Art on the Palate: The Armagnac Appeal

This range known as Les Grands Assemblages, from the Darroze family, comprises armagnacs of different ages - the indicated age on the bottle is that of the youngest Armagnac in the blend.
(Bas-Armagnac Francis Darroze)

Last September, iconic actress and singer Grace Jones attended the opening of Gigi’s restaurant in the exclusive London suburb of Mayfair, prompting the restaurant to create a cocktail in her honour; but not just any cocktail, the world’s most expensive cocktail.

Priced at £8,888 ($13,700), The Gigi is made with 1990 Vintage Cristal and 1888 Samalens Vieille Relique Vintage Bas Armagnac, topped off with a touch of gold leaf.

Although the cocktail is now famous thanks to its record-setting price, the key ingredient of The Gigi – the extremely rare and very expensive 1888 Armagnac – is likely to only be familiar to wine and spirit connoisseurs. But if current trends are anything to go by, the popularity of Armagnac is on the rise and may soon be on the tongues of a much wider demographic, both literally and figuratively.

Armagnac is a single-distilled French brandy named after the region in which it is produced. Situated in Gascony in the South West of France, Armagnac is divided into three zones: Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac Tenarèze, and Haut-Armagnac. The region’s eponymous tipple can be

made from 10 different grape varieties, but is generally dominated by Ugni-Blanc, Folle Blanche, Baco, and Colombard. It comes in blends made from several eaux-de-vie from different harvests or as vintages made from one single year of harvest. Its distinct characteristics are the result of the single distillation process and the long period of ageing in oak barrels.

Although Armagnac is often confused with, and overlooked in favour of its double-distilled cousin Cognac, it predates Cognac and has been identified as the oldest wine-based eau-de-vie (French for “water of life,” a term used to describe Brandy made from fruits) thanks to Maître Vital Dufour, prior of Eauze, who in 1310 described its 40 virtues in Latin in his Very Useful Book for Conserving One’s Health and Staying on Top Form.

Armagnac is also produced in much smaller quantities than Cognac, with about 5 million bottles of Armagnac sold annually compared to about 165 million bottles of Cognac.

The Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIA), an organization that oversees the production of Armagnac, describes its product as artisanal and noble, but not elitist. Sébastien Lacroix, director of the BINA, says that they have a saying in Gascony regarding Armagnac: “Not the best known, but known by the best.” Lacroix says that they are not looking for popularity. “But we are looking to provide a certain pleasure; a pleasure of sharing an Art de Vivre, particularly by asserting its originality in taste and diversity,” he says.

According to Lacroix, the fundamental difference between Cognac and Armagnac is essentially a human one. “Quite possibly the fruit of history and geography. With its proximity to the ocean, Cognac has easy access to the world, whereas Armagnac is quite landlocked. The temperament of the men and women of Armagnac is not the same as that of those in the Charentes,” he says. “The Gascon people are very passionate about the product and proud. They make a handcrafted product in small quantities as opposed to Cognac which is huge in comparison and mostly controlled by a few very big houses which we don’t have here in Armagnac,” adds Amanda Garnham, attachée de presse for the BNIA.

Boris Maskow, Rare Wine and Spirits expert at online auction Auctionata, suggests that a good Armagnac should offer a refined and elegant barrique (a type of oak barrel) flavour and a distinctive nose of plums, bakery, and dried fruit. “Both, oak and fruit should be in close to perfect harmony with each other, alcohol should serve with a certain warm mouth-feel but it should not dominate the other components,” he says. “The joy and pleasure of a good Armagnac, at least to me, is to follow the traces of a given set of flavours and to find out how they are knit, woven, and tied to each other. This pattern is the individual imprint of the drink and the signature of the cellar master.” Maskow advises that Château de Lacquy, Francis Darroze, and Marnier-Lapostolle are the producers to look for.

Chris Hambleton, wine consultant for UK-based auction house Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions and Consignments Director of auction partner Bid for Wine, says that the Armagnac market is strong and getting stronger. “Armagnac used to be thought of as the poor relation to Cognac,” he notes, “but just as with wines people now tend to see Armagnac as ‘different’ as opposed to ‘worse’.”

According to Hambleton, Janneau is probably the most widely known label with Nismes Delclou, La Grande, Baron de Lustrac, and Baron de Sigognac among the other well-known brands. But he warns that personal taste is paramount – “it might be expensive and rare, but if you do not actually really like it then it’s not a lot of use,” he says.

Hambleton says that lots of people go in for Armagnac’s slightly stronger, more rustic flavor. “The longer a spirit spends in cask the smoother it becomes, and Armagnac producers are well aware of the positive effect this has on their product,” he reveals.

“Some people might raise an eyebrow at a 1906 Armagnac that looks brand new, but this is perfectly normal as it may have only been bottled in the last 10 years. Vintage Armagnac is actually far more common (and so more affordable) than vintage Cognac,” he adds.

According to Hambleton, buyers should look for a bottling date that is as far away as possible from the vintage on the bottle and says that generally, the older the better.

Sébastien Lacroix says that he believes that enthusiasts are really looking for something original and authentic when they indulge in Armagnac – something more exclusive that makes a statement about their taste and that makes them stand out from the crowd. “In the image of the Gascon people, I think that those who appreciated Armagnac act with passion more than reason….,” he says, adding, “In Armagnac we have our grape variants, our distillation, our vineyards, the special work in the cellars, and a craftsmanship that is being rediscovered and searched for. Our winegrowers, distillers, cellar masters, all have a particular savoir-faire.”

According to Lacroix, a previous BNIA President once said, “Elsewhere, there are legends; in Armagnac, we have stories …. It is this rich history and heritage that when combined with its artisanal nature makes Armagnac such a special and unique product.”