The Enchanted Ones
Very few feelings compare to the joy traveling Scotland diving into warehouses examining barrels for our customers. It’s not easy after enjoying that little fleeting glory, something which only a tiny portion of the population will ever experience, to return to normal life. If there’s one place that softens the blow of leaving Scotland, it’s Gascogne. This little slice of untainted heaven remains one of the most underappreciated regions of France. It doesn’t have Castles like the Loire Valley or beautiful beaches like the Riviera, but it does have one of the most important food cultures in France and a proud yet welcoming population of devoted to the agrarian industries that sustain this region.
Gascogne seems like a land lost to time. Time simply stops here. A few days can seem like an eternity, while a few years disappear in the blink of an eye. That’s how the locals describe it though. It’s an old place, not only historically, but there are simply not a lot of young people around. They move away to Toulouse, Bordeaux or Paris for school or to find work. There’s plenty of work around here, but young people don’t want to do the work that’s available. If you’re not working in the vines then you’re dealing with pigs, ducks, geese or other crops. There’s no other industry in this region, but Toulouse is becoming one of the fastest growing cities in France with a booming tech and aerospace sectors.
Armagnac still remains an import part of the economy, but it’s not completely integral like Cognac to the north. There are essentially three tiers of Armagnac producers, none of which is inherently better than the other. First, you have the single estate domaines devoted exclusively to Armagnac production. These are often the most historic and traditional producers who likely know, Boingneres, Ravignan, Briat etc. Many large wine producers who also make Armagnac could be put in this category as well, think Tariquet and Pellehaut. These people tend to own their own stills and are often owned by the French elite. Their historic and often extremely high quality, but also can be very expensive.
Next we have the farm producer. These are small to medium size land holders who may have great terroir and perfect vines for Armagnac production, but aren’t totally devoted to brandy production. They may plant corn, raise ducks or geese, tend poplar forests and raise other fruits and vegetables on the Domaine. In a good year, maybe they have some extra money to buy new casks. IN bad years, they’ll sell some brandy to make ends meet. They hire itinerant distillers and often rely on the expertise of their oenologist or their trade partners (the negociant) to aid in the elevage of the brandy.
While the estate Armagnac producer will typically be meticulous about the cask selections, aeration, ouillage and reduction, the farm producer might avoid those standard techniques altogether. Some might do them on a annual basis, while the estate producers are may aerate semi-annually like a cognac producer. Just because these guys don’t follow the normal techniques of the storied estates doesn’t mean they’re not making great brandy, but often it’s not the soft round supple stuff that many brandy lovers are expecting. Certainly it’s not what the French populace wants to drink. There’s not easy road to market for these guys. If someone doesn’t show up at the Domaine to buy bottles, they’re generally not going to sell much Armagnac in a typical year. Because they can’t or don’t want to deal with marketing their brandies, these small farm producers rely on the third tier of producer to monetize their hard work.
The negociant in Armagnac is not dissimilar to the one working in Bordeaux to the North, trading and brokering between small growers and larger blenders as well as developing and marketing their own brands. The best try to highlight the hard work of the estates they work with, while the worst might waste wonderful old brandy on a heavily adulterated blends because it doesn’t fit the “house style”.
The best producers will generally buy new casks every year for all of their brandy, a commitment that’s extremely difficult for a small farmer to make. This is why selecting vintages and tasting multiple casks becomes so important in Armagnac and makes the role of the negociant so important. Within a small chai you may have 2 or 3 casks that are really special while the rest are just ok. But, it’s not in the producer’s interest to simply sell the good casks and be stuck with the so-so stuff. The big negociant doesn’t care because it’s all getting dumped in a blend, but the small negociant will run into problems with this scenario.
That’s one a fine producer like Darroze works directly with his domaines to makes sure the elevage of their brandy is consistent. But another type of negociant is becoming more and more important in Armagnac. One that looks a lot more like an independent bottler in Scotland. The business model is not lost on me and it’s not a simple task. Building relationships with these small proud producers can take years and cellars are not for sale in a piecemeal way. Lots are bought and sold in chunks so in order to acquire the very best casks a small negociant might have to purchase stocks which are less than desirable.
Our friends at L’Encantada are doing just that. They’ve built relationships, through close familial ties to one of the local itinerant distiller, across the region. Their reputation for paying top dollar and highlighting the incredible work of the special domaines they purchase from sets them apart from all but the very best like Darroze. The biggest difference between what Darroze and L’Encantada are doing is their influence on the producers technique in the cellar. Darroze is concerned with consistency and he has a house style that he is trying to capture across his offerings. L’Encantada are more apt to let the brandy do the talking and while their very careful about cask selection, they will not necessarily be involved in many decisions with the producer directly.
We’re extremely proud of the work they do and the incredible relationship we’ve built with them over the years. It’s allowed us to bring a whole new world of unbelievable brandy to this market and I’m confident that every single one of these casks will wow even the most jaded Spirits aficionado. Of course with all single casks, availability is extremely limited and when these special brandies are gone, they’ll truly be gone forever.