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Saturday
Jan212012

France Day 5: Cognac & Business

Today was the day of reckoning for some of us.  I managed to get about seven hours of sleep, but Charles was up all night with a stomach ache, and Girard couldn't fall asleep until late.  We all missed our alarm clocks and breakfast was a struggle.  Nevertheless, we had an appointment at Dudognon and they're a Cognac we already carry and love.  The weather was cold and rainy, but we rallied to the cause.  Dudognon is run by Claudine Dudognon-Buraud and her husband, working at their small distillery nearby their quirky little home.

We tasted a few things out of the barrel, but quickly learned that Grande Champagne Cognac of this quality isn't really too great out of the cask.  It's too delicate and doesn't really show well at cask strength.

Their still is tiny and has a very long swan neck for a more elegant spirit.  They have chairs nearby to relax while they distill.  While we truly loved everything we tasted, we already knew that we wanted to carry their spirits.  They're some of the best we offer and now we know that great people are behind them. 

We made it over to another few producers, but we didn't see anything too worthwhile.  Now we're back in the hotel room, going over the samples, while Charles breaks down the pricing.  The pricing is looking good right now.  We've decided on about eight different expressions, including the 1900 vintage from Barailllon!  Look forward to some amazing brandies very soon.  Calvados tomorrow!

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jan202012

France Day 4: Out in Cognac

There's a huge difference between Cognac and Armagnac, and I'm talking about the regions rather the spirits.  Cognac is like Napa, with large estates, boutique farmers, and vineyards covering every inch of valueable Grand Champagne property.  Armagnac is like West Virginia in comparison - heavy forestation with backwoods country folk dwelling on pig farms, doing distillation if they have some spare time away from the corn field.  There is a big difference between the brandies of Cognac and Armagnac as well.  Here are a few things I learned today:

-Cognac producers like to make high alcohol wines because they can distill them to about 70% after two times through the still.  Remember that Armagnac producers don't like to water down the spirit, so they produce low alcohol wines that come of the still at a drinkable 50% or so.

-Cognac is produced on a pot still, so the heads and tails are cut and only the hearts are kept, much like single malt whisky.

-Terroir plays a huge role in Cognac.  Grand Champagne grapes, as opposed to Petit Champagne or Borderies grapes, produce wines with high acidity that result in spirits with the potential to age due to the chalky soils (Armagnac has very sandy soil).  Like a great Bordeaux, Grand Champagne Cognacs can age gracefully for sixty or seventy years before reaching their true potential.  The only difference is that the brandy must age in the cask.  We tasted a 59 year old at dinner last night that still tasted too austere.  It needed MORE time in the wood!

-Cognac barrels are toasted with a much lower char than Armagnac barrels.  The wood influence is therefore more mild.

-The wine made from ugni blanc in Cognac tastes nothing at all like wine.  I always imagined them distilling some drinkable, crisp white wine, but it's more like a yeasty lambic beer with insanely tart acidity.

-Vintages also play a big role in Cognac.  The more austere the vintage, the more austere the wine, the more austere the spirit, the longer it takes to age and open up.

A Cognac still looks much like an Armagnac alambic still, except that there are no column plates that re-introduce the heavier vapors back into the wine.  Unlike Armagnac, almost every Cognac producer has their own still somewhere on the property.  By producer, I mean a person who actually grows the grapes, makes the wine, and distills the spirit.  Hennessey, Remy Martin, or Martell for example are not producers.  They are houses who buy Cognac from actual producers and blend them into their own brands.  Cognac is much like Champagne in that it's completely controlled by a handful of large companies who dominate the market with heavy advertising.  For that reason, Brandy geeks usually side with Armagnac for more interesting flavors, but we managed to visit a few producers of note today who had some pretty spectacular stuff.

Our first stop of the morning was to Raymond Ragnaud, a producer whose Pineau des Charentes we've been carrying for sometime now.  The original Ragnaud Cognac was produced by the Ragnaud family, but when the two brothers Raymond and Marcel took over they were unable to work together.  The Domaine split and now there are two separate brands under the name of each brother.  Raymond Ragnaud is still produced on the original estate and is now overlooked by his daughter, Mrs. Ragnaud-Bricq pictured above. 

