Discovering the Joys of Armagnac
Here’s a factoid that visitors to Gascony are likely to hear eventually: The quantity of Armagnac produced in any given year is equivalent to the angel’s share—the volume of spirit lost to evaporation—of a year’s production of Cognac. I’ve never crunched the numbers, but have been assured by several Armagnac makers that this observation isn’t far off the mark. Whatever the exact ratio of this disparity between Armagnac and Cognac, the overall message to take from it is that the shadow cast across Gascony by that other white-grape brandy, which hails from the Charente, is very long.
In fact, over the years many Gascons have gotten into the habit of defining Armagnac simply by listing the ways it is not like Cognac. For one thing, they’ll say, Armagnac is distilled only once, not twice, meaning it retains more of its aromatic character and terroir and, as a rule, requires longer aging to soften the rough edges. For another, Armagnac is produced in small quantities on family estates, not in massive industrial distilleries that have, in the eyes of Gascons at least, created a monstrous global thirst for cheap, young brandies. Also, Armagnac’s origins go farther back than Cognac’s by nearly 200 years, the spirit having been invented in the early Middle Ages, when it was valued as a cure for everything from tonsillitis to fistulas. (In the fourteenth century, Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, allegedly suffered a gruesome death when his bedclothes, soaked for medicinal purposes in eau-de-vie, caught fire.)
The vocabulary deployed by writers and sommeliers to describe Armagnac’s aromas and flavors is vast and—as is the case with tasting notes of all kinds—occasionally ridiculous. An incomplete list of the descriptors I found in a book about Armagnac by the French restaurateur and wine expert Frédéric Lebel includes: pear, kirsch, fig, sloe, blackberry, violet, apple blossom, bracken, tree moss, hay, fennel, linden blossom, vanilla, cinnamon, gingerbread, cloves, licorice, civet, fur, leather, meat juice, musk, almond, peanuts, prunes, mandarin, grapefruit, lemon, coffee, cocoa, flint, toast, tar, rancio, oak, pine, ethyl acetate, butter, beeswax, hot sand.
Similarly, enthusiasts have come up with colorful if not always illuminating metaphors to describe the distinction between Cognac and Armagnac. In the preface to Lebel’s book, the master sommelier Gérard Basset writes, “Armagnac is to Cognac what the Rolling Stones were to the Beatles.” Paula Wolfert quotes a Gascon friend of hers who characterized Cognac as “a pretty girl in a freshly laundered smock carrying a basket of wildflowers” and Armagnac as “a tempestuous woman of a ‘certain age,’ someone you don’t bring home to Mother…”
I’ve been a lover of Armagnac, if not tempestuous women, since 2002. That’s the year Michele and I honeymooned in the Dordogne and, during a meandering drive one afternoon, dipped unknowingly into the northern fringes of Gascony’s Armagnac-making country. Small arrow-shaped signs started cropping up at crossroads, advertising Dégustation Armagnacs et Eaux-de-Vie, and we’d followed one of them down an unpaved road to a somber-looking gray house flanked by a few farm buildings that had seen better days. I rang a bell, and we waited a long time until an oldish woman wrapped in a shawl emerged from the house and led us, without a word, to a frigid, cement-floored room lined with shelves of bottles. There, in the company of the woman’s fidgety lap dog, we tasted a dozen Armagnacs, each of a different age. They were beguiling brandies, in hues of amber and topaz and old gold, fiery but soft, too, with all kinds of toasty and caramelized aromas, and flavors that shimmered weirdly around the edges with suggestions of fruit and spice. We bought three bottles for what seemed like an unjustifiably small sum and were offered, again with barely a word, a fourth as a parting gift.
Sadly, though I remember perfectly well the name of the woman’s dog—Noisette—I have forgotten the name of the estate itself. But those first tastes of Armagnac made an impression, and as my Gascony infatuation flowered in the years that followed, I educated myself as best I could about the distilled spirit. I toured distilleries big and small (rather, small and smaller). I interviewed cellar-masters and barrel-makers. I had the workings of the copper column stills, known as alembics, explained to me in exhaustive and sometimes exhausting detail. I sat for marathon tastings. I carried home bottles in my suitcase so that I might spread the gospel of Armagnac to friends back home.
The one thing I had never managed to do, though, was to witness the distillers in action. La distillation—which begins after the last of the fall harvest has been turned into weak distilling wine, and lasts anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months, depending on the size of the estate—is invoked by Gascons in reverent terms.
The descriptions usually include stoic men standing vigil day and night in unheated sheds, tending to their chugging copper stills as eau-de-vie trickles into charred-oak casks, where the clear new-born brandy will mature to golden mellowness in moldy chais, as the aging sheds are called.
In truth, what interested me more than the distilling itself were the meals that attended it. Because the alembics have to perform their work continuously until the last of the season’s petit vin is used up, the distillers eat where they work. And because this is Gascony, where you don’t just unwrap a sandwich on your lunch break, the circumstances have given rise to a distinguished tradition of feasting.
One does not just show up for a repas distillation as one might for a village cookout. One has to be invited. Knowing this, I cast a wide net, apprising everyone I knew of my desire to take part in such a meal. In the end I snagged three invitations.
The first came from one of the Esbouhats. Luc Périssé was in his forties and sported longish hair and a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard. He made a habit of slapping me on the back and shouting “Whassuuuuuup!” whenever he saw me, perhaps (though I never confirmed this) because he mistakenly believed that this was how men of my generation greeted each other in America. Luc had, by his own account, been raised by the Esbouhats, to whom his dad, one of the club’s founding members, had entrusted his son’s care during long absences for work. Luc described himself as a négociant who traveled around the region to buy and sell wine and produits du terroir.
Luc and a group of friends gathered each year at the estate of a young distiller named Jean-Christophe for what Luc characterized as a distillation dinner of Falstaffian dimensions. The meal, Luc said, went very late, was attended exclusively by men, was provisioned with nothing but meat, and was irrigated with great quantities of wine and Armagnac.
I did not hesitate to accept the invitation, though I confess that I felt a certain apprehension at the prospect of being stranded in the hinterlands of the Gers at the mercy of hard-partying Gascons.
When Luc picked me up on the night of the dinner, I asked if we might take two cars.
He shook his head and laughed. “You’d never find your way back.”
Indeed, the domaine of Jean-Christophe was about as lost in the hills as one can get in the Gers. I remember quickly losing track of where we were as Luc drove us north out of Plaisance in the darkness along a series of ever narrower roads that cut through unfamiliar villages, the car’s headlights illuminating crumbling stone fences and snarled hedgerows.
After a half hour or so, we arrived in an empty gravel court-yard surrounded by barn-like buildings. Light seeped from the entrance to one of them. I followed Luc inside and found myself in a cold, cinder-block-walled room gazing at a formidable assemblage of riveted copper that was belching smoke into a vent hood and shuddering rhythmically, ka-chug ka-chug ka-chug. This alembic—the first wood-fired one I’d seen—looked not unlike an old-fashioned train locomotive, and wasn’t that much smaller. Luc went to look for Jean-Christophe, which gave me a chance to study the contraption. One part of it consisted of an iron firebox attached to an oblong receptacle—which I took to be the boiler—topped with a five-foot sectioned column. To the right of that was a single, fatter, and much taller column made of smoother and shinier copper. The two columns were connected by two copper pipes, one of them straight, the other goosenecked. A thicket of rusty valves jutted from the middle of the big column. From one of those valves emerged a curving length of copper tubing. Clear liquid was trickling from the tube into an oak cask that had been propped on its side.
Luc came back into the room with a gray-haired man in a flannel shirt and oval glasses: Monsieur Dutirou, the night-shift alembic-tender. The others hadn’t arrived yet.
Dutirou slid a few pieces of wood into the firebox, dusted off his hands, and beckoned us over to the cask. He filled three plastic shot glasses from the end of the copper tube.
