Although it can cost as much as a bottle of wine, a glass of vintage armagnac is considered by many a must at the end of a fine restaurant dinner. Armagnac has come a long way. Ten years ago, it was looked down upon as a rustic Gascon cousin of elegant cognac. Yet it is its very earthy honesty that has now put armagnac above cognac among the cognoscenti.
Most cognac is produced by giant firms and exported. Half the armagnac made is sold in France, and it is largely the product of peasant growers and distillers, most of whom also raise other, to them, more important crops. The great diversity of armagnac is its charm and, unlike Cognac (the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime), where vintages have been banned in the blending interests of the big firms, vintages are still readily available in armagnac and stretch back as far as the last century.
This is also the moment to enjoy it, says Alain Dutournier of the Paris restaurant Au Trou Gascon. Within the next 10 years all the great old vintages are likely to have been drunk up in the current demand for armagnac. Dutournier knows what he's talking about. He's Gascon himself and his collection of 67 vintage armagnacs, all but two from grower-distillers, reaches back to the great year of 1893.
Nobody knows exactly when distilling began in Armagnac, but it was flourishing by the 17th century when shipping taxes on its white wines were levied by bulk and it paid to reduce the volume by distillation. Once armagnac arrived at various northern European destinations, notably the Netherlands, whence comes the word brandy, from brandewijn meaning burnt wine, water was at first added to reconstitute the wine. As the art of distilling improved, the water was left out and the brandy began to be appreciated for its own sake.
Thus far, the development of armagnac and cognac is parallel. But the two are very different. There are six areas within Cognac, the best of them being the Grande Champagne on very chalky soil. Armagnac lies mostly in the department of the Gers, with small parts in the Landes and Lot-et-Garonne. It is divided into three areas, and the least good is the Haut-Armagnac on chalky soil. The best is the Bas-Armagnac on a former seabed of sand and clay. (The respective haut upper and bas lower are strictly geographical in meaning.) Between them lies an intermediate region of argilo-calcareous soil and moderate quality called the Tenareze.
The nec plus ultra is the Grand Bas Armagnac consisting of a dozen communes in the northwest corner of the Bas-Armagnac. The name often appears on labels although it is not officially authorized by the regulations of the appellation d'origine contr๔l้e.
Cognac has a mild, seaboard climate. Armagnac has a more rugged inland climate.
Armagnac and cognac originally shared the same grape varieties, notably the Piquepoul or Folle Blanche, the Colombard and the Saint-Emilion or Ugni Blanc. Today a lot of Bas-Armagnac is made from a hybrid called the Baco 22A, while most cognac comes from the hardy, high-yield Ugni Blanc.
But many small producers in Bas-Armagnac put out pure varietal brandies, especially of Piquepoul, but also of other main grape types. Thus not only are there a great number of producers, each making a certain amount of vintage armagnacs, but one can choose a particular variety within a given vintage from some producers.
And finally, the two brandies don't even use the same kind of still. Cognac uses the copper pot still in which the wine is double-distilled for greater finesse. Armagnac uses a still developed in the last century. The wine goes though only once, comes out at 110 to 120 proof instead of 140 proof as in cognac, and allows more of the taste essences through.
The pot still is also authorized in Armagnac, but is only useful for very young and ordinary armagnacs of three years' age. It refines some of the roughness out of these, but removes the character out of better-quality Bas-Armagnac.
The raw white brandy is quite undrinkable until it has been aged in 400-liter casks made of local oak, the only wood that will do. Furthermore, the wood must come from century-old trees that are split, never sawn, which ruins the grain, and the staves must be aged in the open for five years. These casks are one of the most expensive parts of making armagnac, each one costing about $350, and new brandy should begin its aging in new casks, although later aging is done in old ones.
As the brandy ages, it slowly loses its alcohol (one or two proof a year) and some water by evaporation. Some small producers and most big firms even it out at 80 proof by the addition of distilled water. Dutournier is dead against this practice, because he says it guts the armagnac, removing its follow-through taste in the mouth. He says it is better to drink a fine old armagnac at a natural 100 proof than a watered one at 80 and that it will not necessarily be more burning for its higher proof. He is quite right, as a comparative tasting showed.
A trick to tell if an armagnac has been watered: Shake the bottle vigorously until the liquid foams. If the foam holds a moment, the brandy has not been watered. If the foam collapses at once, it has. Or rub a little armagnac on the back of your hand. If the smell persists, the brandy is pure. If it fades away rapidly, it has been diluted.
Dutournier is also of the very reasonable opinion that very little goes a long way. Only a small amount should be poured into a small snifter so that it can be easily warmed in the hand never over a candle flame to release the aromas gently.
You will find an astonishing variety. The most common and obvious in a good Bas-Armagnac are prunes and vanilla but also violets, liquorice, almonds, heliotrope, pepper, hawthorns, truffles, quince and then some. There's something for everyone if you put your mind and your wallet to it.