Gascogne Day 1: A New Terroir
Very few feelings compare to the joy of diving into a scottish warehouse searching for barrels. It’s not easy leaving Scotland after that fleeting little sense of glory, but it's the mysteries of a magical place to the south where brandy is hidden like treasure that draw me away. This was my first time on my own in the Gers. I wasn't able to secure the good company of my friend Charles Neal, but when this little slice of heaven beckons I must abide.
Gascogne doesn’t have fancy castles like the Loire or beautiful beaches like the Riviera, but it does have one of the most important food cultures in France and a proud population devoted to the agrarian industries that sustain this region. I spent a short few days in the region last week without access to WiFi, a feeling as liberating as it is nerve-racking, to visit with suppliers and search for new domaines. I'm finally home a harrowing trip back thanks to Air France's Spring transit strike, but the three quick days I spent in Armagnac were some of the most illuminating to date.
My first stop was a gorgeous little castle in the north eastern part of the Gers. We don't see alot of brandy production in this area (officially we're in Haut-Armagnac) because the terroir is typically less than approriate. There's more grain and fruit production here thanks to the rich soils and bad drainage. Yet, outside of the gorgeous medieval commune of Lectoure, a single contiguous estate sits perfectly situated at the peak of the regions tallest hill. The unique terrain here means better drainage and sandier soils than the neighbors in the valley below. Easily one of the most picturesque properties in the Gers, Chateau Vacquie has extreme potential thanks to its special terroir and passionate proprietor.
There's absolutely nothing typical about Chateau Vacquie or its owner Bruno Compagnon. He's not a Baron or a farmer, nor is he even from Gascogne at all. He struck me as being some kind of artist at first with wild hair and an absolutely infectious demeanor. He's as likely to be wearing a sherwani and sandles as he were to be dressed for the fields. His elegant wife makes espresso while we chat sitting on shag covered chairs in the cozy little kitchen. Despite his counterculture vibe, he's actually a successful business man who founded a luxury trading company in Paris before becoming wealthy in real estate and other investments.
He's filled with passion for his domaine and the special products that come from there. He purchased property in 1986 as a vacation home for his young family and at the time it was one of France's largest estate plum producers. Along with Bruno came a renewed committment to sustainable and ultimately organic agriculture. Since the early days of plums and poplars, they've refocused the domaine toward the production of wine and Armagnac. They're currently producing certified organic armagnac and several previous vintages used uncertified organic viticulture.
Of course, this is not Bruno's day job and he's not able to tend to the property alone. He's hired consultants to aid with the viticulture, vinification and the distillation, but is still extremely involved in the process. He's quite meticulous and is also committed to making at least some fully natural wine with absolutely no sulfite addition before bottling, if he can manage it. While the area is not particularly renowned for great wine or brandy, this special domaine has been identified by experts as being of exceptional quality. Most notably Aubert De Villaine, a friend of Bruno's who's personally examined the domaine and declared it be one of the finest in the southwest.
Despite all its potential, Bruno has done little to commercialize his Armagnac. He's sold some to highend clientele and friends. He's even sold a chunk of the '99 Vintage supposedly destined for the White House. Only one cask remain of that special vintage and it's twice the price of the others. Bruno won't be able to run the domaine forever. He's producing for the future and his son Morgan, a movie producer in LA, who will one day inherit this exquisite property. I tasted a number of good vintages here and we'll be working hard to get these unique brandies to the states in the coming months, our first Haut-Armagnac. A succesful first day in an unfamiliar terroir and a reminder that things in Gascogne aren't quite always what they seem.