France – Day 6: Yackety Gnac

Cognac – the rich, successful, older brother to Armagnac who drives a Mercedes, wears a fancy suit, and travels the world in search of new export markets. I kid Cognac, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a hint of truth to the above statement. Over the past few decades, financial success has turned the brandies of the Charentes into mass-produced, overly-sweetened, highly-adulterated, and far less interesting spirits than those of the Gascogne. That doesn't mean we've given up on Cognac, however. It just means we have to look harder to find producers with integrity. We began our morning far outside the Grand Champagne region, in the outer zones of the Bon Bois. Andre Petit was first on a long list of new producers we wanted to visit.

"Are you talking about my Cognac? I don't see anyone else here."

If you've ever wondered where Robert DeNiro has been lately, the answer is: he's in the Cognac region distilling brandy. This isn't the best photo of Andre, but he looks so much like DeNiro circa The Deer Hunter that we couldn't really focus on his brandies. I thought his selections were fine, but you can really taste the difference in the fruit compared to Grand and Petit Champagne expressions. They were rich, but they didn't pop in the right places. We thought maybe the terror in Cognac was overrated, but we left strongly believing in everything we'd previously been told.

Next on the list was Michel Forgeron – a Grand Champagne producer who has been using single malt whisky as an inspiration for innovation. That was music to our ears. We've been telling producers for years that they should take a page from Scotland and try new concepts like single barrel, cask strength, vintage-dated releases, or single vineyard expressions. Michel has all four currently for sale in his gift shop. 

I can safely say right now that you'll be seeing the Cognacs of Forgeron on K&L shelves very soon. Most of his expressions were proofed from 45% to 50% and were clearly marked with dates and maturity levels. The brandies were spicy, rich, fruity, and completely balanced with the alcohol. We asked him why other producers weren't following his lead, looking to bring Cognac into the next generation.

"Most of these producers don't even drink Cognac," he answered. "They do it because they were born into it. They don't even like Cognac, most of them."

Wow. What an indictment!

Whereas Forgeron is going to excite the dedicated spirits geeks with raw power, Claude Thorin is going to wow you with nuance. His Grand Champagne expressions are incredibly pure and they're insanely inexpensive. Not only are they delicious and value-priced, they're also a bit outside the norm. Claude has also been toying around with single vintage, single varietal, and unsweetened expressions. We tasted a 2002 100% folle blanche expression that was so delicate it brought a tear to our eye.

I think the most exciting part for us was his standard line-up of VS, VSOP, and XO. We should be able to get these on the shelf for $30, $40, and $50 a bottle. And did I mention they're great?

We were dragging a bit by the afternoon, but we put our game faces on and powered ahead to the Borderies and Fin Bois regions where Francois Giboin creates rustic, old school brandies with earth, power, and panache. 

The soil in the Borderies region is much different than the chalky terrain of Grand Champagne. It's mostly gypsum – a calcium-based mineral that spawns a more rugged, yet fruity distillate. We were captivated by some of the single barrel selections we sampled and very interested in his standard Fin Bois vintage expressions.

Every producer we visited today was daring to branch out from the standard VS, VSOP, and XO handcuffs. Each of them was forward-thinking and open-minded, and all were scaling back on the boise. This made us very optimistic for the future of the spirit. There is room for the purity-minded spirits geek in Cognac, we believe.

Of course, we had to visit our old friend Jacques Esteve – the gentle giant behind our top-selling K&L exclusive releases. His Petit Champagne selections have been wonderful additions to our spirit shelves and customers have come back again and again to reload. He's one of the nicest guys in the business and we want to possibly expand on the business we've already done. Kyle was very impressed with the new expressions we sampled.

"That guy is so nice and his Cognacs are good!" he exclaimed on the way to the car.

"It's nice doing business with people you like, isn't it?" I asked rhetorically.

