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


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


France Day 1: Surviving the Night

We arrived at the small Armagnac village of Montreal around 7:30 PM.  An hour and a half drive from the Bordeaux airport through dark country roads and a winding backwoods, Montreal is where Charles Neal was married.  His wife grew up here and her family still resides in the town center.  Charle's brother-in-law operates one of the finest restaurants in the region and that is our destination tonight.  But first - we must visit a local winemaker who is sampling some of his very special selections with close friends.

At the back of a small racking warehouse we met local winemaker Dominique Andrian, a man who is making wines somewhere in between Lopez de Heredia and Sherry.  Oxidized, all bio-dynamic, and delicious as hell.  Some of these wines were the most exciting wines I've tasted in over a year.  We talked shop while we sipped, but it soon became apparent that we needed some food to pair with these amazing specimen.

By the time we walked over to the restaurant, Charles's brother-in-law Bernard was already there slicing the jamón.  Thin pieces that melted on our tongues.  Good God!  What were we in for after already braving 30 straight hours of sleep-deprived travel time?

The ham.  It was so soft and tender.  Oh God.......

Homemade rabbit terrine with a delicious savory sparkling wine.  We took this down fast.

Artichokes with a truffle butter sauce!  Paired with an oxidized rose that tasted of truffles!  Dip your bread in that!

Foie gras ravioli in a pumpkin cream sauce.  Are you kidding me?  I about died right there.

I didn't get a picture of the beef sandwiches with the tangy pickle sauce, but I had to snap these fois gros sliders with carrot and celery.  There were two more courses still on the way - duck confit and veal with mushrooms - before I excused myself and headed back to the hotel.  David OG is still out with them as they plan on driving over to a local distiller and drinking until God knows when.  I am far too spent for that.  DOG managed to sleep on the plane, so he's refreshed and ready.  I, however, need 10 hours sleep and a good walk in the morning.  I'm exhausted.  But I'm well fed, that's for sure.  Tomorrow is Armagnac - five appointments with the best farmers/distillers.  More after we get back.

-David Driscoll


France Day 1: The Hunt for David Girard

We've got a four hour layover in Paris and I've already been here an hour and forty minutes.  Girard landed at the same time I did, but there's no sign of him so far.  This is a big airport.  I battled the flu I caught Thursday night all ten hours of the flight over here, the pressure threatening to collapse my sinuses, but I emerged unscathed.  A good night's rest and I should be over this wretched bug.  What a time to get sick.  I am somewhat happy to have a stuffy nose at the moment, however, because were in perfect health I would march right over to the Ladurée and eat an entire box full of macarons.  The best cookie on earth is but a few yards away, but to eat one at this point would be a waste.  After a few more hours of book reading, DOG and I will be on our way south to Armagnac country.  Charles Neal is set to grab us once we land and we'll make the trek down from there.  Good in-flight movies on Air France, by the way.  This was the first time I had flown with them.  Three films I wanted to see, but hadn't: Super 8, Warrior, and Drive.  Gotta keep my eyes peeled for David Othenin-Girard.  Until later.

-David Driscoll


Faultline Gin Update

I made my way over to Alameda yesterday to check up on our latest collaboration with St. George distillery - our very own Faultline Gin to be sold exclusively at K&L.  We've got the labels designed, the gin has been distilled, but we needed to put a few final touches on the product.  I met up with Dave Smith in the lab to discuss a few specifics and cross a few T's.

The base of the gin is beautiful - soft and gentle with a beautiful juniper bouquet and hints of foresty botanicals in the background.  My only concern was that the flavor was too soft.  The finish is a bit light and watery, which while pleasing to fans of more easy-going gins, is not quite the profile I'm looking for.  After playing around with some citrus hops and minty distillates, we decided to tweak the gin with a bit of celery salt-macerated spirit.  The first batch was too strong, as the savory notes overpowered the beautiful botanicals.  We decided to dial it back a bit and the result was fantastic.  The empty spots were gently filled with a salty spice and the finish was far more satisfying.  I'd say we're about ready to go! 

Now we just need to get those labels over to the printer.  1,000 bottles of Faultline Gin on the way!

-David Driscoll