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02.26.11

Armagnac History and How to Choose the Best Brandy

Armagnac, that underappreciated and fiery Gascon brandy, has a long history. David Lincoln Ross pays tribute—and shares a recipe for a winter warmer perfect for a musketeer.

As 2011’s winter draws to a frigid close, cozying up with a glass of mellow Armagnac brandy is the very thing to take the chill off following a blazing ski run, or an hour of ice-skating round and round Rockefeller Center’s iconic rink in Manhattan or even after shoveling your driveway once a massive blizzard ends.

France, as any serious brandy lover knows, is graced with not one, but two world-class grape-based distillations; the world-renowned Cognac from Charente, a region located just north of Bordeaux along the Atlantic coast, and its under-appreciated, land-locked relative, Armagnac, which is situated deep in Gascony, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in southwest France.

Gascony is also home to swashbuckling musketeers and the birthplace of Charles de Batz-Castlemore, a brave royal guard in service to King Louis XIV, on whose life Alexandre Dumas based his series of action-packed historical series, including The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years Later and The Count of Monte Cristo, among other adventure classics.

And like an intrepid Gascon musketeer who combines courage with grace, a great, aged Armagnac is fiery on the nose, yet velvet-soft on the palate, offering attractive aromas of violets and successive savors of caramel, ripe pears, and cooked peaches. This latter taste association comes from no less an authority as the great food writer, Waverly Root, in his epic The Foods of France. Root, who sings the praises of Armagnac, devotes an entire chapter to Gascon cuisine, whose regional specialties are based on goose or duck fat, olive oil and/or butter. Besides foie gras appetizers and main courses, Gascons love to devour such dishes as confit de canard (duck legs), garbure soups of cabbages, pork and other veggies, and pommes de terre a landàise, potatoes sautéed in goose or duck fat. It is these foods that call for a generous, powerful spirit to cap off a great, hearty Gascon gathering, and Armagnac is that very spirit.

Arabic Roots For Western Europe’s Eaux de Vie

Armagnac is also France’s oldest distilled spirit, noted in historic documents dating back more than seven centuries, according to drinks historians. Gascony’s eau de vie (translated as ‘water of life,’ a generic term covering all spirits and brandies) is also extremely healthful, meriting medical praise for 700 years or more. Indeed, in the early 14th century, Vital du Four, a Cardinal and distinguished doctor from Montpellier, France, wrote, “[Armagnac] enlivens the spirit, partaken in moderation, recalls the past to memory, renders men joyous, preserves youth and retards senility.” With a medical degree from Montpellier, one of Europe’s great centers of learning in the Middle Ages, it was there that du Four learned about Arabic discoveries in medicine, including the art and practice of distillation, and soon came to appreciate Armagnac’s medicinal benefits.

In the Arab world distillation had been practiced and perfected for millennia; its applications ranged from the production of medical drugs and fragrant perfumes to rare, colorful cosmetics and dyes. So when the Moors invaded Europe, occupying most of present-day Spain and parts of France south of the Loire Valley for more than seven centuries until their expulsion in the 15th century, they brought with them this knowledge of distillation. In time, the West adopted and adapted these techniques to distill both grape and grain; the words “alcohol” and “alembic,” which is another word for a liquid still, are derived from this language, and brandy comes from the Dutch, brandewijn, or “burnt wine”, that is, a distilled wine!

Unlike Cognac, which is distilled twice, a traditional Armagnac is distilled only once, in what is called a continuous still. The more times you distill, the more refined or pure the resulting spirit. While Cognac fanciers admire this spirit’s relative finesse and smoothness after two distillations, Armagnac aficionados prefer the more pungent, earthy flavors that come from a once-distilled Armagnac.

However, Armagnac producers were allowed since 1972 to distill Armagnacs twice, with the result that some three-star or younger Armagnacs are twice distilled, just like a Cognac, while older Armagnacs, from VSOP, XO and vintage-dated bottlings are still distilled only once, according to traditional methods.

Location, Location, Location

As with all great wines of the world, where a given Armagnac comes from, where its grapes are grown matters greatly in the final product. In short, terroir is all, where the sublime combination of soil, climate and a specific geographic location are determining factors of the ultimate character of any wine or spirit.