-David Driscoll


France – Day 5: Age Worthy

For the third year in a row we arrived at the home of Claudine and Gerald at Dudognon, located in the heart of Cognac's Grand Champagne region. This time, however, it was just a social call. While we carry their general line-up of expressions and believe deeply in the quality of their distillates, we've had a tough time committing to something exclusive due to the uniqueness of their brandy. 

What makes Dudognon Cognac so distinct?

The fact that it's the purest Cognac in existence – no added sweeteners, no caramel coloring, and no boise.

That might sound like a bonus to purists (and it most definitely is), but not everyone is ready for what Grand Champagne Cognac tastes like when you leave it unadulterated. Whereas great wine needs to mature in the bottle, Grand Champagne Cognac – made from wines with extremely high acid content – needs time to mature in the cask. 

While those who know good Cognac applaud Dudognon and continue to purchase their selections, first-timers looking for soft and sweet oak juice get whacked over the head with reality. It's like drinking chardonnay with no malolactic fermentation or oak maturation – you realize what the actual liquid tastes like before its been sexed up and manipulated. That's not to say I have a problem with sweetened spirits because I don't. However, I don't get why a Cognac house would want to market the brilliance of a specific terroir, with its potential for greatness and nuance, then obliterate the flavors they pretend to celebrate.

For everyday drinkers like a VS or VSOP expression, a little sugar goes a long way. But why pay $200 for Grand Cru Burgundy if someone's just going to slap some new oak on it and drink it tomorrow?

Claudine and Gerald feel the same way about their Cognac, which is why they respect it by leaving it untouched. However, there's no denying that we still live in a world where quality and "Wow, that's smooth!" go hand-in-hand. 70% of the global population still thinks "if it doesn't burn, it must be good."

The easiest way to take the bite out of your brandy is by adding sugar, just like the best way to balance the acidity in wine is with riper fruit. But there are still a few folks left out there who are willing to put their wine bottles in a cellar, forget about them for a decade or two, and let them come around naturally. Lucky enough for those people, there are still a few Grand Champagne Cognac producers willing to do the same thing in cask. But how many consumers understand and appreciate brandy on the level necessary to support them?

At the end of the evening Claudine pulled out the only selection in her portfolio we had never tasted before: the Paulin – a 60 year old marriage of their oldest stocks at Dudognon, just released for the first time early last year. It was sublime. Heavenly. Rich and delicate in ways I had never thought possible, yet without a drop of sweetness on the palate. When someone can achieve that level of oak integration over time (only by creating a spirit capable of maintaining its character over six decades) you almost can't believe what you're tasting. The Paulin is easily the best brandy I've ever tasted – by a long shot. In my mind, it's a masterpiece that no other producer can touch. 

"This has never been sold in the United States?" I asked, unable to believe it.

It looks like we'll have to remedy that.

-David Driscoll 


France – Day 5: Separating the Pack

If you've shopped at K&L for Armagnac then you've definitely seen our numerous Pellehaut selections over the years. Located in the Tenereze region (just outside of Montreal where Charles's family lives), they're one of the larger producers in the area and they actually sell far more wine than brandy. However, large for the Tenereze is still smaller than Kilchoman on Islay – everything is relative, isn't it? We always do quite well with the Pellehaut selections because: 1) they're tasty; 2) they're inexpensive; and 3) they often taste quite similar to Bourbon. The 1996 selection we brought in last year was a huge hit with our American whiskey customers (we tasted it again today and we're still blown away by how much it tastes like mature Bourbon). We're working with the owners to add age statements to the front label, as you can see in the photo above. I think one of the reasons people don't buy Armagnac more often is because they don't realize how old these brandies are despite the vintage statement. "How can it be that cheap if it's thirty-two freakin' years old?!" they're thinking.

Look for a few new offerings from this year's trip including more of the 1973, some stellar 1978, and some tasty folle blanche selections from the mid-80s.

Appointment number two was a new face for us this year: Ladeveze out of Chateau Boubee. This father and son duo is actually located in the town of Montreal, just outside the main center, so it was odd that in all our time spent right nearby we had never visited the chai. Jean and his son Alexander are doing some very interesting things at Ladeveze, including higher warehouse maturation (evaporating more water to increase the proof of the spirit) and the planting of ultra-rare grape varietals for distillation. For example, they have a 1998 vintage made entirely from Plant de Graisse (apparently allowed by ancient appellation doctrine). 

We were stunned by the quality of the Armagnac at Ladeveze, so much so that we tasted through just about everything they had available. They're much more interested in cask strength brandy than any other producer we visited, which is right up our alley. The spirits had character, a certain liveliness, and lots of gusto. Whereas the Pellehaut brandies are soft and graceful, the Ladeveze brandies have punch and power. The only thing I'm currently worried about is the price. Judging from the tags in their gift shop they may be asking a lot for their selections (which makes sense because they're fantastic). The question we have to ask ourselves is: do our customers care enough about artisinal Armagnac to pay a little extra?

After stopping for lunch with Bernard and Vero (Charles's brother-in-law and wife) we headed out to our last Armagnac stop before heading north for Cognac (I'll have to do an entirely separate post about Bernard's food this time around -- we ate raw pork like it was Gascogne sushi). Laballe is an old estate that stopped operating once the grandfather of the Laudet family retired and his son decided not to follow in his footsteps. Laudet's grandson, however, has decided to restart the family heritage and invited us to come taste through the older and newer vintages.

Because of the stoppage between generations everything they have at Laballe is either quite old or quite young. We needed more value, however, so we paid particular attention to some of the basic VS and VSOP selections. We were very, very impressed by their precocious drinkability. The entry level spirits from Laudet might be the $30 base brandies we've been searching for over the last three years. I was very excited when we left. The Armagnacs had spice and richness without too much oak-dominated tannin. 

We just finished the three hour drive north, through Bordeaux, to the Grand Champagne region of Cognac. We'll be tasting with Dudognon tonight over dinner and hoping we can finally nail down an exclusive with Claudette.

More later!

-David Driscoll


France – Day 5: Its Own Reward

Being an avid Armagnac fan isn't always easy. Sure, it's ridiculously inexpensive for what it is, the quality is as high as it's ever been, you can buy most products straight from the producer, and there's a backstock of old vintages dating back to the 19th century – those are all good things. However, most wine and spirits retailers carry a only basic selection and very few offer the brandy geek with the depth and scope he's looking for. Compared to Scotch or Bourbon, there are few customer resources on the internet. There is no industry magazine, no real blog scene, no dedicated online forum, no Facebook page, and little to no advertising. 

And if you are a collector or an Armagnac aficionado, who's going to care? Who are you going to discuss your purchases with? Who are you going to rant to when your bottle of 1972 Pellehaut doesn't taste as good as the 1985 did? Who's going to look at your Instagram page and be impressed by it when you post a photo of that 1961 Boingneres you tasted last night?

No one. No thumbs up for you.

Being an Armagnac drinker requires dedication to the spirit itself, rather than one's own perception. There's nothing cool about it. There are no celebrity distillers, cult followings, or limited edition releases. There are no egos with Armagnac drinkers because there's nothing you can do to stroke it.

Drinking it is its own reward.

-David Driscoll


France – Day 4: Old to New

I rarely let it show in my online persona, but if you're one of our in-store customers and you've talked with me over the past few weeks, you might have noticed my burnout. I've been tired lately. Not just from the hard work and late nights, but also from the standard grind of the marketing machine. I've been finding it more difficult to maintain the same level of enthusiasm I've always approached wine and spirits with – partly because I'm getting older, but also because I'm becoming wiser. There are very few surprises anymore. I've tasted the trophy wines, the must-have bottles, and the legendary casks. They're great, but what really interests me now are the people who make alcohol. I needed this trip because there's nothing like a little time in Gascony to remind me of exactly why I love this job. Armagnac country is the last real place on the planet where you can still find authenticity, quality, value, honesty, and passion in the distilled spirits industry. There are no corporations, no brands, and no global portfolios – just farms, vineyards, fois gras, and great people. 

