Armagnac

December 20th, 2009 by Eric

On these cold winter nights, there’s nothing quite like an after-dinner digestif to warm up with.  My spirit of choice for many years has been armagnac, a brandy from southwest France with complex aromatics and a wide variety of tastes.  Armagnac is France’s oldest brandy, distilled as early as the 14th century, and yet it it remains largely unknown today in the States, with few quality offerings available at restaurants or liquor stores.  Sadly, given the recent trend of many producers replacing their grape vines with more profitable crops, it’s hard to say how long this fine spirit will even be available.  But while it’s here, it’s worth sampling some of the amazing offerings.

Vintage armagnac bottles

I first tried Armagnac fifteen years ago at my friend Keith’s house, who himself had discovered it on a business trip to France years before that.  That first taste was a mixed experience – at 40% alcohol content, it burned my throat and made me cough like a neophyte, but the finish left a subtle mix of sweet and spicy flavors tingling on my tongue.  I was intrigued, and tried some sips on subsequent visits, and slowly I began to see that this spirit that many refer to as “an acquired taste” might indeed be worth the effort.

Over the next few years, armagnac fell off my radar while I moved cross-country and worked long hours during the heady dot-com days of the late ‘90s.  Then in the early part of this decade, a coworker and I were talking about some of the digestifs he had been collecting – cognac, calvados, armagnac – and suddenly I recalled my lost interest.  After trying a not-so-good bottle from the Washington state liquor store, I decided to do a little more digging online to see what my options were.  This led me to Charles Neal’s book on armagnac.  His book, appropriately subtitled “The Definitive Guide to France’s Premier Brandy,” clued me in to its history, and provided a wealth of detailed tasting notes for over 700 armagnacs.  Armed with my armagnac bible, I searched for a suitably interesting vintage for my next purchase, and read this tasting note:

Fruit on the nose nearly soars from the glass; honey, coffee, white chocolate, apricot, ginger.  Vanilla, coffee, prune, cinnamon, and a hint of smoke in the mouth.  A seamless texture and also very long.  Nearly perfect armagnac.

The bottle?  It was a 1973 from Domaine de St. Aubin, distributed by Francis Darroze, aged 24 years in oak before being bottled.  I managed to find a bottle for sale, and the first whiff alone was a revelation: this is what it’s all about.  I understood why someone would even want to aspire towards being an armagnac connoisseur.  I was hooked.

Glass of armagnac

At this point, you might be wondering, “What exactly is armagnac?”  Charles Neal has lots of detail on his website, covering grapes, soil, distillation, aging, blending, labels, vintages, and even how to drink it.  The short version is this: if you grow one or more of four particular wine grapes in a small region of southwest France, distill it, age it in oak, and let it evaporate and reduce a bit along the way, you might find yourself with a barrel of armagnac.  So how is it different than cognac?  Cognac is double distilled, and almost always blended with cognacs from multiple years to smooth out inconsistencies and achieve the same taste.  Armagnac is commonly offered as a single vintage, though you can find blended armagnacs for sale.

I found myself fortunate enough to chat with Charles Neal here in Seattle in early October at a wine dinner at Licorous.  I must admit that I am quite envious of his lifestyle, traveling France for several months every year, meeting with wine, calvados, and armagnac producers to sample their products and import them into the States.  In fact, he’s currently working on a 500-page book on calvados, due to be released in late 2010, which I look forward to already.  I may find myself with another habit then!  But I digress.  I mentioned to him that the best Armagnac I’ve ever tried was a 1973 Domaine Boingnères, and was pleasantly surprised to hear Charles agree that Domaine Boingnères is one of the top producers.  He explained the sad reality that the current owner, Martine Laffite, will be retiring in a few years and has no one to pass the 200-year-old family business on to, and it’s unclear as to what will happen to her armagnac.  My outlandish daydream: uproot the family, move to Gascony, somehow convince Ms. Laffite to teach me the old family secrets, and carry on the banner of this preeminent chateau.  Who’s with me?

The wall of armagnacs at Les Caves Augé  in Paris
A glimpse of the wall of vintage armagnacs at Les Caves Augé, Paris.  This store is an excellent source, with bottles dating as far back as the 1940s.

