France: Day 8 - Rounding Up the Goods - Part I

Today was a travel day, so I needed to start getting an idea of what we would eventually need to order upon our return. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost two straight, non-stop weeks of traveling, tasting, and taking copious amounts of notes—all in the name of better booze retail. Let’s see where we are so far with our French selections.

We began with Mr. Boutinet in the Fins Bois region of Cognac. We were pretty happy with his VSOP and some of the younger vintage selections we tasted there. In a line-up that already consists of Raymond Ragnaud, Ragnaud Sabourin, Dudognon, Giboin, the soon-to-be-arriving Vallein, Thorin, and Forgeron, is there really room for another producer? The pricing will be the big factor here. More value options might be nice, but now that we’re working directly with Hine I think they might be tough to beat on that end. We just got their incredible VSOP in for $46.99—a wicked good price.

Then there’s our friend Beatrice Sourdois in Toujous at Domaine de Jean-Bon. She had some amazing stuff and the pricing looked more than reasonable. We tasted a 1995 vintage that was big, oaky, and full of dried herbs with bits of anise. That, along with an absolutely killer 1987 expression full of sweet vanilla on the entry with loads of power and spice on the finish. I’d expect two or three things from this savvy gal.

Our friend Jacques at Domaine du Miquer is definitely good for another order of 1987. Maybe some 1990 as well since his Armagnac does stand out from the pack. The brandies are woody, but much leaner and full of graphite with pencil shavings.

You know we’re buying more Baraillon from our friend Paul Claverie. We’ll be grabbing some new vintages from them for sure. The 1981 they had was incredible—dark and dusty with brooding power and an explosion of peppery punch on the back end.

Domaine de Charron is definitely a wild card here. Claude Lartigue has some incredibly-powerful stuff, but it might be too oaky for true Armagnac connoisseurs. It’s definitely for our big-boy Bourbon drinkers looking to cross over. That being said, what will they ultimately cost? That is the question. Price will play the biggest role here because for the right retail sticker these are home runs. The 2004 vintage could be the answer to Elijah Craig Barrel Proof at $40.

When I was hanging out at Bernard's restaurant, working on some more photos and writing, I bought a bottle of wine for all the guys hanging out at the main counter. Bernard told them it was on me. They were very thankful, and about twenty minutes later one of the guys came over to my table and asked me to follow him over to another building. I looked at Bernard, who nodded and winked at me, so I followed the man into the other side of the restaurant. The above magnums were pulled out of a secret compartment and I was asked which one I wanted to try first.

Of course, I looked at him and said, "1893? That’s waaaay too young, dude. Pass me that 1831. I only drink Armagnacs distilled at least 184 years ago."

What an amazing experience. They were all so full of fruit and freshness despite their extremely old age. This place is pure magic.

-David Driscoll


France: Day 7 - La Vie de Montreal du Gers

With David OG on the road this morning and Charles on his way to Bordeaux, I was on my own for most of the day in Montreal du Gers. Thank God I've been taking French lessons for the past few months because I was in the thick of la vie de Gascogne—not a scene known for its fluency in English. Last year at this time I was sitting in Charles's mother-in-law's kitchen, doing some laundry, nodding my head and smiling as she talked my ear off. The problem was I didn't understand a thing she was saying. This year, however, I'm much more self-sufficient. After doing some work in my guest room, I checked out, paid the bill, and brought my luggage over to Bernard's restaurant. The plan was to take a walk and get a bit of exercise. What actually happened though was a few glasses of red wine, some local politics, and a few pieces of sausage.

Because we're in the Sud Ouest of France, there's a decent amount of Basque influence and the opinions about government can become quite heated. I was able to understand about 40% of what they were talking about and it was absolutely hilarious. It was just like that scene in Amelie with the old guy who comes into the cafe each day to rant and rave. This is all at 11 AM, mind you, on a weekday no less.

I did sneak out for a bit, however, and was able to catch the action on the streets. There was a farmer's market in the middle of the square and people were out running errands, preparing for the day's numerous meals.

