The First Wave Arrives

Did we get you all fired up for Armagnac yesterday? I hope so because we've got a LOT of new Armagnac to tell you about. Bring your romanticism and enthusiasm for rustic French spirits to the party and leave your disenfranchised whiskey baggage at the door; you won't need it here. You're in at the beginning of this movement. You're buying a house before the boom. You've got the chance to be a low-numbered employee in this operation because at this point there is zero demand for this stuff. Lucky you; lucky me.

Let's sample the goods, shall we?

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.

While the older Armagnacs with their high age statements and low prices are obviously going to catch your eye, it’s the 14 year old 2001 vintage that’s the star of this show:

2001 Chateau de Pellehaut 14 Year Old K&L Exclusive Vintage Tenareze Armagnac $49.99 – While Bas-Armagnac gets all the press, and the Haut-Armagnac gets completely ignored, the Tenareze region of Armagnac is quietly producing some of the best brandies in the world. Much like the Borderies region in Cognac, the Tenareze brandies seem to have more fruit and a bit more life than the more classic  Armagnac style. Using only new or first fill barrels for the beginning years of maturation, the Armagnacs have richness, weight, and spice. The 2001 vintage is going to be a Bourbon drinker's delight: there's a rich, round mouthfeel of charred oak and creamy vanilla, supplemented with more texture from the raisined fruit. It's anchored entirely in richness and there's plenty of spice on the finish to keep it interesting. A slam-dunk deal if there ever was one.

1986 Chateau de Pellehaut 29 Year Old K&L Exclusive Vintage Tenareze Armagnac $79.99This 29 year old vintage Armagnac is one of the most ridiculous deals we've ever procured from the producer. Huge richness marries with decadent raisined fruit and tons of vanilla from the charred oak. Then, the most curious thing happens: the finish begins to flutter with floral and perfume notes, before completely shedding that skin and moving right back into a textural, raisined fruit finish. It's unbelievable: both the brandy and the price!

1973 Chateau Pellehaut 40 Year Old K&L Exclusive Tenareze Vintage Armagnac $149.99 – While Pellehaut has since switched to entirely Folle Blanche grape varietals, the 1973 vintage is composed of 90% Ugni Blanc. The palate opens with loads of caramel and a creamy richness the spreads quickly. The aromas are quite Bourbon-esque, with hints of soft vanilla and charred oak drifting out of the glass. The complexity of the brandy is astounding - candied fruit, stewed prunes, toasted almond, baking spices, and earthy warehouse notes, all swirling around at the same time. For an Armagnac of this quality, at an age of more than 40 years old, the price we negotiated is amazing.

Chateau Maouhum is today being completely run by Christelle Lasseignou, who began to take over for her parents more than a decade ago. Don't let her stylish clothes and her good looks fool you, she's a farmer through and through. She does everything at the chateau herself—from the vineyards to the distillation, to the management of the barrels. We were very excited to taste her stuff. One of my favorite things about Chateau Maouhum is that the vineyards are just a few steps from the warehouse, so you can get a sense of the property while you taste. Christelle's grapes are all baco and she distills only a few barrels each year. We tasted through vintages from 1983 to 2004, and even a few younger VS and XO expressions. They were all outstanding. There’s more dried herbs and spice in the flavors of the Maouhum Armagnacs than the more sweet-fruited Pellehaut selections. They’re far more old world and old school, without the richer flavors that some drinkers look for.

All three of these brandies are outstanding, but if you had to pick one it’s the 1987.

Domaine de Maouhum K&L Exclusive XO Armagnac $49.99 - The XO is a marriage of various ages that really balances the sweeter, raisined fruit flavor with just the right amount of new oak and spice. It's a stunning deal at $49.99 and offers a richness and elegance that even Cognac drinkers would find difficult to ignore.

1987 Domaine de Maouhum 28 Year Old K&L Exclusive Bas-Armagnac $72.99The 1987 was maybe our favorite Armagnac of any producer on this year's trip. It explodes with flavor in every possible way, but never steps out of line from start to finish. The first sip is all brown sugar and rich vanilla, then that richness turns immediately into barrel char and soft fruit, before transitioning to cinnamon spice and cloves on the finish. This is absolute textbook Armagnac, and one hell of a deal for an aged spirit of any kind. Bourbon drinkers, take note.

1983 Domaine de Maouhum 32 Year Old K&L Exclusive Bas-Armagnac $99.99 – The 32 year old 1983 vintage is a heavier version of everything we loved about the 1987: there's plenty of vanilla, spice, and richness, but the extra wood tames the sweetness and makes the overall profile just a bit drier. If you're a fan of ultra-mature Bourbon, then this brandy is definitely for you. A screaming deal in the new market of aged whiskies and brandies.