But while I’m still in Seattle, finding good Armagnac in the state’s liquor stores is a challenge.  They typically only carry three or four ho-hum blends (XO or VSOP), and possibly a single vintage bottle at one or two stores in the entire state.  One option is a road trip to a good store in Portland.  But my favorite mail order source is D&M Wines and Liquors in San Francisco.  They typically have 70+ armagnacs in stock, with most of them being very high-quality vintage bottles.  Not surprising, since Charles Neal used to work for them and helps source their bottles.  These bottles aren’t cheap, but I can tell you that the good ones are worth it.  The spirit doesn’t age once it goes into bottle, so I’ve gotten my money’s worth by having little sips here and there, allowing me to keep bottles open for years.  Drop me a line if you’re interested in trying a glass!

25 Responses to “Armagnac”

  1. Michael says:

    Outstanding post Eric, really it was a joy to read. The last time we were over, Robin and I were fortunate enough to have a taste from your collection, which was quite the treat. I’m a huge fan of spirits and especially drinks like this with long histories. I love spirits that have passionate careful craftwork behind them…Armagnac is something I’m tempted to explore more, especially after knowing a resident expert in town to consult with.

    Cheers- MRB

  2. wayne says:

    I really love drinking Germainn Robin, Shareholder Reserve.
    Have you tried it?

  3. Eric says:

    I actually hadn’t heard of it before now. I just read an in-depth article about the brandy and its producer on sfgate.com, and it sounds amazing! I’ll have to try some, thanks for the tip. Where do you buy yours?

  4. wayne says:

    I live in Seattle and there is only one State Liquor store that has it in the SODO dist. I like the Shareholder Reserve best because of its complexity. It is around $75 per bottle and worth every penny! Good luck in your search.

  5. wayne says:

    Eric, Let me know what you think of the Germain Robin. You sound like a person that enjoys fine brandy. The new Liqour store located 2 blocks south of 4th and Lander is were I got it at. Enjoy!

    Wayne

  6. JB says:

    Good article…Request you to also suggest some Armagnac in the regular buying range of common man like $30 to $50 range, if any known good brands available that should be fine. Any correlation with Armagnac grapes and the Brandy being manufactured in South Africa?

  7. wayne says:

    JB, try the Germain Robin fine. It is around $35 and is very nice.

  8. JB says:

    Germain Robin is US made brandy, more like a Cognac than Armagnac. I was looking for some traditional Armagnacs from the French region in the $30-$50 ranges.

  9. Eric says:

    Hi JB. I have tried a handful of Armagnacs in that price range, but haven’t found anything (yet) that I can recommend. I’d suggest giving the folks at D&M a call, and get their opinion. They’re very knowledgeable about their products, and they should be able to recommend some options to you. If you end up finding one you like, let us know!

  10. Larry says:

    Hi Eric,
    I too rediscovered Armagnac on our recent trip to France. I bought a bottle early in the trip, which we lovingly sipped each night. So when we returned home, Sharon insisted that I buy a few Armagnacs. The first attempt from WSLCB was, as you say, not-so-good; probably best used as a mixer in a scorpion or something. Re-read your blog, and called D&M for a recommendation on 3 bottles that demonstrate a range of characteristics, within a $300 budget. We settled on:
    Delord 25 Year Old Bas-Armagnac
    Chateau de Ravignan 1982 Bas Armagnac
    Baron de Lustrac 1982 Bas-Armagnac, Folle Blanche

    The bottles arrived FedEx yesterday (coincident with an order for Riedel Vinum Cognac glasses), and we spent the night enjoying our first flight of Armagnac (with a VSOP Cognac thrown in for comparison) over backgammon. Very diverse range of aromas and flavors – some of which I’m still at a loss to identify – but I can safely declare each of the bottles a winner. I wonder if they’ll last through December :-).

  11. Llyne Foy says:

    Thank you, thank you for the tip on D&M Wines and Liquors! A disheartening misadventure with alleged “calvados” through a state store convinced me to not even bother trying them for armagnac. I was actually pondering renting space in a Portland wine storage facility that accepts shipments from a vendor who can’t ship to Washington State. (I’m *still* considering suffering the 24-hour-each-way train trip on a planned visit to the Bay Area next spring so I can bring bottles back without airport hassle.)

  12. Michael says:

    Thanks for sharing your love of Armagnac and nod to D&M. I’m based in Portland and share a similar love of Armagnac, making trips to San Francisco once a year or so by car to bring back a haul from D&M and Cask (since we can’t legally ship liquor into Oregon). In your post you mentioned that you occasionally drive down to Portland for Armagnac, do you have any recommended stores?

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