Jean-Marie has been the distiller at the property for the last thirty years.  He took us down into the cellar for some cask tasting and a lesson on barrel aging.  Like Armagnac, the Cognac producers believe in aerating the spirit by changing casks every six months to a year.  We tasted a few out of the cask, but Grand Champagne Cognac doesn't taste all that great in its youth - and by "youth," I mean anytime in the first twenty years of its life.  Usually the blends have more complexity because the young brandy is balanced by an older vintages.  We tasted some very fine blends that we might be bringing back to the states.  Their Reserve Rare was very gentle and tasted of toasted almonds with soft stone fruits.  We also enjoyed the Trés Vieille, which is made entirely of 1948 vintage brandy and has a rich, rancio finish.  Cognac finishes can last for minutes and evolve on the palate long after the spirit has vanished

Our next visit was to François Voyer, a small grower-producer in Grand Champagne not too far from Ragnaud.  They hold about 29 hectares of vineyard and another 15 outside the region from which they make Cognac from Hennessey.  Apparently, now is a good time to be a supplier for the big houses.  With the asian market increasing its demand, there simply isn't enough Cognac to go around.  That has increased prices and profitability for smaller producers like Voyer who can always sell off what they don't sell themselves. 

Cellar master Pierre Vaudon took us on a tour of the estate and took some cask samples for us.  We weren't too blown away by any one expression, but Cognac has never been about the single cask - it's a spirit based in the blend.  However, we still wanted something unique, so we decided to choose our favorite single casks and describe what we liked about them.  After a few hours, we had crafted together four different blends from various vintages and ages that were based on our recommendations and desires.  With any luck, we'll be bringing a few of these in on a larger scale later this summer.  The finesse of these brandies when put together is remarkable.

LUNCH TIME!  When in France....

Pulling up the road into Jaques Esteve's driveway, one would never think that there was Cognac being produced anywhere near the area.  Under the garage, however, there's a full scale operation going on.

Jaques was in the middle of distilling when we arrived and he's thrilled about the market at the moment.  He produces for both Remy and Hennessey and it's easy to see why they're both after his stuff.  Even though he's in Petit Champagne, he's located about one kilometer from the border of Grand Champagne so there's virtually no difference between his brandy and the best of the best.

Being in a bit of a hurry, we went right into the tasting bar to begin sampling his goods.  Boy, does Jaques ever have "the goods."  His Reserve Ancestrale is a blend of 1945, 1949, and 1950 vintages and is absolutely stunning.  The aromas are haunting, drifting between rancio, candied orange peel, and beautiful toffee notes.  The palate has massive flavor and richness.  We'll probably grab a few cases of this.

We asked Jaques if we could sample some casks and he looked at us like we were crazy.  "Why would you want to do that?" he asked.  He complained about getting spiderwebs all over his coat, but he acquiesed and agreed to take us out back and underneath the barn, down into the chai for some serious spelunking.  It was worth the effort.  Down in the dark was a simply awe-inspiring 1979 cask that was the best thing I've yet to taste on this trip.  A powerful, woody Cognac with pencil shavings and sweet fruit on the nose, along side dark chocolate, almonds, earth, and citrus on the palate.  The finish lasted for ten minutes and I almost hit my head on the ceiling as I jumped up with joy.  We'll be taking this one.

The rest of the evening we spent with a negotiant with whom we'll be working on a few special labels just for us.  We all had dinner at a fantastic Michelin starred restaurant in downtown Cognac before calling it a day.  More awaits us tomorrow.  Until then.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan192012

France Day 3: Jackpot

Once again it's late, there's a lot to talk about, and I need sleep in the most desperate way.  Work first, however.  We hit the jackpot today, finding a number of wonderful Armagnacs that we feel really speak to the character of the region and that should provide perfect crossovers for Bourbon fans.  The first stop of the day was to a small producer called Baraillon.  This father and daughter duo work on a real, bonafide farm in the middle of nowhere.  You would never think that brandy this good was hiding in a small rickhouse behind the main house, but nevertheless there is. 

Not only are there amazing barrels to be had, but incredible older vintages are resting quietly in glass demijohns as not to mature them any further. 

Mr. Baraillon and his daughter Laurens had a serious collection of samples waiting for us on there arrival.  There was little talk about flavor profiles or the nuance of their spirit.  They brought out a small plate of terrine on sliced white bread and just stood there watching us do our thing.  They are people of few words, prefering to let their product speak for itself.  They're humble farmers who understand their craft and know they do it well.

While we won't be bringing back a batch of the 1900, it was part of the tasting menu.  The Baraillon Armagnacs are rich with concentrated fruit on the entry.  We tried some 100% folle blanche specimen from 1988 and 1995 that were brimming with supple textures and spicy new oak, as well as some blends that were drier and hinting of dark fudge with moist earth.  The big winner was a 1985 combo of ugni blanc and baco that we'll probably end up bringing in.  I would compare it to the Glenrothes 1985 in that everyone should be able to enjoy its enticing nose of brown sugar and stewed apricots, as well as it's incredible finish of sticky toffee.  This should be a big hit.

Not too far away in the town of Hontanx is Frederic Blondeau's Domaine de Lassaubatju, a much more modern and streamlined operation than Baraillon.  We were a bit late, but Frederic brought us right into the chai for a look at his incredible stock of wonderful brandies.

Frederic had much to tell us. First off, Lassaubatju does not make any table wine to sell, so 100% of their wine is for distillation.  That means they're always using their top stuff for the Armagnac.  All of their barrels are coopered by a local producer who uses wood from the forest nearby.  That's the ultimate terroir!  We started with a 1989 blend of baco, folle blanche, and ugni blanc that took my breath away. I took one look at David OG and knew this was going to be a great tasting.

More than any producer we've visited so far, I'm positve that Frederic's Armagnac are going to please our whisky enthusiasts.  Four straight vintages (89,88,87, and 81) were reminiscient of Buffalo Trace Single Oak whiskies on the nose with pencil shavings and a nutty aromas.  Some were rich with baking spices, while others were drier with more pepper, but all had a gorgeous almond skin finish.  These are serious spirits and Bourbon fans are going to eat these up.  We might bring in all four barrels.

Our last stop in Armagnac before heading off to Cognac was Domaine d'Ognoas, a government-subsidized distillery that also functions as a farm and distilling school for those looking to enter the trade.  The property has been around since the 1200s and was once focused on teaching the fine art of cow breeding.  They began distilling Armagnac in 1809 and still use a very old still.

This ancient gem of an alambic uses a wood fire on the bottom left as a heat source and distills 400 gallons a day during its seasonal run.

The property has many rooms full of brandies from various cepages and vintages. We really enjoyed a 2000 from folle blanche and ugni blanc that will likely make the rotation of imports this summer.  Loaded with big charred oak flavors, marzipan and dusty cocoa flavors, this should be one of the best values we see on the whole trip.

I really liked their packaging as well.  I hope we can bring it in with this same label.  That's it for today.  I'm in Cognac.  We just had a big dinner at Dudognon.  I think we get to sleep in a bit tomorrow so I'm going to rest up.  That's it for today!

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan192012

France Day 3: Late to Bed, Early to Rise

Whoohoo! Four whole hours of sleep.  I'm up, so I might as well write.  Here's some more food for thought:

There are over 300 producers in the Armagnac region, and by producers I mean people who grow Armagnac grapes (baco, folle blanche, colombard, ugni blanc).  Because there are few actual distilleries, being a producer means you have a farm, you harvest grapes, you make wine, and that wine gets distilled - either by you or someone you hire to do it.  The result goes into barrel and sits in your barn or warehouse until it gets sold to someone like Darroze, or bottled for Armagnac customers.  Because one doesn't need to own a still to be a producer, the number of possible producers is suddenly limited only to the number of farmers growing the necessary grapes.  There are a lot of people growing grapes and making wine in Southwest France, therefore there's a ton of Armagnac out there.  That's a compelling fact and a very exciting idea if you're looking for the new frontier in spirits.

The last day has completely changed everything I thought I understood about distilling.  You always hear that pot stills provide the real flavor because the base liquid being distilled isn't constantly re-introduced back into the mix.  When distilling on a pot still you have to boil the booze and capture the alcohol, keeping the cut of distillate you want and either dumping the rest back in later or using it for disinfectant.  Pot stills are always considered a more pure method because they're not as easily automated.  According to Armagnac producers, however, with brandy, a pot still isn't really the best option for pure flavor.  Of course, they could be just saying that, but let me explain their reasoning.

The left side of the still pictured above in the second photo is where the wine is boiled and vaporized, while the right side is where it is condensed back into a liquid.  Unlike a standard pot still, which has nothing but an open chamber between the liquid and the neck at the top, the alambic Armagnac still has a series of plates, as you can see have been removed in the picture above, through which two mutually beneficial actions occur - one going up and the other going down.  As the vapor rises, the plates help to filter out the heavier alcohols and force them back down into the wine, allowing only the desired ones to pass through.  At the same time, the wine being distilled is pumped in from from above so that it travels down into the boiling pot via these plates.  That means the vapors going up must pass through the wine going down.  As the vapor intermixes with the wine, it grabs more of the inherent flavor before finally making it's way to the top. 

If distilling wine in Armagnac is ultimately about grabbing the inherent flavor of the wine, then as a farmer you've got four choices as far as varietals.  Baco used to be the grape of choice, but we quickly learned this was only because baco was resistant to phylloxera.  The grape itself doesn't have a load of personality, which makes it a pour choice for normal table wine, as well as a blank canvas for new oak.  However, it does produce brandies that can age very well in the 30+ year old range.  Therefore, if you're interested in creating rich, supple, and extra mature Armagnac, then baco isn't a bad choice.  However, you won't be able to sell any baco wine to supplement your Armagnac income and the younger brandies will be less interesting.  Most producers who are serious have switched over to the other three grapes, with folle blanche being the crown jewel.  Because of its tempermental ways, folle blanche is difficult to grow and tough to mature, but because distilling wines need high acidity, the farmers can pick earlier than vintners looking to bottle something drinkable.

Then you've got the whole cooperage aspect to think about! New oak? First fill?  If so, then for how long before you transfer it to an older barrel so the the wood maturation slows down?  Mr. Darroze told us that new oak sets the foundation for an Armagnac and, "like a house," a brandy needs a solid foundation before anything else can be done.  When we were walking through the warehouses of Scotland, we saw things like 1993 Bladnoch or 2000 Bruichladdich written on the side of the cask, however, single malts are so much easier to understand!!  You can tell what type of barrel the whisky has been aged in by looking at, how old it is from the date, and who made it from the name.  When we see an Armagnac barrel that says 1978 only know the age and where it's from based on who we're visiting.  What varietals were used to make it, however?  Baco?  Folle blanche?  A blend of both or perhaps ugni blanc as well?  How long did it spend in new oak?  What fill was the barrel it was then transfered too?  What was the vintage like that year? For that particular varietal?  Maybe good for baco, but bad for folle blanche.  How long should it be aged based upon the quality of the vintage?  All of these aspects affect the flavor and for that reason there are many different flavors of Armagnac.

We tasted Armagnacs yesterday that bourbon lovers would die for.  Rich, woody, spicy and powerful.  Lot's of barrel character.  Some are bold at a cask strength high proof, some are more mellow, but few are dilluted with alcohol.  If the brandy is at 45% it's because it naturally evaporated to that point over time.  Almost everything we tasted was completely uncut, from a single barrel, and totally drinkable without water.  These are important factors for spirits geeks like us.  Even though Armagnac has been produced for over 700 years, no one here is blindly stuck in tradtion.  The producers are adapting and they're giving passionate drinkers what they want.  There is so much variety and potential here.  Plus, unlike whisky makers, the producers have to do the viticultural side as well.  We're celebrating master distillers in Whiskyland, meanwhile the Armagnac producers laugh at that idea.  For them, distilled spirits begin in the field.  It's a lot to take in, but I think Armagnac is going to be a big player for K&L in 2012. 

Wait until you taste some of the bottles we plan to bring in.  You'll see what I mean.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan182012

France Day 2: 18 Straight Hours of Tasting in Armagnac

I have about fifty pages of information I would like to write about right now.  Unfortunately, it is 1:20 in the morning here and I have to get some sleep.  I'm going to try and give the quickest version of the day's events that I can, but I have a feeling it's going to drag out a bit.  Today was simply the most educational day I've had on the job since I started working at K&L.  There are so many things about Armagnac that I didn't know until today that it makes me embarrassed I didn't know them!  If spirits geeks ever wanted the ulitmate challenge, Armagnac is it.  Simply put, there are so many factors that go into making a quality spirit that it makes your head hurt just thinking about them.  All of the viticultural factors like weather, soil, and winemaking come into play, as do all of the components of distillation.  In Armagnac, you have to be able to master both, unlike in Scotland or Kentucky.  Facts I didn't know:

-Armagnac is almost always initially aged in new charred oak, or second fill oak for the first year or two.  

-Armagnac is usually transfered to a new barrel every two years, or at least racked to oxidize the spirit and tame the fiery alcohol inside of it.  Oxygen helps to accelerate the aging process.

-Unlike Cognac, Armagnac is almost never watered down.  Therefore, it is important for the spirit to be distilled at a drinkable proof.  It's easy to make a 70% Cognac from a high alcohol wine, but Armagnac base wines must be lower in alcohol so that the spirit runs at a lower proof.  Therefore, viticulture is very important.  Unless you want to water down your precious Armagnac, that is!

-Vintages are important in Armagnac because the wine determines the flavor and the flavor determines how long the spirit needs to be aged for.  Just like wine, the vintage determines how long you need to age it.  It's just that in this case you have to age it in a barrel instead of a bottle.  Great vintages can drink young, or last decades.  

-Distilling wine that is 11% or higher doesn't work well in an Armagnac column still.  The vapors don't flow upward as easily and the result is less concentrated.  Armagnac isn't doubled distilled because the second distillation wouldn't be in contact with the wine itself as it boils.  

-Amost no Armagnac properties have stills.  They usually hire a stillman to bring one after the harvest is over and contract out the work.  Armagnac producers are farmers first.  

Crazy, right?  There's so much to know!

The first stop of the day was Chateau Pellehaut, an Armagnac whose blend we have been carrying for years.  Located in the Tenereze, the location was a mere five minutes from our hotel, so we had no problem stuffing down a croissant and coffee before hitting the road.  Laurant met us at the entrance and immediately brought us in the chai for some barrel sampling.  The brandies at Pellehaut are amazingly powerful and rich, almost like bourbons.  In fact, were we to have tasted these casks blindly, I could have easily been fooled into thinking they were Four Roses.  

Most Armagnac barrels are 400 liters, but too much wood is a bad thing.  When the brandies reach an age where barrel maturation begins to hurt rather than help, the spirit is transfered to a gigantic barrique where it can mellow out without the inflection from the wood.  Laurant scaled the top of an old 1982 blend and pulled a sample for us.  David and I were very impressed with an old 1973 that tasted of rich caramel, dried prunes and baking spices with earthy highlights.  A 1987 also wowed us with its sexy sweetness, yet firm, almond flavored profile.  Bourbon lovers will be going nuts for these brandies.  There's nothing like them in the U.S. right now.

After Pellehaut came Chateau Ravignan, a property that has been producing Armagnac since the 1730s.  At the beginning the property only distilled for medicinal purposes and put the spirit in barrel as a convenient way for storing it while not in use.  They quickly discovered that the eau-de-vie would have more uses than merely sterilzing their drinking water.  

The Ravignan Armagnacs are far more refined and lean compared to Pellehaut.  Located in the Bas-Armagnac, a region known for the most superior expressions and best terroir, they have a softer and more refined palate.  The flavors are nutty and more complex, with fruit that is less obvious and complexity that needs to be coaxed out.  We sampled older vintages from 1980 and 1988 as well as some younger brandies from the late 1990s.  All were superb.

Before heading over to the actual Boingnéres warehouses we stopped by owner Martine Lafitte's house for a "quick" lunch that included multiple bottles of Champagne, wild boar terrine, and locally-hunted wild pigeon (buckshot included) with fresh Spanish green beans followed by a large cheese plate.  We had an absolute fantastic time and couldn't wait to hear her teach us about the brandies.

Martine is a big believer in Folle Blanche because it is the most difficult grape to grow and provides the most complex flavors in an Armagnac.  For that reason, almost all of her brandies are Folle Blanche.  Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Baco are also allowed in the region, but Folle Blanche also makes a great still wine which gives producers other alternatives besides just distilled product.

In the chai, Martine pulled samples from amazing older barrels included a string of 1995 Folle Blanche casks that really spoke to us.  Her brandies are powerful, yet restrained at the same time.  The fire is there, but the flavors are all perfectly in balance with wonderful fruit and beautiful almond-skin nuttiness.  They're also not inexpensive, so you pay for what you get.  We're working on negotation for some of these!  Martine is also one of the rare producers who owns her own still, which is a real beauty.

After bidding Martine goodbye we drove to Darroze, the biggest negotiant in the Armagnac region.  Like a Murray McDavid or A.D. Rattray, Darroze purchases wine from other farmers in the region and distills them with their still on site, labeling each bottle with the name of the producer.  Their library is vast and, once you understand that Armagnac is about farming, it makes the scope of their inventory quite amazing.  We tasted over fifty different expressions including a ten year verticle from Chateau Gaube, a small producer in the area who distills none of his own wine.  Mr. Darroze is also perhaps the most knowledgable person I met today and helped clue us in to many of Armagnacs unclear logistics.

At 9:30, we hit Tariquet to celebrate the distilling season by eating a few oysters and watching the spirit come off the still.  Tariquet also has their own alambic still and it runs constantly from November to February.

Powered the old fashioned way by wood fire, the still is a real treat to see in action.  We watched a few gallons of spirit come out before making our way back to Montreal for a very late dinner of roast duck and asparagus with apple tart for dessert.  This was one of the longest tasting days I've ever been through.  Good thing we're in good shape.  Until tomorrow,

-David Driscoll