In the case of Armagnac, there are three delimited sub-regions in this appellation: from East to West, Haut-Armagnac, La Ténarèze and Le Bas-Armagnac. Both Haut-Armagnac and La Ténarèze produce good, sometimes even widely admired brandies, Bas-Armagnac is recognized as the most esteemed area to produce truly memorable brandies. It is worth noting most Armagnacs sold commercially are blends from all three regions, but the most refined and rare Armagnacs come only from Bas-Armagnac, according to wide agreement among Armagnac producers themselves as well as brandy critics and experts around the world. To distinguish between a Bas-Armagnac and a Ténarèze, for example, the late Georges Samalens, a widely admired Armagnac distiller and marketer, suggested to me more than 25 years ago on my first visit to the region that one should concentrate on the perfume or aroma of the spirit: a Bas-Armagnac will be scented with prunes on the nose, while a Ténarèze will display the fragrance of violets. Samalens added, “It is the terroir that makes the style.” That is to say, the soil is sandy in Bas-Armagnac, while it is dominated by clay in Ténarèze, and chalk in Haut-Armagnac, according to Samalens.

Grapes named “Mad White” (Folle Blanche), Lip-Smacker (Picpoul), and Dove (Colombard) provide the zesty collection of fruit employed in a blended Armagnac; other types including Ugni Blanc and Baco are also permitted to be used in assembling an Armagnac. After their vinification, these acidic, fragrant wines (but not too acidic, not too fragrant) are then blended and distilled, according to the practice of this or that master blended at any given Armagnac producer. (Many of these same grapes noted above are also tapped for producing Cognac in the Charente.)

And like Cognac once again, Armagnac requires ageing in oak barrels, but not just any oak barrel. The dark, almost black oak trees from the ancient Monlezun forest in the Armagnac region are obligatory for any serious Armagnac. Tight-grained, rich in tannins and deeply colored compared to lighter-colored oak trees from other regions in France, and of a different genus from American oak trees, which are lighter still, Monlezun-sourced oak barrels impart both color and flavor to a great Armagnac. While major Cognac producers may legally add carotin pigment to render color consistency to their products, an artisanal Armagnac is all natural, and its spirit gradually over the years of ageing, absorbs both its deep amber color and certain distinctive flavors as it rests quietly in its Monlezun oak barrel.

How to choose an armagnac

In selecting an Armagnac, here are some useful tips about how to read the label, so that you know what you are buying.

According to Armagnac regulations, if a bottle’s label displays three stars or the initials V.S (Very Superior), the Armagnac must be aged a minimum of two years; for a label bearing VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), it must be aged a minimum of five years; an XO (Extra Old, including similar terms such as Napoleon and Vielle Reserve/Old Reserve), the brandy must be aged a minimum of six years; while a label with the words “Hor d'age,” the Armagnac will have to be aged at least 10 years in the barrel.

But unlike Cognac, regulations in Armagnac permit producers to declare and age a so-called vintage-dated Armagnac. At established wine merchants and on wine and after-dinner drinks menus, it is not unusual to see vintage-dated Armagnacs for sale, say a 1975 Armagnac, or some as old as 1898 or even older. These Armagnacs may have been aged for 10 years or more, but not for the entire time since the date on the label, if they were, there would be almost nothing left owing to gradual evaporation, the so-called “angel’s share.”

While a vintage-dated Armagnac is certainly special in the world of brandies, with prices for such bottles running into the hundreds and thousands of dollars, an excellent XO or fine VSOP Armagnac from one of the following producers is a great winter warmer. The most under-appreciated of France’s great family of brandies is worth savoring after a great dinner or anytime with appreciative friends or newcomers.

Look for these Armagnac producers, available at most fine wine and spirits merchants:

Castarède
Darroze
Gélas
Janneau
Larressingle 
de Montal
Sempé
Tariquet 

In addition, there are many artisanal producers scattered through all three sub-appellations and if you are adventurous, don’t fail try one of these XO, Hors d’Age or vintage-dated bottlings. For more information, please visit here.

RECIPE FOR GASCONY’S GREATEST COCKTAIL: " La Pousse Rapière" 

Translated as the "sword thrust" aperitif, this Gascon cocktail packs a sufficient mix of pleasure and punch to start off any celebration

In a chilled Champagne flute glass, mix one part Chateau de Monluc Armagnac liqueur and 5 parts French Champagne or any cold bubbly, top off with a very thin wedge of orange, and toast, invoking the Musketeers' loyal oath, "All for One, One for All!"

Note: If an Armagnac orange liqueur is not available at your local wine and spirits shop, you may substitute this recipe with a French orange liqueur such as Mathilde Orange XO, La Belle Orange Liqueur, or any good orange triple sec liqueur.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

David Lincoln Ross is a contributor to The Daily Beast. For more information, please visit: www.davidlincolnross.com