characteristics and that give origin to three different products.

 

  • Bas-Armagnac - it is located in the eastern part of the region, the soil is composed by siliceous clay, poor in limestone, rich in iron oxide sands which give the characteristics red color to the countryside of this area. Besides sands there is also a lime soil, of recent formation, easy to work. This region is also known as “Black Armagnac” because of the dark color of the oak leaves which are numerous in this region. In the Bas-Armagnac are being produced the most aromatic and fine brandies, the only ones capable of more than 15 years of aging
  • Ténarèze - it is the heart of the region. Characterized by decompositions of marl and sandstone, clay, lime and some red colored sands, however it is a clay-limestone soil. Even in this region the slopes are covered by deep woods. The Armagnac produced at Ténarèze is pretty “harsh” and is characterized by aromas of violet
  • Haut Armagnac - this area goes from the north to the south covering the entire eastern part of the region. It is characterized by a soil rich in limestone and it is mainly of clay-limestone type. It is an area characterized by pronounced peaks, very suitable for the cultivation of grains as well as vine. Vineyards destined to the production of distillates in Haut-Armagnac are just 2% as they are considered having a lower quality

 Before discussing the method used for the production of Armagnac, it is necessary to know its raw matter - the grape - as well as the climate and the territory which represent the fundamental element of a brandy. The quality of a brandy like the Armagnac is created and developed during the fermentation, for this reason the most suitable grapes must have little aromas in order not to cover the aromas of fermentation. Ideal grapes are the ones producing wines with low percentages of alcohol and high acidity. The grapes set by the disciplinary of 1936 are Folle Blanche, Jaune, Picpoul, Saint-Emilion, Colombard, Jurançon, Blanquette, Mauzac, Clairette, Mesliers and Baco 22 A. The main grape is Saint-Emilion, also known as Ugni Blanc - original of Italy where it is known as Trebbiano Toscano - also used for the production of Cognac. Besides Saint-Emilion the other main grapes are Folle Blanche and Colombard. It is useful to know that some producers separately distillate and age these varieties with truly interesting results.


 

 The alembic still used for the production of this brandy is called “Armagnacais”, built with copper because it is resistant to the acids of wine. It is a continuous distillation alembic still and the brandy is distilled just once. The wine to be distilled, before entering the boiler is used to cool down the steam produced by the boiler, in this way the wine enters the alembic still preheated. Thanks to his experience, the master distiller, who have to carefully know his alembic still, checks all the phases of the distillation process from the beginning to the end. It is by means of the management of the heat, of the flowing of wine into the boiler, the percentage of alcohol of the resulting brandy, which can be obtained a good quality distillate. From the result of the distillation is obtained a brandy having 58-63% of alcohol.

 Recently the traditional alembic stills have been replaced by double distillation alembic stills, the traditional “Charentais” used for the production of Cognac. This event has divided in two sides experts and Armagnac lovers. The two methods are not the same and, of course, give origin to different products. The traditional alembic still is more suitable for high quality wines, because it produces a distillate rich in substances which need a proper aging time. The use of Charentais alembic still satisfies the commercial and market needs, the necessity of products with a pretty rapid aging time and the taste of consumers who demand lighter and easy drinking products. From the double distillation process is obtained a brandy having 70% of alcohol.

 The most frequent denominations are “Armagnac” and “Bas-Armagnac”. A bottle belonging to the “Armagnac” denomination can contain brandies coming from one or more crus of the region, whereas a bottle of “Bas-Armagnac” exclusively contains brandy coming from this area and it is considered as the best. According to the disciplinary, in a bottle of Armagnac must be clearly mentioned the address of the producer. The Armagnac destined to commercialization must have 40% of alcohol. Generally the label does not mention any vintage, however Armagnac cannot be commercialized in case it was aged for less than one year. The age of Armagnac can be recognized by means of the following designations:

 

  • Trois Etoiles (Three Stars) - indicates an Armagnac with more than one year of aging
  • V.O. (Very Old) V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) Réserve (Reserve) - it is an Armagnac whose younger brandies are more than 4 years old
  • Extra, Hors d'Age, Napoleon, X.O. (Extra Old), Vieille Réserve (Old Reserve) - it is an Armagnac whose younger brandies have more than 5 years of aging

 Moreover there can be found bottles of Armagnac with the indication of 10, 20 and 25 years of aging mentioned in the label, however the age must be referred to the younger brandy. Armagnac can also be millesimée - the year referred to the distillation - and it must be made with blends produced in the very same year mentioned in the label.

