Armagnac is a type of grape brandy produced in the Armagnac region in South West France. The region was granted AOC status in 1936. This controls the production region and methods that allow a brandy to use the armagnac title.
Armagnac can only be produced from a limited selection of grapes, typically via a single continuous distillation in a column still before ageing in French oak casks.
Armagnac is traditionally drunk as a digestif and is traditionally served after a meal. It can be successfully paired with certain desserts; almond cakes, apple tarts, nougat and chocolate-based desserts, caramelised pears or fruit salads to name a few. Armagnac also provides a great accompaniment to coffee and cigars (mild cigars matched with armagnacs with plenty of fruit and viscosity).
The region of Armagnac was the first in France to begin distilling wine to produce brandy. Armagnac is intrinsically linked with Old Gascon culture, and production by the Moors is thought to date back to the 12th Century. References of armagnac production date back to 1411, around 200 years before the first references of Cognac.
Production of armagnac is strictly regulated to meet AOC requirements. Varieties of grapes used, distillation methods, the ageing process and blending techniques are all controlled.
A limited range of grape varieties may be used in the production of armagnac. The most popular of these are Ugni Blanc, Baco 22A, Folle Blanche and Colombard. Ugni Blanc is also known as Saint-Emilion des Charentes (in the Cognac region of France) and Trebbiano (in Italy). Armagnac is traditionally produced as a blend of brandy produced from these grapes.
Wine produced by fermenting these grapes is distilled to produce eau-de-vie (unaged brandy). Distillation takes place during the winter, no later than 31st March on the year following the harvest.
Traditionally a copper column still is used, in a single continuous distillation. Only a few producers (under 5%) will opt to double distil in pot stills. Continuous distillation produces an eau-de-vie rich in aroma and comparatively light in body with a high alcohol content.
Eau-de-vie must be aged in oak casks before it can be called armagnac. These casks are traditionally 400 litres in size and made from wood from the forests of Gascony or, occasionally, the Limousin area. The eau-de-vie will usually spend the first six months to two years in new oak casks, after which time they will be moved to old casks with less tannin to mature fully.
When the ageing period is deemed sufficient, blending begins. Armagnacs of different origins and ages are brought together in a harmonious blend according to the taste of the experienced distiller. A mixture of distilled water and armagnac, called ‘petites eaux’, is gradually added to reduce the armagnac to the required alcoholic strength before bottling.
The Armagnac region lies between the Adour and Garonne rivers on the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south west of France. The region has a mild climate suited to growing the area’s 40,000 acres (160 km²) of grape vines.
The region is split into three districts:
The west of the region is an undulating area where the grapes grow in acidic, clayey and stony ground. This area produces a light, fruity and delicate Armagnac with the most prestigious reputation.
Spreading around Bas-Armagnac to the east, this district contains about 40% of the vineyards planted for armagnac production. It consists of soil made up mainly of limestone, sand and clay. This district in general produces armagnac that is strong tasting and reaches its full flavour at a later age.
Spreading down the east and south of the armagnac region, these vineyards represent just a small amount of the production. Vineyards exist in small clusters on chalk clay hills. It is often called "white" Armagnac because of the abundance of limestone influencing the grapes’ growth.
Each step of the production process helps to defines a style of brandy, giving it a unique nose, palate and body.
Armagnac’s base wine can be made from several varieties including Ugni Blanc, Baco 22A, Folle Blanche and Colombard. Cognac is made largely from just the the Ugni Blanc grape.
Armagnac production is predominantly based on continuous distillation producing eaux-de-vie with an average alcohol content of 72% ABV. Cognac is based on double distillation producing eaux-de-vie with average alcoholic content of 54 to 60% ABV. Both brandies are then watered down before bottling. Most brandies will be bottled at around 40 - 46% ABV.
Armagnac is aged in French oak primarily from the Monlezun Forest in Bas Armagnac, Gascony, and is often released as a vintage (unblended brandy from a single harvest’s produce). Cognac is aged mainly in French oak casks from Limousin or Tronçais, and is usually released as a blend of years.
A blend of several armagnacs aged between one and three years in French oak casks. Ideal for cocktails and ‘gastronomique’ cuisine.
A blend of several armagnacs, the youngest of which has been aged between four and nine years. Ideal entry level armagnacs offering balanced tastes and excellent value for money. Expect lively fruit aromas and flavours of stone fruits, apricots, plums, soft vanilla and some light floral tones.
A blend of several armagnacs, the youngest of which has been aged at least twenty years. XO armagnacs offer an approachable palate with hints of complexity due to extended ageing. Expect aromas and flavours of rich dried fruits, figs, prunes, apricots, almonds or marmalade.
A blend of several armagnacs, of which the youngest component in the blend must be at least ten years old. Displays the fullest characteristics of armagnac in terms of aromas, complexity, and richness. Fruit, nut and spice aromas and flavours such as figs, apricots, quince, plum, almonds, walnuts, vanilla, cacao and cloves. Expect a long balanced finish.
Armagnac from a single year which will be shown on the label, generally older and better quality armagnac. Strong characteristics of flavour and aroma suited to a connoisseur. Expect unique flavours like rich dried fruits, prunes, cacao, liquorice, almonds, and tobacco. Each vintage will hold its own unique exquisite taste experience.
A relatively new appellation that is unaged.
(Note: The age definitions offered above are being implemented from 2010. The grades prior to this change were as follows: VS/*** - 18 months minimum; VSOP – four years minimum; Napoleon – six years minimum; XO – six years minimum; Hors d’age – ten years minimum; vintages – ten years minimum)