“Santé,” said Dutirou, and we threw back the eau-de-vie. It left a trail of pure fire, with a trace of fruitiness fighting through the burn. Dutirou looked admiringly at the alembic, which, he said, had been made in Agen in 1945. “She’s a beauty, non?” While Luc kept checking his watch, Dutirou proceeded, with the earnestness of a science teacher, to describe how the alembic worked. Of the many tutorials on this subject I’d received over the years, his was by far the most lucid. Here is a distillation, if you will: To begin with, the season’s freshly fermented weak white wine—all Armagnac makers must first be winemakers, forcément—travels from a stainless-steel cuve into the taller of the alembic’s two columns. As the wine flows upward through the tall column, it passes around condensing coils. In an ingenious symbiosis, the cold wine from the cuve causes the warm vapors traveling down through the coils to condense as they descend, even as the heat from those same vapors warms the wine as it rises. The now-warm wine, having performed its condensing duties, passes from the tall column over to the shorter column, where it flows down through a series of platforms on its way to the boiler receptacle at the bottom, getting hotter as it goes. Once the wine boils, its vapors bubble back up through the plat-formed column, picking up fruity and floral aromas from the wine that’s flowing downward. (Here, Dutirou strayed into a discussion of esters and congeners; this was the only point at which he lost me.) Finally, the vapors migrate over to the taller column via the goose-neck pipe, travel down through the condensing coils, and become limpid, throat-scalding eau-de-vie, which trickles out of the spout and into the cask. The cask, in turn, will impart to the brandy, over the course of years and even decades, pleasing color, flavors, and aromas.
“Now,” Dutirou said, raising an index finger, “it is in the aging where the real story of Armagnac begins.” At that moment, to Luc’s evident relief, the lesson was interrupted by the arrival of Jean-Christophe and the first of the evening’s other esteemed convives.
The guests, eight or so of them, were in the food-and-wine business, like Luc. One was a gregarious restaurateur in his late twenties, another was a middle-aged, pot-bellied foie gras buyer who, according to a whispered aside from Luc, did a clandestine side trade in ortolan, the banned but delicious songbird. There was also a dapper wine négociant who arrived with two cases of very fine-looking bottles.
One of the attendees looked familiar to me. After a minute, I realized it was the friendly counterman from Boucherie Cugini. He seemed as flabbergasted to see me in this out-of-the-way place as I was to see him. He’d come bearing dinner wrapped in bloody waxed paper: six enormous and extravagantly marbled rib eyes.
Our host, Jean-Christophe—his neck mummified in a thick wool scarf in that fussy French way—excused himself frequently to perform adjustments to the alembic, confer with Dutirou, take temperature readings from the eau-de-vie, and make notations in a yellowed ledger. He seemed distracted and distant, though he did, admittedly, have more-immediate concerns than the rest of us.
The festivities began, in the accepted tradition of Gascon male bonding, with a ridiculous quantity of charcuterie—boudin, andouillette, Ibérico ham, saucisson, pâté de tête—and two enormous slabs of foie gras. With this we consumed many glasses of what the wine merchant called the “small stuff”: a couple of Languedocs, a Chinon, a Nuits-Saint-George, a juicy Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We ate and drank standing up, off plastic plates, with the alembic throbbing away next to us, infusing our clothes with wood smoke. For a while, the men engaged in shop talk. The foie gras buyer lamented the renewal of the ortolan ban. The restaurateur talked about a shortage of oysters in the Arcachon Bay. Luc complained about the rising price of Basque wines. But as bottles continued to be emptied, the banter got looser and faster, and soon had escalated to a full-bore gasconade, bristling with put-downs and dirty jokes.
At around ten o’clock, Jean-Christophe flipped shut his ledger and stood up. In an unexpectedly macho flourish, he grabbed a shovel that had been leaning against the wall, opened the hatch of the firebox, and, releasing a dazzling shower of sparks, shoveled a pile of hot coals onto the room’s stone floor. Over the spread-out coals he laid a grill grate. Then he threw on the rib eyes. After sixty seconds or so, he flipped them. Sixty seconds after that, he took them off. The thick steaks had fraternized with the coals just long enough to color the meat’s exterior and soften the fat; inside was cool, crimson, uncooked flesh. This, the young Cugini butcher told me emphatically as we repaired to a long dinner table at the room’s far end, was as it should be.
We were too distant from the alembic for its heat to warm us, so we ate dinner in coats and scarves. The steaks tasted deeply of tangy, bloody aged beef. As the meat disappeared, the wines got older: a 2008 Vacqueyras, a 2001 Saint-Julien, a 1982 Haut-Médoc, and, as we were mopping the juices from our plates, a 1964 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, its label mostly rotted away. It was a musty artifact, shot through with skeins of dark fruit and a distant echo of tannins. Dessert was store-bought chocolate truffles. We ate them like peanuts, tossing the foil wrappers onto the bloody steak platter.
Never once did the machine-gun chatter slow down. After a while, I stopped trying to follow along, though the others took no account of this—every few minutes, someone would toss a non sequitur my way as if I’d been listening the whole time:
“You’ve got to fry the bird whole!” “Never trust a Béarnais!” “I didn’t even get her name!” “Whaaaassuuuuuuuuup!”
At length the Armagnac came out: a half-dozen bottles, each a different vintage and a different blend. I wish I could remember how they tasted. But it was late, and my palate had given up the ghost. The restaurateur, who was sitting next to me, took a sip of one, closed his eyes, and said: “Like Baby Jesus in a velvet suit.”
Now it was three o’clock in the morning and Jean-Christophe was standing at the head of the table with a long glass pipette in his hand.
“Me first, doctor!” someone shouted.
We followed our host outside into the frosty night. Our feet crunched across the gravel, and we entered the damp darkness of the chai. Jean-Christophe flicked on a light. Four rows of wood casks marched off into the indiscernible recesses of the stone-walled shed. Jean-Christophe extracted a straw-colored liquid from one of the casks and dispensed a little of it into each of our glasses: an Armagnac in gestation, a foretaste of the nectar it would become.
Sometime before dawn, Luc deemed himself sober enough to drive us back to Plaisance. His engine wouldn’t turn over, so he got three of his friends to push the car down the tree-lined dirt track so he could pop the clutch. We rolled through all the stop signs on the way home.
It may come as a disappointment to some, and as a relief to others, that not all Armagnac-distillation feasts call for swilling wine and brandy until the wee hours. The following week, Henri stopped by to deliver an embossed card requesting the pleasure of the recipient’s company at this year’s repas distillation at the Domaine Baronne Jacques de Saint Pastou, in the village of Monguilhem. Henri told us that Saint Pastou was a very old Armagnac-making family with roots in Gascony’s noblesse. The lunch sounded fancy, but Henri assured us it was really quite mondain, by which he meant lots of tiresome small talk and air-kissing.
“Monique doesn’t go anymore,” he said. “It bores her to tears.”
Henri also mentioned that the Saint Pastou family was a little bit famous even outside of Gascony, because Pierre de Saint Pastou, the estate’s young heir, had been a contestant on a recent season of L’Amour Est Dans le Pré, a reality-TV series that matches lonely bachelor farmers with potential mates. (The series name—literally, “the love is in the field”—is a play on the title of the rom-com set in Condom.)
Henri said that Pierre’s brief turn as a TV personality had worked out well: The couple got married, and business had been very good ever since.
The Saint Pastou domaine was one of those demure French farmsteads that could have been conjured in the mind of a painter or a movie-set designer. At the center of the property, which was surrounded on all sides by picturesque vineyards, stood a perfectly square manor house with two skinny stone chimneys rising from a pyramidal roof. Keeping the house company were a few pristinely maintained farm buildings and an immense, high-ceilinged chai sheltered by a steeply pitched tile roof with deep eaves. The estate was accessed via a long, narrow white-gravel drive. The day was sunny and unusually mild, and as we approached the house, with Charlotte and Michele in the backseat in pretty dresses, and Henri at the wheel relating some interesting fact about an old rail line that once served the area, I decided, mondain or not, that this looked like a fine place to spend a Saturday afternoon.
A few dozen guests were already milling around a long table in front of the house. A thick-set young man with a cherubic face, dressed in a cable-knit sweater, was standing behind the table, serving drinks and making conversation. This was the scion, Pierre de Saint Pastou.
Among those in attendance, there was an unusual preponderance of tweed and corduroy. More than a few guests were wearing hunting jackets—the old-fashioned kind with the padded shoulders and elbow patches. One fellow was sporting knickers, which he had paired with bright-red wool socks pulled up to the knees. Cashmere seemed to be favored among the women. Almost everyone, male and female, had a scarf draped over their shoulders, including the local curé, who was standing at the edge of the crowd in his cassock and collar. It seemed every living member of the local nobility had descended on a single patch of farmland for the day.
