French Spirits - An Overview

Part of the reason I haven't written much educational fodder lately is because, in my mind, I've already tackled many of the subjects I feel need heavy expounding. However, as we increase the readership of the K&L blog, there are pieces that newer readers have missed and perhaps don't feel like digging through the archives to discover. One of the fastest growing sections at K&L is the French spirits department. I don't think this has as much to do with a newly-found love for Cognac or Armagnac as it does with the exciting new options we've been bringing in directly. Whereas Scotch and Bourbon would be big business regardless of whether we did K&L exclusive releases or not, the French brandies are not yet experiencing a renaissance. Which means you can still get in early, before the budding craft movement takes off (check out my man SKU's latest report concerning this).

Booze is no different than any other pop culture phenomeonon. "Yeah, I saw the Stones at Winterland back in 1969. Cost me four bucks and I was in the front for the entire show." You're not seeing the stones from that close for less than a thousand dollars today. That was then, this is now. You wanna drink the good stuff, you gotta get in before everyone else does. This isn't some lecture about how popular booze isn't good anymore. We all know that's just jealousy or ego speaking most of the time. This is about spotting the trend before it happens. Right now you can drink really fantastic French booze for fairly affordable prices. When rustic French hooch is expensive it's usually for a reason (not because it was poured down the crack of a model's ass and filtered through diamond dust before bottling). We have numerous products from small producers that are literally crafted by hand, not pumped out of a giant factory for mass consumption (Roseisle....cough, cough). If you're looking for an introduction into some of the more esoteric and of-the-beaten-part booze that represents both quality and value, we've got you covered.

Let's take a look at what you might want to experiment with. I've taken pictures of the shelves in Redwood City so that those of you shopping online can feel like you're actually perusing the booze aisle!

Calvados: What is Calvados? It's the name for apple brandy made in the French province of Normandy, in the north of the country along the English channel. Many producers, particularly in the Domfrontais region, use a high percentage of pear brandy in their Calvados, as well. There isn't currently a large selection of Calvados available in the U.S. and their certainly isn't much of an artisan selection. Having visited the region last January, I'll list a few of the producers that I think really bring it.

Lemorton 6 Year Old Domfrontais Calvados $49.99 - Lemorton Calvados comes from the southern appellation of Domfrontais. In this appellation at least 30% of the cider making the Calvados must be made from pears. This 6 year old is elegant and beautiful, with more than 60% of the blend coming from pear. The apple, however, is what shines through and the Lemorton succeeds, more than any other Calvados we offer, in showcasing the bright acidity of the fruit along with soft touches of baking spice. The Lemortons are a laid back couple with a fully functional farm in addition to their orchards. They are simple, laid-back, French farmers who like to eat and drink. Having stayed at their home, I find the rusticity of their Brandy charming and romantic, yet completely honest and real.

Michel Huard Hors d'Age Calvados $69.99 - For a rounder, more refined style of Calvados, try this multi-vintage marriage from Michel Huard, a young, up and coming producer who focuses more on farming than distillation. When we were there they happened to have the travelling still on site, sitting on a tractor bed as the local distiller made his rounds from farm to farm.

Adrien Camut 12 Year Old Calvados $94.99 - I've always known that Camut is considered the top producer in Calvados--the crème de la crème of apple spirits. However, I had only tasted the 6 year, which, while impressive, was not the best I had ever tasted. The Camut 12 year, however, blows everything else out of the water--its quality is unreal. Following Pay d' Auge tradition it is double distilled. The second distillation tends to make the spirit more neutral in its youth, but more free of impurities which makes a big difference as it ages. The nose is a heavenly blend of barrel-aged baking spice with gobs of pristine red apple. The palate is soft, with more baked apple coating the roof of the mouth, before finishing in perfect harmony with the barrel influence. You must try this at least once before you die. The Camut brandies are among the finest spirits I've ever tasted in my five years at K&L.