I absolutely love it here and I couldn't wait for the day's appointments to begin.

Our first stop of the day was to one of the largest and most-renowned wine producers in the Gascogne: Duffour and his Domaine Saint-Lannes. We actually didn't know that Monsieur Duffour had any Armagnac! Charles was just stopping by to taste the new vintage of vin blanc when we noticed some barrels stacked in the corner. 

"He actually has some brandy as well" Charles told us as we swirled our glasses. "We should probably taste them."

Two vintages really stood out: 1985 and 1988. If the price is right (which we think it will be) these might be absolute steals. The 85 was simple, but delicious – loaded with dark cocoa and chocolate with an aromatic nose of baking spices and toasted almonds. The 88 was more of Bourbon-type of brandy with the new oak playing more of a role in the lighter-fruited palate. We think these are two definite possibilities.

Our first real appointment of the day was a very important one. We were meeting with Pierre Laberdolive – perhaps the most-respected Armagnac producer in the region. The brandies of Domaine de Jaurrey have been imported to the United States in the past, but we learned they had just recently lost their representation. They are expensive and production is small, which makes them difficult to sell – even with their esteem. If there were a whiskey analogy, think Pappy Van Winkle in terms of pricing, availability, reputation, and quality. In terms of flavor, you might also want to keep the Van Winkle comparison in the back of your mind. After tasting the 1988 vintage around the table of Laberdolive's living room, I think you could fool many a Pappy 20 drinker into thinking this Armagnac was old Stitzel-Weller juice. The finish was magnificant – a five minute linger that left clove, pepper, wood spice, and vanilla coating my palate. I had never before tasted anything from Domaine de Jaurrey, but it was clear upon the first sip why they enjoyed a reputation for greatness.

We sampled a number of amazing spirits at Laberdolive – both from bottle and from cask. There are a few possible K&L selections in the works depending on their cost. Ultimately, we want value for our customers, but we also want benchmarks. To me, these might be the best Armagnacs I've ever tasted as a portfolio. Even if they're pricey, I'd like to have them for the diehards who want to experience this level of quality. Pierre doesn't talk cepage either, which is interesting. He won't tell you which varietals are in each expression. He only believes in great vintages, not great grapes.

We swung by Domaine d'Ognoas for a refresher, meeting up with some familiar faces at the estate. We've had great success with the 1973 and 2000 vintages, but we wanted to possibly put together a marriage of various casks that would offer a more streamlined selection for entry-level-minded customers. I think we found a winner. We worked out an XO blend that should clock in around $49.99 on the shelf. For fans of simple, straight-forward, rich and tasty Armagnac, this one's for you.

And, of course, how could we not stop by Baraillon and see our old friends: the Claverie family. They're always waiting for us with a table full of samples and a plate full of bread with meat on it.

Laurence was at the helm, per the usual, and I think this visit was our best yet. We've been monitoring the maturation of a few casks in their warehouse and we're really happy with their development. We'll likely be taking an entire barrel of 1974 and 1984 vintages, along with some new 100% folle blanche expressions and a 20 year old assemblage. I absolutely adore the Claveries. They're so down-to-earth and humble about their craft. Baraillon Armagnac is one of the most honest and authentic spirits in the world, in my opinion. It's so rustic and emblematic of who these people are. Kyle was overcome with emotion when we left.

We stopped at a few other properties along the way back to Montreal and met more lovely folks who populate the countryside of Gascony. We're off to dinner now (at 9:30 PM) and we'll probably eat until 2 AM. It's a different way of life here in Armagnac country and that's what I love about it. I can't say that I could ever make two pounds of duck fat, four bottles of wine, and a few slugs of Armagnac part of my daily routine, but I enjoy the opportunity to partake in it once a year. And I enjoy the people. Even with the language barrier between us, I still clearly understand what they're about, and ultimately that's what I wish we could bottle up and ship back home.

Not so much the booze, but the character of the people who make it. This is truly a magical place. I'm fired up.

-David Driscoll