Everything was calm on the Rue Calmette. There was a bit of moisture in the air. It looked as if it might rain, so people were getting their chores done early.

I walked around the edge of town to see the outskirts. It's a pretty amazing little village; very pictureque with an old well, momuments to the many wars, and views of the rolling hills from many different vantage points.

What's funny now is that I'm starting to know the people in town and they all think I'm a journalist because I walk around with my camera taking photos, then I sit in Bernard's restaurant working on the computer. I ran into the innkeeper on my walk, talking to her friend upstairs through the window.

Bernard had begun slicing the chorizo upon my return. He was getting ready for the mid-day lunch crowd. The restaurant started filling up and soon the bar was full of locals, all drinking wine and chatting, asking me what I was doing and looking over my shoulder as I edited my photos. "Les photos sont tres belles." Merci.

And now I have to go walk off all that food I just ate, that I promised myself I wouldn't eat again today. Bernard and Vero made me stay for lunch. Then they made me drink more wine. Then they made me eat dessert. C'est la vie de Montreal.

-David Driscoll


France: Day 6 - Adding to the Pack

We ate enough roasted duck last night to feed a small family. You can probably harvest my liver at this point and spread it over a piece of toast with the rest of the fois gras on the table. Today we needed to be on our game, however. We couldn't go too crazy with the food and booze.

The first stop on today's outing was a producer called Chateau de la Grangerie, which was built in the 17th century right next to an old monastery. The church and the housing for its servants was actually built in the 11th and 12th centuries, so it's safe to say that the Armagnac we were tasting today was being aged on hallowed ground.

The chai is actually located inside the entryway to the old church, so we ducked under the gothic masonry and headed into the barrel room.

Like many Tenereze producers, Grangerie distills only ugni blanc for its brandies. However, the sandy and gravel-rich soils are much more like the terrain found in the Bas-Armagnac. They fill about ten barrels a year; two of which are used for Floc de Gascogne and one goes to Pruneau—a prune-flavored brandy made by macerating the Armagnac with the dried fruit also grown on the property.

We were very impressed with Mr. Langalerie and his entire operation. The property itself was beautiful and well-kept. The history fascinating. The brandies top notch. We tasted a 2001 vintage that could have passed in a blind tasting for Weller 107. I think we're on to something big here.

After tasting through the ancient monestary, we headed over to a property called Carpoulat—an old estate that once belonged to a wealthy merchant from Guadaloupe who sadly passed away a few years back. Today it's being run by property managers just trying to keep the place together.

There is a ton of Armagnac sitting in barrel at Carpoulat. Even stuff from the early 1970s! That might excite you, but trust me: it's not necessarily a good thing. That would be like leaving Bourbon in barrel for more than 40 years—it sounds interesting, but in the end all you get is a big mouth full of splinters. In my opinion, the guys need to start taking this stuff out of wood immediately and getting it into glass demijohns. That being said, it's a veritable treasure trove of booze. There could be anything in that warehouse. We started popping bungs like crazy.

Lunch was spent with our old friends at Pellehaut. Laurent and Mathieu were on hand to greet us and the wine was quickly poured. Pellehaut makes a lot more wine than Armagnac, and most of it is both delicious and extremely inexpensive. Why we're not importing it is beyond me.

This was our fourth visit to Pellehaut, so there wasn't much else to do other than taste new vintages. We definitely will be adding more to the pile of Age de Glace and 1973 landing in Oakland shortly. Pellehaut is one of the most popular producers we've worked with over the years, so there's no point in slowing down that momentum. Our customers love the quality, price points, and the flavor. What's not to love? Their Armagnacs are rich, fruity, and delicious.

Last up on the schedule was another new producer for us; a domaine called Papolle that was recently purchased from a British businessman by a French family named Piffard. The old house on the property is very Gascogne—dark wooden interiors, old furniture, and artwork full of.....

...still-life fruit bowls, half glasses of wine, and a pile of vegetables with dead pheasants. It was quite romantic and almost modernly gothic in style.