Armagnac: What is Armagnac? Well, first off, it's the name of a region, just like Cognac or Champagne. Armagnac is a place in southwest France, just south of Bordeaux, that grows Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Baco grapes (sometimes Colombard, as well), makes a highly acidic and dry white wine, and then distills that wine into brandy before aging it in new French oak barrels. The spirit differs from Cognac in a few very important ways. First of all, Armagnac is distilled on a column still like Bourbon, unlike Cognac that is done in a pot still like single malt. Armagnac is often undilluted, unlike Cognac which is barreled at close to 70% alcohol, yet bottled at 40%. Many Armagnacs have no water added and come in at around 48% to 52%. They tend to be bottled by vintage as well, unlike Cognacs that usually represent many different ages married together. Armagnac is also aged in new charred barrels (not as heavily as Bourbon, however) and tends to be spicier as a result. What are some interesting options for the curious Armagnac drinker?

Chateau de Pellehaut Reserve Tenereze Armagnac $49.99 - On a beautifully situated property overlooking the town of Montréal-du-Gers, lies the Château de Pellehaut. Purchased by Gaston Béraut shortly after the Second World War, he has slowly developed one of the largest single properties in the region. Béraut's sons Mathieu and Martin take care of winemaking (the red, white and rose are all big sellers at K&L) and the élevage of Armagnac. Both are intelligent and enthusiastic about their product, and between them have studied enology in Toulouse and apprenticed at Chateau de Tariquet in Eauze, Chateau Beycheville in Bordeaux and Au Bon Climat in California. Pellehaut is located in the Tenareze section of Armagnac; the soil here contains more chalk and limestone than in the Bas-Armagnac, and the spirits generally take longer to develop and begin to bloom around their 15th birthday. The youngest spend their first five years on the upper level of one chai next to the house, and then are transferred to the other chai during their intermediate years. The older vintages finally make their way back to the lower level of the initial chai. The Pellehaut stock is impressive; nearly 500 barrels housed under the two roofs. Richer, more heavily-wooded than many of the other Armagnacs we carry, the Pellehaut offers tremendous value for the money.

Tariquet 15 Year Old Armagnac $55.99 - One of the larger producers in Armagnac, the Tariquet production is still smaller than some of the tinest single malt distilleries. We happened to drop by the Chateau (farmhouse) for the first distillation and you're talking peanuts compared to other operations. What makes Tariquet unique is that they were one of the first producers to switch over to 100% Folle Blanche Armagnac. Folle Blance, while difficult and quite testy in the vineyard, is considered the finest and most complex of all Armagnac grapes. Getting to taste 100% Folle Blanche brandy at full proof with 15 years of age for $55? Yes. Yes, please.

1985 Baraillon K&L Exclusive Vintage Armagnac $115.99 - If there were ever a romantic ideal for French countryside distillation, the Baraillons are it. Out in the middle of nowhere, there's nothing glossed over or touristic about their operation - they are farmers, pure and simple. David and I absolutely fell in love with this father/daughter team even though they hardly said a word to us the entire time we tasted (they let their booze speak for itself). This single barrel 1985 brandy is one of the finest spirits we tasted on the entire trip. A mix of Ugni Blanc and Baco, the nose is absolutely hypnotizing - port-like with stewed fruits and sandlewood (think an exotic highland single malt, but remember it's definitely NOT single malt). The palate follows up with toffee, vanilla, more fruit and stunning richness - with spice and heat on the finish that prevent the weight from becoming overly flabby. It is spellbinding brandy, although it's not for everyone with its earthy and somewhat wild mid-palate. Still, it's destined to go down as one of the best Armagnacs we've ever carried and we look forward to importing Baraillon exclusively for the foreseeable future. Baraillon Armagnac is where bucolic romanticism and quality collide.