 

Aging

 The aging period greatly affects Armagnac also thanks to the staying in 400 liters casks (105 gallons) constructed with the oak coming from the forests of Gascony and Limousin. Wood is important because passes its essences to the distillate and many are the characteristics that a distillate gets from the cask in which it is being aged. Among the many are mentioned tannins which are responsible for the changing of the color of Armagnac. Lignin, by get mixed with alcohol, produces many aromatic substances that will substantially affect the distillate. Just like for Cognac the part of distillate which evaporates from casks is called “the part of angels”.

 Even time represents an important factor. During the first 3 years, the distillate changes its original color into straw yellow and the flavors are affected by tannins which are still too harsh. This is a period in which Armagnac is to be scrupulously controlled in order to avoid it to get the so called “wood disease”, that is when the distillate has absorbed too much tannin and gets an unpleasing and bitter taste. Armagnac begins its “adult” phase after three years of aging and up to ten years. In this phase the substances passed from wood are slowly transformed, the bitter taste of young tannins begins to attenuate, the aromas begin to be characterized by hints of flowers and fruits, the color changes from straw yellow to golden yellow. After 10 years, and up to 40 years, Armagnac continues its transformation, the color darkens and chemical processes continue to refine and age the brandy. In this phase the aroma of plum is particularly emphasized and the Armagnac is at the top of its life cycle. After 40 years begins the decline, the color gets darker, up to getting a dark brown color, the taste attenuates and gets sweeter as the old age favors the transformation of some substances contained in sugar.

 During youth the casks are moved in a place of the cellar - usually under the roof - in which are found huge variation of temperature in order to accentuate the exchange between the inside and the outside environment of the cask. As time passes by, that is when the brandy needs stability and regularity, the casks are moved in lower rooms, therefore in places where temperature and humidity are constant. The expert cellar master continuously controls the Armagnac in order to decide the right time for transferring the distillate from a young cask, which passes substances to the distillate, to an older cask, which has already passed all its tannins and favors a more stable aging. After 6-12 months of staying in a new cask, the distillate is generally transferred in an old cask in order to favor aging. When the cellar master thinks the right time has come, he proceeds with the blending of the distillate in order to create the many crus.

 When the Armagnac is mature, it is being transferred in oak containers having a volume of 10,000 liters (about 2,650 gallons), where the influences of wood are minimal and the transformations are slower. Older Armagnacs, in order to avoid spoilage, are transferred in glass containers which ensure a good keeping of the organoleptic qualities. Before being commercialized it is necessary to lower the alcoholic percentage of Armagnac. This operation consists in lowering the alcoholic percentage down to 40% and it is obtained by adding - about every 2 months - small quantities of petites eaux, that is a mixture of young brandies with 20% of alcohol and plain water.

 

Tasting Armagnac

 At room temperature, fill for 1/3 of its capacity a not very large “balloon' shaped glass. The glass should be held for its base and rotated in order to favor oxygenation, then, in short repetitions, the glass will be moved under the nose in order to appreciate aromas while taking some breaks in order not to accustom the olfactory system. Armagnac is to be drunk in little and repeated sips in order to taste all the sensations the distillate is capable of evoking. Some prefer to hold the glass on the palm of the hand in order to warm the distillate and favor the development of all the aromatic substances. A good Armagnac is generally enjoyed and tasted at the end of meals and countless are the cocktails in which is used as an ingredient.

 



 Corkscrew  Share this article     Summary of Not Just Wine column  
  Not Just Wine Issue 19, May 2004   
ArmagnacArmagnac Wine ParadeWine Parade  Contents 
Issue 18, April 2004 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 20, June 2004

Wine Parade


 

The best 15 wines according to DiWineTaste's readers. To express your best three wines send us an E-mail or fill in the form available at our WEB site.


Rank Wine, Producer
1 Turriga 1998, Argiolas (Italy)
2 Alto Adige Gewürztraminer Kolbenhof 2002, Hofstätter (Italy)
3 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Capitel Monte Olmi 1999, Tedeschi (Italy)
4 Margaux 2000, Ségla (France)
5 Franciacorta Cuvée Annamaria Clementi 1996, Ca' del Bosco (Italy)
6 Anjou 2001, Domaine de Montgilet (France)
7 Syrah Winemaker's Lot Vic 3, Concha y Toro (Chile)
8 Rioja Reserva Era Costana 1999, Bodegas Ondarre (Spain)
9 Barolo Cicala 1999, Poderi Aldo Conterno (Italy)
10 Fumé Blanc Napa Valley 2001, Grgich Hills (USA)
11 Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile 1999, Maison Trimbach (France)
12 Brunello di Montalcino Prime Donne 1998, Donatella Cinelli Colombini (Italy)
13 Aglianico del Vulture La Firma 2000, Cantine del Notaio (Italy)
14 Harmonium 2001, Firriato (Italy)
15 Barolo Brunate 1999, Enzo Boglietti (Italy)

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