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

David Driscoll