Cognac: We've managed to run a successful Cognac operation without relying on the big four: Remy, Hennessey, Courvoisier, and Martell. We have an entire shelf of unfamiliar and intimidating bottles that few customers can comfortably navigate. What we've chosen to do is focus on farmers, rather than bottlers. When you buy a bottle of Martell Cognac, you're not purchasing something that Martell made. They purchased their brandy from a small farmer just like we do. The difference is we're not upcharging you 50% for the result. When you buy from a single producer you're also getting the chance to taste one distiller's work (think single malts versus blends, but without the grain component). On top of that, we also try to feature only producers who do not add boisé (a combination of low-proof brandy, sugar, and oak chips that functions as a simple syrup) or any artificial additives. Adding boisé is a very detailed conversation, however, and should NOT pigeonhole a producer as good or bad. See this synopsis from last year for more info. Cognac has three main regions: Borderies, Petit Champagne, and Grand Champagne, but we need another full article for that breakdown (because there's the three Bois regions as well, but we don't have much from there). Focus on these for now:

Dudognon Reserve Cognac $49.99 - The Dudognon family has produced Cognac in the small town of Lignieres-Sonneville since 1776. This region is the heart of the famed Grande Champagne of Cognac. Spirits from this Premier Cru are especially renowned for their tremendous length. While many cognacs are laden with permitted additives (sugar, boisé, caramel), the only additive used in Dudognon Cognacs is water: because of this, their color is fairly light, their sweetness comes from only naturally concentrated fruit. The 10 year old reserve has notes of apple, toffee and spice. Soft texture, with additional notes of vanilla on the palate. Delightful entry-level Grande Champagne.

Guillon-Painturaud VSOP Cognac $59.99 - The Guillon-Painturaud family owns 18 hectares of Ugni Blanc located in one plot around the farm they have been living in since 1610. In the 1970s, they began bottling under their own name rather than selling to the big house producers, and they have never looked back. Passing the distillation education from generation to generation, the family business is currently run by an energetic young woman named Line Guillon Painturaud, who has brought forth some fantastic brandies. The VSOP is an average of 15 years old and is brimming with supple fruit and caramel.

Jacques Esteve K&L Exclusive Selection Coup de Coeur Cognac $89.99 - Jacques Esteve was one of the most exciting producers we visited from Cognac this January. His fruit is all estate and the brandies are distilled on site in a small room just next to his garage. Pulling into the driveway, you wonder where the distillery is, but its all carefully integrated into his country property. His barrels sit underneath his house and age gracefully amidst the cobwebs. Esteve's grapes and Cognac are in big demand right now with some of the large production houses and it's clear as to why. The Cognacs bring richness and weight while retaining their finesse. The Coup de Coeur is a blend of 1979 and 1981 vintages that begins with soft citrus on the nose before blossoming into a warming and supple palate. Barrel spice and nutty flavors balance out the sweetness and the flavors are in perfect harmony on the finish. If there's a better deal in Cognac for less than $100, we've yet to find one. For those looking for more intense flavor and character, rather than the lighter more delicate style, this Cognac is for you. Available only at K&L in the United States.

Raymond Ragnaud K&L Exclusive Reserve Rare Cognac $115.99 - This Grand Champagne Cognac from Ragnaud represents our dedicated efforts to find excellent Cognac without the use of additional sweetners or traditional boise. Distiller Jean-Marie has spent the last thirty years perfecting his pot-still brandies into delicate expressions of the fantastic terroir in the area. He is a firm believer in the idea that the limestone-rich soils of Grande Champagne produce wines that, when distilled, create brandies capable of aging in barrel for eternity. While we originally came in search of single barrel Cognac, we tasted a few out of the cask and soon realized that Grand Champagne Cognac doesn't taste all that great in its youth--and by "youth" I mean anytime in the first 20 years of its life--nor does it taste too great out of the barrel. Usually the blends have more complexity because the expressive "young" brandy is balanced with the richness from older vintages. The Reserve Rare was our favorite of the expressions, exhibiting beautiful concentration and the elegance we've come to expect from world-class Cognac producers. Gentle richness on the entry leads into flavors of toasted nuts, stone fruit and vanilla, before finishing with a soft dash of baking spices. A masterful Cognac that managed to seduce us with subtlety and style, rather than with sweetness and weight.