Ladeveze is a father and son duo is actually located in the town of Montreal, just outside the main center. 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 Plant de Graisse is from Ladeveze is completely unlike any other Armagnac we’ve ever carried and it’s easily my favorite. Like I said the last time we brought it in, it’s an Armagnac for wine drinkers who appreciate the pure flavors of fruit and supreme complexity. There’s a reason it sold through instantly the last time we brought it in, and there’s a reason I’ve received more positive feedback from customers about it than any other selection we’ve carried. I poured a sample bottle at a Donato’s dinner for some K&L customers and I’m pretty sure they bought most of it. 

1998 Ladeveze Plaint de Graisse Tenereze Armagnac $119.99Distilled from a rare varietal of grape called Plaint de Graisse, the character of the Ladeveze is both exotic and intense, with wacky aromas that range from earthy, almost cheesy accents to pencil shavings and brandied cherries. The palate is a wave of soft fruit that goes from green mango to an earthy papaya flavor, but with a rich and warming finish of vanilla and soft fruit. There's a mineral note and a vinous accent at the back end, making this brandy much more about the wine than the wood, but there's enough richness to balance it all out. This is not a Bourbon drinker's brandy; it's a wine lover's brandy. What makes this Armagnac incredible is the rollercoaster ride of flavors from front to back, that never go too high, or dip down too low. It's a complete and balanced experience from front to back and, man, is it delicious. The flutter of cinnamon on the back end goes on for a good five minutes. Completely unique and unparalleled when compared to anything else we have in stock. Bottled at 45%

But we've got Cognac, too! Don't think this is just a post about new Armagnac. It's about brandy in general!

Raymond Ragnaud is a producer whose Pineau des Charentes we've been carrying for some time now.  The original Ragnaud Cognac was produced by the Ragnaud family, but when the two brothers Raymond and Marcel took over they were unable to work together.  The Domaine split and now there are two separate brands under the name of each brother.  Raymond Ragnaud is still produced on the original estate and is now overlooked by his daughter, Mrs. Ragnaud-Bricq pictured above. Like Armagnac, the Cognac producers believe in aerating the spirit by changing casks every six months to a year. While visiting, we tasted a few out of the cask, but Grand Champagne Cognac doesn't taste all that great in its youth; and by "youth," I mean anytime in the first twenty years of its life. Usually the blends have more complexity because the young brandy is balanced by an older vintages. We tasted some very fine blends that we might be bringing back to the states.  Their Reserve Rare was very gentle and tasted of toasted almonds with soft stone fruits. The Cognac’s finish lasts for minutes and evolves on the palate long after the spirit has vanished.

In both the beauty of the bottle and the spirit itself, I’d put the Raymond Ragnaud in the top three Cognacs we carry at K&L. It’s layered, complex, and ethereal in nature without extra additives or sweeteners. It never tastes manipulated or caramelized, although there is likely a bit of caramel for coloring. I’m pumped to have it back in stock.

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 sweeteners 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.

Brandy drinkers searching for Grand Champagne quality at reasonable prices are going to be thrilled—there's nothing this good for this cheap on the American market and we love working with Claude Thorin for that very reason. All of the new-make from Claude Thorin goes into new Limousin oak for the first twelve months before being transferred into used russet barrels. From what I tasted, there is very little coloring or boise being added to the final blends as the clean, fruit-driven flavor of Grand Champagne is front and center. There's nothing transcendent going on with each sip, just good, honest brandy from a French farmer. It's when you see the price tags that your eyes jump out of your head.

Claude Thorin K&L Exclusive VS Grand Champagne Cognac $29.99 – We are going to sell so much Claude Thorin Cognac at K&L this year that we expect it to be a household name with our customer base by 2015. Brandy drinkers searching for Grand Champagne quality at reasonable prices are going to be thrilled because there's nothing this good for this price on the American market -- and that's because we're buying directly from the estate. All of the new-make brandy from Claude Thorin goes into new Limousin oak for the first twelve months before being transferred into used russet barrels. The VS is fresh, clean, and fruit-driven, mimicking the best $40 options of Grand Champagne but for $10 less. There's nothing transcendent going on with each sip, just good, honest brandy from a French farmer. It's when you see the price tags that your eyes jump out of your head. Grower-producer Cognac for $29.99 -- it's about time that our French brandy program caught up to our Champagne department. With that analogy in mind, Claude Thorin is the Frank Bonville of Cognac.

NEW VINTAGE! 2004 Claude Thorin K&L Exclusive Vintage Grand Champagne Cognac $59.99To taste a Grand Champagne brandy from one single year is quite rare, and therefore a bit more pricey. Nevertheless, we thought the result was definitely worth the extra few bucks. For those whisky fans who were fortunate enough to taste Bruichladdich's Bere Barley experiment, this Cognac is just as wonderfully pure. Gone are the creamy, undulating waves of richness and in their place are fresh and snappy fruit flavors contained inside of a leaner, brighter mouthfeel. It's quite surprising and it's a peek at what's possible for French Cognac when you dare to step outside of tradition and into something more rudimentary and interesting.

I'll see some of you at BrandyFest tonight. You'll see me, and many of these bottles!

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll