Gascogne Day #2: The Enchanted

Lous Pibous Gascogne seems like a land lost in 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. 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 seems to be plenty of work around here, but not the type of work most young people want. If you’re not working in the vines, you’re dealing with pigs, ducks, geese or other crop. It's hot and difficult without a lot of fanfare or pay. There’s no other serious industry in this region and not many of options. Toulouse to the Southeast is one of France's fastest growing cities with booming tech and aerospace sectors, which draws many of the local youth away.

Armagnac still remains an important part of the economy, but it’s not completely integral like Cognac to the north. The industry's production level is a tiny fraction of the Charente and is significantly less organized. There are essentially three tiers of Armagnac producers, none of which is inherently better than the other. First, you have the single domaines devoted exclusively to Armagnac production. These are often the most historic and traditional producers you may have heard of, 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 typically have ancestral ownership in the property stretching back generations. 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, 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 oenologist or their business partners to aid in the elevage of the brandy if they even bother to "work" the brandies like their more savvy colleagues.

While the estate Armagnac producer will typically be meticulous about the cask selections, aeration, ouillage and reduction, the farm producer might avoid those typical techniques altogether. Some might do them on a bi-annual basis, while the estate producers may aerate semi-annually like a cognac producer. Just because these guys don’t follow the accepted techniques of the industry doesn’t mean they’re not making great brandy, although they often aren't the soft and supple stuff most brandy afficiandos are expecting. Certainly it’s not what most French people want to drink.

There’s no 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. That means they’re relying generally on selling to friends and maybe some local restaurants or just tourists walking Le Chermin de St Jacques -the popular hiking trail that follows pilgrimage of Saint Jacques. Occasionally, someone like us shows up and perhaps buys a barrel or two, but otherwise they don't have the capital or knowhow to market the brandies. 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 blend because it doesn’t fit the “house style”.

Producers of brandy (both Armagnac and Cognac) are focused on avoiding over oaking or introducing to many hard tannins during the maturation of their eau-de-vie. The use of new barrels, ubiquitous with high quality production, is expensive and complicated.  They'll be filled for 6-12 months at a time before having new brandy rotated in. Typically the "oaked" young eau-de-vie is moved to a very old used barrel to mature, which for fine Bas-Armagnac takes between 10-30 years in general. While this process of rotation is presented by producers as a method for tannin aversion I’m not completely convinced they’re main goal isn't saving money. Rather than buy many new casks, you can buy fewer and shuffle brandy between them to maximize the affect.

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 one of the reasons why cask selection is much more important in Armagnac than Cognac. The benefits of consistency one achieves through the standard practices are nearly entirely lost for a small producer. 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 why a quality 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. Indeed they're products often have more appeal for the whisky crowd than traditional producers, but the work they do is not easy. Building relationships with small distillers is a long term commitment. Not to mention the fact that they often need to buy several casks to get the few that you really want, this new style micro-negociants often spend years courting and negotiating with the producers to acquire stock.

A huge amount of the discovery is word of mouth. You need to have a good reputation, so that you're suppliers will recommend you to their friends and neighbors. For the producers it's a much better oppurtunity in general as they can expect to receive a significant premium over the bulk market price, which is a function of age and quality. Usually when a small farmer is selling to a negociant, it's the negoc who holds all the cards.

La Salle

At the top of the heap for this new breed of bottlers is a small team based in the Gers called L'Encantada. The small group of local Armagnac enthusiasts started bottling brandy almost by accident. Led by Vincent Cornu, a local chef and caterer, they basically stumbled on a stock of extremely special Armagnacs and decided to buy it if for no other reason than to enjoy the brandy themselves. The details of that first purchase and the estate which made them are cagey at best, but the farm is owned by a prominent family who started making Armagnac in the 80s. The brandies in this period are called La Salle, a reference to the humid chai on the far end of the house; although they're from the same property their style is very different from the products distilled later. Sometime in the early 90s a regime change occurred and the family decided to put a significant amount of resources into the quality of the brandy. They cleared out a second chai right next to the family home, which inadvertently provided a significantly better environment for aging.

The family planted Folle Blanche and tended the vine meticulously, hired the best distiller, purchased the best new oak barrels and filled each with the finest eau-de-vie possible. Then they simply didn't do anything else. No ouillage, not aeration, no blending or reduction. When Vincent came across the barrels, he immediately knew that this was a special place. Lous Pibous would eventually launch L'Encantada on the scene in a huge way, but their commitment to natural Armagnac, in all its raw glory, would not end at that one estate. They've now amassed a portfolio of 6 or 7 tiny producers from all over Bas-Armagnac and Ténarèze.

The Lous Pibous stocks will not last forever and are already extremely tight, but their team is beginning to become known for locating those most Enchanted of barrels and bringing them to us directly without any fluff or filler. These might not be the most affordable brandies on the market, but there's no doubt in my mind that L'Encantada offers one of the most exciting and valuable drinking experiences across their entire portfolio. L'Encantada is not the only game in town, there's a small cadre of likeminded bottlers, scouring Gascogne for those secret treasures. I'll have more about some new discoveries soon and next week we'll be getting an onslaught of extremely exciting and delicious new offerings from some of our old favorite suppliers. Keep your ears to the ground.

David Othenin-Girard