As if to confirm this impression, I ran into Irène Pinon, the mother of our friend Agnès, while I was waiting for a drink. Wearing her customary oversize sunglasses and gripping a snifter of Armagnac, she looked me over and, by way of greeting, asked, “Who are you with?”
I pointed to Henri, who was a short distance away, chatting with Michele.
Surely seeking a brighter star in the social firmament, Madame Pinon made to leave but was delayed by a balding, tweed-clad man of wide girth. He kissed Madame Pinon on the cheek.
“My son, François-Xavier,” said Madame Pinon. François-Xavier grinned and shook my hand.
“Agnès has spoken of you in her e-mails!” he said, showing a more cheerful mien than his mother. He insisted we join him at lunch, and asked me to call him Feex.
Feex was interesting company. Seated at one of the refectory tables that had been set up in the chai, with a bottle of Madiran and plates of grilled magret in front of us, we talked at length about his sister. Feex spoke with unguarded candor about how hard it had been for the siblings to get their mother to accept Agnès back into the family, and about how he admired his sister’s independence.
“Agnès forced us out of our aristocratic torpor,” he said.
Parting with Gascon tradition, I asked Feex what he did for a living. He said, somewhat obliquely, that his line of work was le networking.
Toward the close of the meal, after ceremonial glasses of new eau-de-vie, the elderly patriarch of the Saint Pastou family, Jacques-Henri, stood in front of the alembic with a microphone and led an eight-man choir in the singing of a Basque ballad called “Itxatxo.” This was a moment of unexpected, arresting beauty. So splendidly harmonized were the men’s voices, so resonantly did they carry through the vast, stone-walled chai, so haunting was the song’s melody, so mournful its intonations—though I couldn’t understood a word—that I found myself suddenly choked with emotion.
It was a clever bit of timing. No sooner had the song ended—with more than a few guests wiping their eyes—than Jacques-Henri thanked everyone for coming and invited the attendees to make their way to the ad hoc boutique that had been set up near the door of the chai. With that, everyone rose from their seats and began queuing up at a high wood counter, behind which stood Pierre de Saint Pastou. Grinning broadly, he accepted fistfuls of cash in exchange for bottles of Armagnac, which the guests tucked under their arms as they strode out into the waning afternoon.
There are four main kinds of grapes used for making Armagnac: ugni blanc, baco, colombard, and folle blanche. Of these, the least-used is folle blanche, which goes by different names in different parts of France, including fol, fou, enrageat, plant de madame, dame blanche, gros plant, picpoul, taloche, came braque, mendic, mendik, and mondic. Folle blanche (crazy white) accounts for just 4 percent of the total surface area under cultivation in the Armagnac-making zones of Gascony. Most estates grow just a little of it, to add some backbone to their distilling wine. This is because folle blanche, from a grower’s perspective, is emmerdant—a pain in the ass. It falls prey easily to gray and black rot and various kinds of insects, and requires lots of extra care and attention.
Almost no one makes Armagnac exclusively from folle blanche. Those who do are for the most part considered stubborn eccentrics. If there is a cult figure among this small coterie of distillers, it is a woman named Martine Lafitte.
“She is pur et dur,” André Dubosc said when, on one of our excursions, we paid Martine a visit. He accompanied that description with a knuckle-rap to the skull, a gesture he reserved for the most irascible Gascons. Dubosc explained that bottles of folle blanche Armagnac from Domaine Boingnères, as Martine’s estate is called, fetched hundreds of euros apiece, but that because the yield from the grape was so poor, Martine had never parlayed her cult status into a wider success.
“When it comes to folle blanche,” said Dubsoc, “her motto is plutôt mourir que trahir.” “Sooner die than betray.”
The entirety of our visit with Martine that day took place in the foyer of her house, standing up, while she stroked her cat. Glancing at me from time to time through thick-lensed glasses, she seemed wary of her foreign visitor. Looking to be in her sixties, she had dark bangs and a stout frame packaged in a tight leopard-print top and black slacks. After she and Dubosc chatted for a while, Martine cut the conversation short, saying she had business to attend to. When I inquired about the distillation, she extended a vague invitation to visit the domaine.
I was surprised when, not long after, she actually called me—and, moreover, sounded put out that I hadn’t phoned her first. She said that I should visit the estate as soon as possible, as they were almost finished distilling the season’s harvest of folle blanche.
The next morning, I was parked in front of a schoolhouse in a village called Le Frèche. Martine had instructed me to call when I got there so that she could send someone to fetch me: Finding the place on my own would be compliqué. I phoned the number she’d given me and spoke to a gravel-voiced man who told me to stay put.
Soon a white van pulled up and flashed its brights. I followed it down a series of country roads. A thick fog had moved in, and I couldn’t see much in front of me beyond the van’s taillights. Eventually, though, I could make out rows of vines on either side of the road, their leaves a late-autumn yellow. We pulled into a wide courtyard and parked under a cluster of leafless plane trees that had been pruned to the knuckles. They looked like bony hands reaching up from the underworld. A shuttered farmhouse stood a short distance away—the old family manor, no longer occupied, it seemed. Opposite that was a plain, plaster-walled structure. I guessed that this was the distillation shed, because a pipe sticking out of the side of the building was discharging a steaming liquid into a cistern, filling the air with a rotten-fruit smell—this was the vinasse, the alembic’s unevaporated runoff.
The van’s driver got out. A fireplug of a man with a pug nose perched at a great distance from his upper lip, he resembled a caricature from a nineteenth-century political cartoon. He said his name was Claude.
He explained that Madame was running late and had asked him to show me around the vineyard.
I grabbed a scarf from the backseat of my car. With resignation, I’d taken to wearing one, Frenchman-style, because Gascony’s particular variety of damp autumn chill had a way of getting right down my shirt collar. I followed Claude along a muddy path separating two vine plots, and then into a row of vines. He crouched by one of them and pointed at tiny holes in its trunk.
“Insects,” he said. “Worse every year.” We walked a little farther. He crouched down again and plucked off a handful of shriveled, unharvested grape carcasses, which disintegrated in his hand. “Black rot.”
Claude excused himself momentarily to urinate behind a tree. He continued to speak as he did so.
“Growing folle blanche is hardly worth it anymore,” he called out. “But Madame, she is set in her ways.”
As we walked back toward the distillation building, Claude divulged that Madame Lafitte was planning to sell the estate. She had no children, he said, and she would soon be too old to run the place.
He revealed that there had already been an offer on the property, but Madame Lafitte had turned it down because the buyers weren’t interested in keeping the domaine going, and had indicated that they would uproot the vines.
For a fleeting, ridiculous moment, I fantasized about buying the place myself and becoming a gentleman-farmer-distiller. Alas, I lacked both the funds and even a fraction of the horticultural aptitude required of a grower of folle blanche.
Domaine Boingnères’s alembic was much shinier and newer than the ones I’d seen previously. It was gas-fired, and its boiler and twin columns were perched on brick pedestals. Otherwise, though, it was the same basic scene: ka-chug ka-chug ka-chug, firewater trickling into a barrel. Claude went over to the still to check the temperature of the eau-de-vie with a glass thermometer and then consulted a well-thumbed book—titled Guide Pratique d’Alcoolmétrie—that was lying on top of some newspapers on a linoleum-topped table.
This distillation shed had a peculiar feature: a full kitchen. I could see it through a doorway at the far end of the room. Inside, a skinny, apron-clad woman was adding pieces of vine wood to a hearth. I asked Claude if I could go in and introduce myself. He looked at me funny.
“Not much to see,” he said, “but be my guest.”
The cook had a long, sallow face and appeared to be infected with the same gloominess as Claude. I was beginning to think spores of it were floating in the air. When I asked what she was making, she seemed surprised that I could possibly be interested. She pointed to a platter of plucked wood pigeons and told me they were going on the grill. All I could think of was how long it must have taken her to clean them.
The cook told me she prepared all the meals during la distillation. “Lunch and dinner, every day for twenty days—ouf,” she said. “But it’s easier than it used to be. Before Madame added the kitchen, the meals had to be carried all the way from the house.”
At one o’clock, lunch was served at the linoleum table. Martine had arrived—same bangs, same black slacks, same leopard-print top—in the company of an elderly cousin and the cousin’s middle-aged son. Claude joined us, as did Martine’s two other alembic-tenders, taciturn men in rugby shirts whose names were never shared.