Pineau des Charentes: The Tawny Port of France! A lightly fortified wine made of white Cognac eau de vie and lightly-fermented grape must. Imagine fruity, floral grape brandy with some sweet wine: it will either be ultra-goopy and result in an ultra-hangover, or elegant and delicious. We're going for the latter here.

Raymond Ragnaud Cognac $18.99 - Pictured above, this is one of the most charming and fun items we sell at K&L. Great acidity like a white wine, but with a kiss of honeyed sweetness. We brought in some Cognac directly from Ragnaud so we figured, "why not add some Pineau des Charentes to the pile?" This is light enough to serve before a meal, but sweet enough for dessert. Very versatile.

Jacky Navarre 30 Year Old Tres Vieux Pineau des Charentes $69.99 - Like Port, the PdC wines can age gracefully in the barrel, getting slowly oxidized and nutty over time.
One of the absolute most unusual and exceptional examples of one of our favorite categories of apéritifs, Pineau des Charentes. I think these really work after dinner as well. Like the incredible Paul et Marie Pineau before them, the Navarre’s Pineau des Charentes take this whole category to the next level. They’re produced in a hyper-inefficient manner, which makes them absolutely wonderful. The first, Jacky Navarre Tres Vieux Pineau, used six-year old Cognac to stabilize grape must from the 1982 vintage. Exquisite, tropical and fresh, it spent the next 30 years oxidizing into the magnificent liquid that we sell now. Bottled in 2012, it is a true 30-year-old Pineau and very, very rare.

Marcs: We don't see a whole lot of this stuff in the U.S., but Marcs is simply grappa from France. After the grapes are pressed and the juice run off for wine fermentation, there is still a good amount of sugar left in the pommace – the skins and seeds. This mash is fermented into a low wine, then distilled into Marcs: a high-octane spirit that, very much like grappa, is not for the faint of heart. We have a fantastic option from the wild and untamed Jura region that we like very much:

2002 Domaine Labet Marcs du Jura $39.99 - Can you believe we found a Marcs from the Jura?! Wine and spirits geeks unite! Made from Savignin, Poulssard, and Chardonnay skins, aged in oak for ten years! Like the richest grappa, yet also exotic and slightly oxidized like a Vin Jaune. One of the most intriguing and exciting spirits I've tasted in years. My love for the wines of Jura and my passion for spirits finally collide!

Vieille Prune: Plum brandy from Gascony, the other fruit distillate of Armagnac. Distilled from local produce, then aged in oak barrels like Cognac. Y-U-M.

Louis Roque Vieille Prune $44.99 - From the historic Louis Roque distillery located in the sleep town of Souillac. Imported by the legendary Charles Neal, Roque specializes in Vieille Prune from Gascony. Perhaps the finest in class, certainly the best of what's available in the states, prune uses only the best Gascone Plums. With the depth of a cognac and the finesse of a plum brandy. Esoteric, yet familiar, this Vieille Prune has an unparrelled richness. Bursting with asian spice and ripe fruit, you'll want to keep this one in stock once you've tried it.

Other Liqueurs: Cognac producers are always trying to use their young spirit for something delicious, other than Pineau des Charentes and Grand Marnier. These two new liqueurs really caught me off guard:

Francois Peyrot Chestnuts Au Cognac $43.99 - Very rich and very sweet, but maaaaaan......does this thing really taste like chestnuts. Sip this for dessert or use it as the simple syrup for your next Old Fashioned for a nutty, roasted flavor.

Francois Peyrot Rose Au Cognac $35.99 - This stuff is amazing. A clear colored, yet sweet liqueur that is brimming with freshly cut rose petals. Sip it chilled for a dazzlingly different post-meal digestíf, or make a fancy cocktail. Prosecco, perhaps?

That's it! You're now an expert. The only thing left to do is try them out for yourself.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll