Armagnac Preview #4 — Pellehaut

Along with Baraillon, we've been working directly with the Pellehaut Armagnacs for three years now (and even longer if you count the standard Reserve expression that Charles Neal has been importing for the last decade). They're one of the largest producers in the region and they're definitely the biggest name from the Tenareze (they also make a great deal of wine at the estate). "Big" is a relative term in Armagnac, however. Pellehaut would be considered a tiny craft distiller in the United States, but since their scale of production is vast and efficient, they're usually a source of supreme value when it comes to mature sprits. It's not unusual for us to find 30+ year old Armagnac for around $100 when we visit Pellehaut.

Located near the town of Montreal-du-Gers, Pellehaut has 140 hectares of fruit in the Tenareze (compared to 16 hectares at Baraillon) and they mature their distilled spirit in a variety of different casks. Owned by the Béraut family, which purchased the estate after WWII, the property is run today by the sons of Gaston: Matheau and Martin, who have apprenticed at Tariquet, Beycheville, and even Au Bon Climat near Santa Barbara. Today they grow mostly ugni blanc and folle blanche (which also make for tasty wine). For maturation, they begin with new oak (of various types), but often transfer the brandy to 400 liter barrels when the wood becomes too dominant a flavor.

We've bottled a number of Pellehaut expressions from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s in the past, and this year's crop will showcase a similar level of diversity. We chose more of the 1973 vintage, still as creamy and rich as we remember it, and a larger quantity of 1978; which popped in all the right places and finished with dry herbs and baking spices. We also opted for a 100% Folle Blanche expression from 1994 that showcased the new oak much like a fine Bourbon would, yet finished with the dusty complexity that only folle blanche brandies seem to offer. A fruit driven 2000 vintage offered contrast with more of a vinous character, and of course we stocked up on more L'Age de Glace—the young mixing brandy that took the store by storm last year.

The 1973 should clock in right around the $105 mark with everything else far under the century mark. There's a reason these brandies sell out first every time we bring in a new crop—they're delicious and low-priced.

-David Driscoll


Armagnac Preview #3 — Domaine de Laballe

Armagnac has been distilled at Domaine de Laballe since Jean-Dominique Laudet returned from the Caribbean to his native Gascony and purchased the estate in Parleboscq. It was Noel Laudet, however, who modernized the operation in the 1970s when he left his position as director at famed Bordeaux producer Chateau Beycheville in St. Julien and returned home to expand his family's estate into wine production, as well as Armagnac. After Noel, however, production at Laballe stopped until the 8th generation came back to take the reigns. Today, Cyril Laudet and his wife Julie have restarted operations at the Domaine and have recommitted to the tradition of their ancestors.

Julie was there to meet us when we visited the property this past March and taste us on a number of selections. Because of the stoppage between generations everything available at Laballe is either quite old or quite young—pre-1993 or post 2001. As we were searching for more value-priced expressions, we were excited to taste the simple VS and VSOP selections. We were instantly impressed by their precocious drinkability; they had spice and richness without too much oak-dominated tannin. Laballe has been using the same wood-fired still since 1923. The older expressions are mostly baco, while the newer releases focus mainly on ugni blanc.

We were very happy with the basic Laballe VS expression—to the point that we loaded up substantially. We're counting on general drinkability and a shockingly-low price point (think $32-ish) to woo our discerning drinkers into Armagnac happiness. We also selected one vintage from the old guard, and one from the new blood: a very Bourbon-esque 1992 selection that shows rich wood and notes of barrel spice; and a young, vibrant 2004 expression with lovely fruit and toasty oak.

-David Driscoll


Armagnac Preview #2 — Baraillon

We've been carrying the Baraillon Armagnacs for three years now and it's been a match made in heaven for K&L, the Claverie family, and our customers—we're their biggest account and their biggest fans. There's something special about walking into the tasting room at Baraillon, which is really just a little hut next to their home with plastic furniture and humble offerings (like fresh fois gros straight from the farm next door). Mr. Baraillon will come in from feeding the pigs wearing rubber boots, while his daughter Laurence stands by quietly, yet does most of the talking. It's as "real" of a rustic French experience as I think exists, in that there's absolutely no romantic marketing or salesmanship going on in the room. You're simply stopping by a small farm in the Bas-Armagnac that sells meat, preserves, and also happens to have a little reserve Armagnac in the chai outside—some amazingly-delicious Armagnac, no less.

We've brought in several expressions from Baraillon over the last few years: the heralded, customer-favorite 1985 vintage, a simple 10 year expression, a lovely 1998 Folle Blanche vintage, and a trio of super-old, ultra-rare gems from 1893, 1900, and 1933. Tasting through the line-up at Baraillon is not only incredibly-exciting, it's also exhausting! There are so many different expressions available, many of which have been archived in glass demi-johns to prevent further maturation. The Claverie vineyards are divided evenly between baco, folle blanche, and ugni blanc, so there is also the opportunity to taste single varietal Armagnacs versus blends of the three grapes together. As far as I know, the Claveries only distill folle blanche as a single varietal; although there are some 100% baco distillates from past generations in their chai.

While normally we taste from samples out of bottles, pulled by by Laurance in advance of our appointment, this year we decided we wanted to bottle a single cask selection. We headed with our glasses into the warehouse where Laurence dipped the rubberhose into the casks and got the booze a flowin'. We walked out with a killer barrel of single varietal Folle Blanche from 1995 that should make fans of the genre very, very happy. On top of that we picked out a straight 20 year marriage and a few other vintage selections that show the breadth and scope of the Baraillon Armagnacs.

Unlike distilleries that operate day in and day out, perfecting the distillation process in order to improve consistency, the Claveries are not worried about consistency. They only distill one week out of the year, so each batch reflects not only the vintage of the grapes, but the conditions on the farm at that particularly time. You have to remember—the Claveries have been living in the same house since 1749. They use fruit from around their property, but also from Mr. Claverie's sister in Le Freche. They do not use new oak, but rather 5,000 liter, used-vats that house the brandy until other barrel space opens up, or until they can afford to buy more wood. It's not about consistency at Baraillon, but rather what's possible at that particular moment in time (which each vintage represents). Sometimes the barrels from a vintage are blended together, sometimes they're not. It all depends on what's needed.

And that's why we feel the Baraillon Armagnacs are the most "authentic" spirit we carry; they reflect the everyday issues of everyday people attempting to make something great with their own two-hands.

-David Driscoll


Armagnac Preview #1 — Pouchegu

We're big fans of the Tenareze Armagnacs—that third-on-the-list, lesser-known region of Armagnac that seems to get lumped under both Bas-Armagnac and Haut-Armagnac in terms of recognition. However, unlike Cognac with its Grand Champagne, Petit Champagne, Borderies, and Bois designations, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that the soil plays as big of a role in determining flavor with the Tenareze brandies. When you taste a sampling of Fin Bois Cognacs versus Grand Champagne expressions, the difference is clear from the moment the brandy hits your lips—the elegance, and the fineness of the GC distillate proving that terroir does matter. With Armagnac the differences tend to be more about grape choice and stylistic differences—baco vs. folle blanche, or large barrique vs. smaller, charred barrels. It's not that terroir doesn't matter with Armagnac (because it certainly plays a role), it's that it isn't as obviously apparent.

The link that connects the three Tenareze producers we feature at K&L—Pellehaut, Ladaveze, and Pouchegu—is the richness in their spirits from the new wood maturation. All three producers have "modern" (a relative term in Armagnac) warehousing facilities and invest in their cooperage, which can stand in stark contract to more rustic producers like Baraillon from the Bas-Armagnac. Pierre Laporte, the proprietor of Domaine de Pouchegu, believes that new Limousin oak is essential to producing top quality Armagnac and strives to fill only freshly-constructed barrels. The Pouchegu Armagnacs are also bottled at higher alcohol percentages, which helps to balance out the richness and the power inflected into the spirit from the wood.

Like most Armagnac producers, Pierre does not own his own still, nor does he carry out his own distillation. It's important to remember that most Armagnac producers are farmers first, and rarely do they have time to get around to a second title or position. Pouchegu, like many producers, hires a traveling stillman to drive an alembique on a flatbed to the property when the fermentation is done, and distill everything for the year in one fell swoop. His property is planted solely with baco grapes. When we visited Pierre in 2013 he hinted that distillation might be done at Pouchegu for the foreseeable future—he feels he has enough back stock to retire at this point and doesn't have any kin looking to carry on the tradition. What's currently in the barrel at Pouchegu is likely all that will continue to exist at this point.

Pouchegu Armagnac has been winning awards and accolades in France for decades, and the brandies are considered some of the best in the region. Because of the small size and scale of the operation, it's taken us more than a year to get our batch of the 1986 vintage bottled in 750ml and ready for export to the U.S. (remember that we visited Pouchegu on last year's trip, not our most recent journey this past March). On June 30th, however, the wait will finally be over as one of the most-anticipated Armagnac releases of the year docks in Oakland and awaits customs inspection.

We're hoping it won't be more than a week or so after that before the bottles are the store and ready to go.

-David Driscoll


Sherry Tonight in Redwood City

Since the CA liquor laws are practically useless in our retail locations, preventing us from having the type of tastings we really want to offer, we'll be doing some serious Sherry action tonight in place of a booze event. Joe Manekin, our resident sherry expert, will be in the bar pouring six different expressions--two of which are future K&L single barrel releases. Here's the list:

La Cigarrera Manzanilla $11.99

La Cigarrera Manzanilla Pasada $41.99

Alexander Jules Manzanilla 17/71 $39.99

Alexander Jules Amontillado $34.99

Plus two single barrel Amontillado single casks!

This will only cost you $5. We start at 5 PM and run until 6:30. You should definitely come check it out, especially if you like sherry-aged whisky. This is a chance to taste the building blocks of that particular flavor.

-David Driscoll