The energy at the table was less than effervescent. As we sipped our aperitifs while awaiting the first course, the conversation remained at the lowest simmer, mostly gossip and bits of local news, the kind of chitchat made by people who spend a great deal of time in one another’s company.
A platter of oysters came out. What little talking there’d been ceased as the bivalves were eaten with an every-man-for-himself urgency. I was beginning to wonder why Martine had bothered inviting me.
When the grilled wood pigeons arrived, accompanied by toasts topped with a flambéed hash of the birds’ hearts and livers, I ventured a conversational foray, asking about the aperitif Martine had served.
She described the drink as a Pineau.
Before I’d thought better of it, I let slip that I thought Pineau was usually made with Cognac.
At the utterance of the C-word, Martine looked like she’d swallowed a horsefly. “The original Pineau was made with Armagnac!” she said. “The Charentais stole the idea from us.”
I started in on my grilled palombe and listened to the others talk for a while. Soon enough, though, my foot was in my mouth again. I mentioned to Martine that more than a few of my American friends, on tasting Armagnac for the first time, had likened it to a fine Scotch. I realized instantly that I’d uttered another dirty word.
Martine choked down a bite of food and made a sour face. “Armagnac can’t be compared to whiskey!” she said. “Armagnac is a nectar of the vine.”
Her laugh was tinged with bitterness. “You cannot put the date of the harvest on a spirit made from mashed-up grains!”
I decided to change tack and asked if Martine could tell me about the different Armagnac-growing areas. She seemed to warm to this. Pouring herself another glass of wine, she explained that there are three official appellations and proceeded to list them in ascending order of esteem. On the lowest rung is Haut Armagnac, in the south and east of the Gers; the brandies made there are simple and usually drunk young. The Armagnacs of the Ténarèze, covering the center of the Gers and a sliver of the Lot-et-Garonne, are often harsh and require long aging. And finally, straddling the border of the Gers and the Landes, is Bas Armagnac, home to tawny-sand soils that produce brandies of unparalleled depth and richness.
“I presume that’s where we are now,” I said.
An index finger went up. “Where we are now is in the heart of the heart of the Bas Armagnac,” said Martine. “We are in the Grand Bas Armagnac.”
It seemed she had waged a long battle, as yet unwon, to gain official recognition for this fourth, ultraprestigious appellation, which had been coined by her and the owners of a handful of nearby estates.
“We are not allowed to put Grand Bas Armagnac on our labels,” said Martine. “It’s idiotic. But of course the lesser houses are always happy to see their fortunes lifted by the great ones.”
Martine went to fetch something from the kitchen. I looked around at the others, who were gnawing at the bones of their pigeons. I was suddenly overcome by the feeling that I’d stumbled onto a lost world, or rather had been summoned to it so that I might bear witness to its final throes.
Martine returned to the table with a half-full bottle of a deep- hued Armagnac and poured a round. I read the bottle’s sepia-colored label. It was printed in old-fashioned gothic lettering:
Bas Armagnac Folle Blanche 1986 Domaine Boingnères
I imagined Martine in her bottling room with a quill and ink- well, writing Grand at the top of each label.
Everyone warmed the snifter in their hands before taking a sip. I did so, too, then drank. Nothing special happened at first. The brandy was compact, a little hot. I chewed on it for a second or two. Then something did happen. The Armagnac effloresced with flavors, crazily and in so many different directions at once that I couldn’t quite get a handle on what they were—flowers and dried fruit, maybe, and certainly vanilla and some kind of warm spice, plus all kinds of nutty and fire-tinged notes, and many lovely things in between that made me wish I had that sommelier’s word list handy. Then the whole, mad explosion resolved itself in a kind of symphonic chord.
I hardly realized it, but I’d had my eyes closed. When I opened them, Martine was watching me. She smiled for the first time all day.
“Ah oui,” she said, a little wistfully, “la sacrée folle blanche.”
Before I left, Martine showed me her cask cellar. There were vintages going back to the 1960s that had yet to be bottled. On our way out, she pulled a bottle off a shelf and handed it to me. It was another 1986 folle blanche.
She gave it a gentle pat. “A little gift to remember us by.”
From the book: DUCK SEASON: Eating, Drinking and Other Misadventures in Gascony—France’s Last Best Place by David McAninch. Copyright © 2017 by David McAninch. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.