When it comes to wine and spirits, there are a great many good things about France.
One of those things is its potential for new discovery of products even after years of travelling to the country both on holiday and professionally. It is a vast country, still with great swathes of sparsely populated countryside. Last week, my travels took me to Gascony in deepest rural south-west France, South of Bordeaux down towards the Pyrenees. This is the home of Armagnac, the oldest brandy in France, with production dating back to the 14th century at least.
Although total production of Armagnac is only about a fifth of its rival, Cognac, the area is quite wide, encompassing part of the Gers department and part of the Landes, with its huge pine forests. Some of the best producers are in the latter region, in the Bas Armagnac appellation. Traditionally, the method of distillation differs from that in Cognac, in that a continuous still is used, as opposed to the pot still used in cognac. This method of production, together with use of different grape varieties and long ageing in oak barrels, gives Armagnac its distinctive and appealing character.
The production of cognac is dominated by big global brands making large quantities of the brandy, whereas the majority of Armagnac producers are very small, family concerns. This gives a wide variety of styles and characters, much in keeping with the producers of this fiery liquid. Often considered as a more rustic version of cognac, this is a long way from the reality. Armagnac producers are passionate artisans, dedicated to achieving top quality brandy which has depth of flavour, individuality and elegance.
Christelle Lasseignou (pictured) is a young woman producer of Armagnac at Domaine Maouhum, gascon for ‘bad smoke’ resulting from the family house burning to the ground in the mid eighteenth century. Taking over the business when her father died 15 years ago, she now runs every aspect of an expanding business, producing around 12 barrels of Armagnac every year, with each barrel containing 420 litres. Another young woman producer is the very aptly named Nelly Lacave of Domaine Jouatmaou, producing just five barrels per year, but only producing single year Armagnacs, with available vintages dating back to 1948. The 1976 was sublime, with great complexity and nuances of spice, candied fruits and cigar smoke.
One of the largest independent Armagnac producers in this region is Chateau Lacquy. In the family ownership of Comte de Boisseson since 1711, around 40 barrels are distilled at the property each year. Recognised as a top quality Armagnac with a raft of medals from international tasting competitions including IWSC, I tasted the 17 year old XO. With notes of candied orange peel, spice, wood smoke and dried apricots, it had tremendous depth, a long, persistent finish and above all, elegance.
But, not only is Armagnac greatly enjoyable, according to certain recent medical studies, it is also good for your health, possibly preventing heart attacks and obesity, amongst other benefits. A well-known monk in the 14th century wrote “It enlivens the spirit, taken in moderation, recalls the past to memory, renders men joyous, preserves youth and delays senility”. I have checked, but it doesn’t yet seem to be available on prescription, more’s the pity.
Richard Esling DipWSET
www.arundelwinesociety.co.uk, www.sussexwineacademy.co.uk, www.winewyse.com