This morning I had the pleasure of running through some sample bottles of new Darroze Armagnac vintages now available in the California market. I was thoroughly impressed with the quality and am really excited about their imminent arrival here in the Redwood City store. If you're unclear as to who or what Darroze is, I'll give you a bit of background information, but you can also check out our visit to the Darroze estate back in January of 2012. There's a lot of explanation in that post about Armagnac in general for those of you looking to learn more.
Darroze is like the independent bottler of Armagnac, but they're much more hands-on than say someone like Signatory or Gordon & MacPhail. Not only are most of these producers only available from Darroze, but many of the brandies were actually distilled by Darroze as well. Not everyone has their own still out in the backwoods of Gascony, therefore many of the names adorning the Darroze labels are simply the names of the farm or the estate, not of an actual distillery. In many cases, Darroze will simply purchase the wine from these estates and do their own distillation and barrel maturation, much like Hennessy does in the Cognac region. Unlike Hennessy, however, Darroze will actually separate and label the brandies by the estate name. Much of what makes each Armagnac different from another begins in the vineyard, rather than in the still or the barrel. Darroze is dedicated to making that concept clear with each expression.
Exactly what is is that makes each brandy different? How about the grape varietal? Armagnac can be distilled from Baco, Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and any combination of those four. Different grapes produce different flavors and the cepage will also affect how each of the spirits ages. Baco, for example, is capable of aging for decades and decades without losing its fruit. The nuances of Folle Blanche, however, might be better appreciated in the short term. Because Armagnac is usually aged in new oak, often times charred on the inside, the flavor profile can be strikingly similar to American Bourbon where the wood spices and sugars from the cask load the spirit with richness and power. Many of the Darroze selections I tasted today would appeal to any Bourbon lover looking to branch out.
Besides its role as archivist and preserver of vintage Armagnac, Darroze also functions as a blender. Like a large house in Cognac, they often release age statement marriages of multiple brandies. Along with the many individual vintage and producer options, you can try the 8, 12, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 year old assemblages for more steamlined and rounded flavors. While I know the spirit geek in us tends to favor the undilluted, pure expression of the single estate, it's the assemblages line-up that I think will knock your socks off.
These won't be in stock until tomorrow and we will be featuring most Darroze items as "Special Order Only," but I'll give you my notes right now for the ones we plan on bringing in full time:
Darroze Les Grand Assemblages "20 Year Old" Bas-Armagnac $99.99 - Absolutely stunning Armagnac with incredible richness, spice, and balance. I can't say it enough, so I'll say it again: everyone who's out there chasing things like Pappy 20 or BMH 16 should be stocking up on things like this instead. Or maybe I shouldn't say that because the people who actually drink Armagnac regularly will get pissy. In any case, this is a slam dunk spirit. Big wood, lots of spice and vanilla, and a rustic fruit character with seamless execution. My new favorite brandy for the moment.
Darroze Les Grand Assemblages "50 Year Old" Bas-Armagnac $349.99 - Where as the 20 year assemblage is bold, rich, and powerful, the 50 year old is silky, supple, nuanced and gentle. This is an absolutely masterful marriage of caramel and vanilla, soft fruits and haunting richness. Amazing in every way.
1975 Darroze Domaine Bordevieille Bas Armagnac $189.99 - A rare vintage from the 1970s composed of 100% Folle Blanche, this is one of the prettiest brandies we carry - period. The nose offers hints of soft fruit covered in rich caramel, while the palate proves to be just as delicate. The finish is long and lasting, showcasing waves of soft toffee and fruit that ripple along for minutes. Bordevieille was growing Folle Blanche when other producers thought it wasn't worth the effort. Now we can clearly see that it was!
1993 Darroze Domaine Pounon Bas Armagnac $115.99 - The 1993 vintage from Domaine Pounon is loaded with bold, spicy wood flavor, much like a high-proof Bourbon. The nuance of the fruit is overpowered by the caramel and vanilla of the wood, but it's not a bad thing. This is crossover spirit - capable of pleasing American whiskey fans without losing the rusticity of the Armagnac character.
In addition to these four new expressions, we already carry the 12 year and 30 year old assemblages as well as a few other vintage Armagnacs. Darroze has always had a tough time catching on in the American market because their products are pricy and their focus is narrow. They are the epitome of the boutique French brandy house. However, now more than ever, I feel like this might be the right time to nudge them back into the marketplace. They were imported by Preiss Imports in San Diego for years until its eventual merger with Anchor here in San Francisco. After that they were without representation and absent from the states for more than a year (hence, why we stopped by back in 2012 looking for some possible exclusives). They now have a new importer who is focused on artisan French spirits and who has done an outstanding job selecting some of the jewels from the cellar. I'm very happy Darroze has a new home in the U.S. and I think K&L customers will really enjoy some of their offerings, especially Bourbon drinkers looking for a new experience.
One little knick-knack I also tasted along with the Darroze brandies was a fun Marcs de Bourgogne from Domaine de la Folie. Marcs is pretty much the French version of Italian grappa - a spirit distilled from the fermented must of leftover grape skins and pommace after pressing. Whereas many Italian grappas are clear and unaged, however, most of the marcs I've tasted from France are aged in wood. Until today, though, I'd never tasted one this mature. The La Folie Marc de Bourgogne was aged for a minimum of twenty years in refill Cognac barrels and offers all the flavor of grappa, with its earthy and petrol-like minerality, but with a healthy dose of vanilla and richness on the backend. The estate has been growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir since the 16th century, so I can see why they know what they're doing. The Marcs should run about $80 and will also be delivered with the Darroze stuff.