Frederic Piffard, who runs the domaine, was unfortunately in the hospital, so we met with his father who made the original purchase of the estate. He was very nice and more than eager to go romping through the warehouses with us. We liked him immediately. We also liked his wonderful brandies, especially the older baco vintages from the late 70s and early 80s. A wish list was quickly made.

We made a heckuva lot of progress in Gascony this year. Already we've visited more than six new producers from whom we definitely want to start buying Armagnac from. Add them on to the list of properties we're already working with and the roster begins looking quite formidable. We expect our work in Armagnac to be very popular with our spirts clientele, especially when you consider the prices we should be paying for this stuff. With the American whiskey market getting slimmer and more lucrative, Armagnac is the perfect remedy to that issue. It's a lot to take in, and the work isn't easy, but with two dedicated buyers here on the ground we think K&L will be ground zero for all Armagnac fans by the end of the year. We're working very hard to make that happen.

Tomorrow will mark an interesting twist in our spiritual saga. David OG is going to rent a car and head off towards Burgundy, where he'll meet with Michel Couvreur before moving towards the Jura and Switzerland. There are a few single malt producers in the region he thinks might have some interesting products to consider. I, on the other hand, want to continue researching and documenting the brandy producers in the Southwest, so I'll be staying behind with Charles. The plan is to meet back in Calvados by the middle of next week.

There are two Davids, so why not get twice the amount of work done by doubling our efforts? We'll see how it goes!

-David Driscoll


France: Day 4 - New Blood

Like I stated a few days ago at the end of the Scotland posts, this year we're really looking to expand on the previous work we've done in Armagnac and become the top retailer of French spirits in the United States, bar none. We've done well so far, but there's an entire countryside out there full of small producers that even our good friend Charles—Mr. Armagnac himself—has never visited. Imagine if when you went to Kentucky you could drive around and find all kinds of different Bourbons aging at rustic farms all over the state. That's what driving through Gascony is like. If you're new to the K&L spirits blog and you're just learning about Armagnac, let me tell you something very important you should know: you don't need to be a distiller to be an Armagnac producer. What you do need, however, is grapes. You can always pay someone else to make the wine and distill it for you. Then you can just fill your own barrels and age them in an old building next to your house. Most distillers will even do the work in exchange for a percentage of the final spirit. That means there are all kinds of small farms all over the Sud Ouest holding inventory of their own domaine-distilled Armagnac. Take this humble abode in the above photo, for example.

You would never expect this tiny house, just off the main road in the town of Perquie, to be full of aging spirit. It's the chai of Claude Lartigue, the owner of Domaine de Charron, who is a rather new producer in the region. Claude is a relative of the Darroze family who started out by selling a few barrels here and there. Eventually he bought 12 hectares of baco from another family and began distilling four to six barrels of brandy per year. He's a bit unique, however, in that he only uses new oak and he doesn't touch the spirit once he's filled each cask. Basically, he makes brandy like Americans make Bourbon. 

The difference in style is clear right when you look at his bottles. The brandy is dark and rich in color, just like you would expect a Bourbon to be. We tasted his 2004 vintage first and I looked right at David and said, "Stagg Jr." It's a big, spicy behemoth of a brandy. The Zebra on the label is an homage to Claude's favorite local rugby team, whose uniform consists of a black and white striped polo shirt. We might do a few of these vintages for all you high-proof-loving American whiskey drinkers. This Armagnac is right up your alley.

After a bit of tasting we stopped off for lunch in a nearby village. The weather was once again warm and picturesque, so we sat outside. Completely unlike previous Springs where we've been bundling together in the car for body heat.

Next on the list was another new face—and a pretty one at that! Chateau Maouhum is today being completely run by Christelle Lasseignou, who began to take over for her parents more than a decade ago. Don't let her stylish clothes and her good looks fool you, she's a farmer through and through. She does everything at the chateau herself—from the vineyards to the distillation, to the management of the barrels. We were very excited to taste her stuff.

One of my favorite things about Chateau Maouhum is that the vineyards are just a few steps from the warehouse, so you can get a sense of the property while you taste. Christelle's grapes are all baco and she distills only a few barrels each year. We tasted through vintages from 1983 to 2004, and even a few younger VS and XO expressions. They were all outstanding.

Driving away from the property, I was struck again by how amazing Gascony is; especially for any fan of wine and spirits. You really get the best of both worlds here: the bucolic hills, the rustic stills, the vines, and the old buildings full of aging spirits. I think it's the spiritual home for any lover of fine booze because it's accessible and authentic. It's not a carnival show with a big tasting room and tons of billboards designed by a marketing department. It's just real people making real booze (now that sounds like it came from a marketing department). And don't forget the food! Gascony is the gastronomic center of France.

Our last appointment was at yet another new producer called Chateau Sandemagnan, a much larger and more polished producer that actually owns and operates its own pristine alembic still. We met with the manager of the chai and a few of the property managers to check out the scene. Sandemagnan grows grapes for winemaking as well as for distillation with 25 hectares reserved for Armagnac varietals. They distill about 150 barrels per year and their stocks of older vintages are quite robust.

The packaging at Sandemagnan is also quite sleek, but I quite liked the stark black label and the brooding look of the bottles. The character of the spirits matched the design. They were dark, dense, complex, and mysterious in flavor; moving from spiced fudge to burnt orange and back to dusty cocoa. We were all very impressed with the entire operation and I think we'll definitely be picking up a few things here.

After a long day of tastings and meetings, we're now off to Bernard's for some serious grub. This is the best meal I have each and every year. I'm getting both my psyche and my stomach prepared as I type this. It's an onslaught of fat, lard, and meat that always sends my digestive system into complete shock. But I do it anyway because I love to eat, drink, and listen to Bernard rant about everything from local rugby politics to the merits of slaughtering pigs by hand. A wonderful night awaits!

-David Driscoll


France: Day 3 - Fins Bois to Bas-Armagnac

We started Tuesday by driving north of Cognac, through the Borderies region, and to a new producer in the Fins Bois called Bernard Boutinet. It’s amazing how many of the buildings in Cognac look similar to one another, not just in style but also in floor plan and design. Boutinet’s home looked identical to the bed and breakfast near Dudognon we’ve stayed in over the years. We asked Mr. Boutinet about this phenomenon and he told us, “When they built these places in the 1830s, they just built the same house over and over again.” I guess these beautiful limestone maisons are like French track homes from the 19th century!

Boutinet had an interesting variety of standard VS-XO expressions, along with a number of single vintage releases that were also interesting in our opinion. It wasn’t until last year that we began visiting producers outside of the three main Cognac-producing regions—Grand Champagne, Petit Champagne, and the Borderies—so none of us were well-versed in deciphering the differences between these varied terroirs. Tasting through Boutinet’s different brandies, however—especially after having visited Hine and Hennessy—it's becoming pretty clear what the differences are. There’s much less fruit and delicacy with the Cognacs from the outer regions like the Fins Bois. It doesn’t mean they’re not good though. They’re just more straight-forward, earthy, and simple.

The soils around Boutinet are mostly clay and sand, unlike in say Grand Champagne where you have mostly limestone and chalk. Cognac is one of the few spirits where I can safely say that the location of where the base material is grown makes a huge difference in the flavor of the ultimate distillate. A comparison to the wines of Burgundy is particularly useful in understanding, I believe. The best vineyards for making white wine in the Cote d’Or are those with the best drainage, the best weather, and, of course, the best soils. However, the wines made from the chalkiest and most-mineral of terrain need to be aged in the bottle before they can express their true character. They’re so tightly-wound in their youth that they need time to soften. Contrast something like Montrachet with a white wine from the Macon—crisp, clean, simply, and ready to drink from the get go. There’s a similar relationship between the Cognacs from Grand Champagne and the Fins Bois. The former needs decades in wood before the complexities contained within the spirit can be savored, whereas the best Cognacs we tasted from Boutinet were the youngest and freshest. I actually preferred them to many of the young Grand Champagne expressions we had tasted. That being said, I wouldn’t ever lay down a case of Macon-Village chardonnay and expect greatness after a decade in the cellar. The same goes for older expressions of Fins Bois Cognac.

After leaving Boutinet we drove south, back through Cognac, and down through Bordeaux on our way to Armagnac. Our first stop of the afternoon was Miquer, but Jacques wasn’t there when we arrived, so we decided to do a few cold calls in the area. One place that Charles was interested in checking out was called Domaine de Jean-Bon and apparently wasn’t too far away. “Did you say Jambon?” I asked, “As in ham?” We pulled up to a small farmhouse a few minutes later and didn’t see anyone around. There was a lazy dog lying in the grass nearby and a cat staring at me through a window, but no sign of human life elsewhere. Charles went to investigate while David and I hung back in wait. That’s when Beatrice Sourdois found us standing in her driveway, and we explained to her who we were and why we were there. She invited us inside for a tasting and we whistled for Charles to come back and join us.

Domaine Jean-Bon was started by a family with three brothers, all of whom were named Jean crazily enough. It turns out, however, that one of the Jeans was liked more than the other two, so they named the estate after him: Jean-Bon, or the "good" Jean. Much like I had said in the car to Charles, when the family would tell others the name of the domaine, people would reply: “Did you say Domaine de Jambon? As in ham?” We all laughed when Beatrice told us this. “At that point it was too late too change the name, so they kept it,” she told us. Jean-Bon produces about four to six barrels of Armagnac per year, all distilled from Baco (although they’ve started now with a bit of Ugni Blanc). After visiting the chai, we sat down for some tasting.

We started off with the XO, but soon dove into the vintage expressions. These brandies were no joke. They had the dark, full-boded power of Baraillon, balanced by the rich oak flavor that some of Pellehaut’s Armagnacs can sometimes have. They were very, very good. Then we landed on a 1987 vintage that just exploded on the palate—rich vanilla, big spice, a blast of oak on the back end, and a long, layered finish that went on for minutes. We might be making a power play at Domaine de Jean-Bon. When I told Beatrice how much we were possibly looking for, she seemed a bit hesitant, but she also said she knew the Claveries from Baraillon. I told her they would vouch for us. You need street cred to do any business out here in the Bas-Armagnac.

We circled back to Miquer and this time Jacques was there. We did a quick run through some of his newer barrels, but decided that we still really loved the 1987 we had bottled in the past and that we might buttress that purchase with a bit of the 1990 vintage. The Miquer Armagnacs tend to have a bit less fruit and more of the delicate spice of Folle Blanche. The extra time in wood doesn’t always add richness at Miquer, but almost a drying, pencil lead character, so we wanted to be extra careful that we chose the proper casks. We tasted about four from each vintage to be absolutely sure. I’m happy with what we ultimately found.

After Miquer, it was time to visit our oldest and closest friends: the Claverie family from Baraillon. We pulled up to the house and our old friend le chien ran up to the van, eager to wag his tail and lick our faces. Laurence was right behind him with her father Paul in tow. 

The routine never changes at Baraillon. We taste in the same room and Laurence brings us some terrine on white bread. It's becoming tradition. I live for this moment each year.

We’ve never been to France with such warm weather before, so I noticed there was actually some bud-break on the vines outside. Spring has definitely sprung in Gascony. So much for all the thermals and sweaters I packed in my suitcase.

We picked up a few more vintages from Baraillon to bolster our incoming supply of 10 and 20 year Armagnac, before saying goodbye and heading back to Montreal du Gers for dinner with Charles’s mother-in-law Simone. David and I dropped our bags off at the hotel nearby and who was there waiting for me? My best friend in all of France: le chat Pipeau. He ran right up to me and had me pet his belly. “How in the hell does that cat always remember who you are?” David asked in disbelief. This little guy comes into my room every year and we play together in the mornings while I type out these blog posts. I’m hoping to get more quality time this year as well.

Then it was over to Chez Simone for soup (Simone was once known as the Queen of Soup in Gascony), foie gros, and some duck confit with fried potatoes. We busted out the wine. Charles’s in-laws Bernard and Vero soon came over, and we partied late into the night.

-David Driscoll