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Family values in Cognac and Armagnac

The biggest names in Cognac and Armagnac have earned their success for good reason, but look further and you’ll find a plethora of fascinating, high-quality and characterful spirits made by the many smaller, family-oriented producers across the two regions.

The great houses of Cognac and Armagnac are rooted in family names – from the arrival in the Charente of Jersey native Jean Martell in 1715, to the decision nine years later by local wine-grower Rémy Martin to start bottling spirit under his own name.

Hennessy Cognac founder Richard Hennessy was an Irish officer in the army of Louis XV, while Emmanuel Courvoisier laid the foundations for the eponymous Jarnac Cognac house when he joined Louis Gallois in business in 1796. Further south, in the town of Condom, Pierre Etienne Janneau started his Armagnac business, in association with Joseph Dubourdieu, in 1851.

Over the centuries, these leading producers have passed into the hands of multinational companies and large conglomerates – in late 2023, it was announced that Italy’s Campari Group had agreed to buy Courvoisier from the Beam Suntory group in a deal worth up to US$1.2bn. Family business, you might say, has become big business.

But, beyond these mega-brands, family connections still run deep in both regions, and in the vineyards and cellars of some of their most quality-conscious producers.

Generation game

Some of these links march back through the centuries. The Frapin family have been wine-growers in Cognac since 1270 – that’s 21 generations and counting. They’ve been bottling supremely elegant and expressive Cognacs from their 240ha of vines at Château de Fontpinot for just over a century now.

By contrast, the Camus clan are relative striplings, numbering just five generations since the house was established in 1863. Over the years, Camus has become synonymous with a range of luxuriously packaged, high-end Cognacs, having an indelible association with the small Borderies cru area, where they farm 188ha of vines.

Cognac can be a small world, too. The Fillioux family boasts a strong association with Hennessy, having for several generations provided the Master Blender for the industry’s dominant producer, and played a key role in the creation of the iconic Hennessy XO. In 1880, however, a spur of the Fillioux family tree broke off when Honoré Fillioux sold his Hennessy shares and began a new Cognac venture.

Today, Cognac Jean Fillioux continues to make up to 3,000 12-bottle cases of Cognac a year at its La Pouyade estate near Juillac-le-Coq, and remains 100% independent, family-owned and intent on expressing the character of Grande Champagne, the small cru area at the heart of the region, centred around Segonzac, where the thin clay-based, chalk-rich soils produce spirits of the greatest finesse and long-ageing quality. Such ventures, says current owner Christophe Fillioux, are vital to perpetuating the diversity of Cognac: ‘There are so many exciting bottlings to discover, fascinating stories, fantastic blends, or vintages,’ he says. ‘It is our role as producers to “fight” and keep offering diversity to our audience.’

Pauline Trijol and others in vineyard

Pauline Trijol (above, left). Credit: Deepix

Keeping it in the family

A few miles to the west, the Trijol family had been making its own Cognac for more than a century when wine and spirits broker Maxime Trijol set himself up as a professional distiller in 1962. Today, the distillery at St-Martial-sur-Né, on the border between the Grande and Petite Champagne cru areas, is one of the largest privately owned operations in the region, with 22 Charentais pot stills operating 24 hours a day for six months of the year.

The Trijols distil for clients – including some of the most famous names in the region – but they also make a uniformly excellent selection of their own Cognacs under the Maxime Trijol name. What’s particularly admirable is that, while the Grande Champagne VSOP and XO bottlings catch the eye with their crisp florals and elegant precision, the ‘Classic’ variants – which draw on a range of crus including Fins Bois (an extensive area, generally ranked fourth after Borderies in terms of quality) – are every bit as appealing and superb value for money.

For decades, Jean-Jacques Trijol, who took over from his father Maxime in 1972, was at the helm, but there was never any real question that his daughters, Pauline and Anne-Sophie, would follow in his footsteps. To the sisters, the distillery had been their childhood playground; bottles of Cognac were toys.

The pair joined the business in 2013, taking over fully from Jean-Jacques in 2018/19, with Anne-Sophie running the distillation and Pauline overseeing the ageing cellars and blends – although dad is always on hand to offer advice when needed. Family brings a strong element of continuity, with Anne-Sophie seeking to maintain the house style of fresh, elegant, harmonious Cognacs distilled on their lees.

But there is innovation, too. Pauline has introduced the Dry Collection, a highly limited release of very old Cognacs, including Dry Collection No1 in 2021, a Grande Champagne Cognac of great power and depth with an average age of 40 years; and Dry Collection No2, from 2022, a more floral expression of very old Petite Champagne eaux-de-vie. Rare releases numbering only hundreds of bottles at a time, these are hard to find now, but worth seeking out.

‘I wanted to do my own Cognac, my selection, my blend,’ Pauline says. There is great attention to detail here: the Cognacs were bottled at 43% and 42% abv respectively. ‘That was just where the expression was best,’ explains Pauline, adding that ‘40% was too low – and between 41% and 43% the expression was completely different’.

Armagnac roots

Marc Darroze of Armagnac Darroze, based in Roquefort, Bas Armagnac.

Marc Darroze of Armagnac Darroze, based in Roquefort, Bas Armagnac. Credit: Maison Darroze

Drive south past Bordeaux for two or three hours, through the vast Landes forest, and you swap the vinous monoculture of Grande Champagne for the rolling rural charm of the Gers. Here vines compete with arable crops, livestock and thick woodland; this is deep France, the home of warm summers that have an unmistakable brin du sud (‘a touch of the south’).

It might seem like an idyllic place to grow up, and Thomas Guasch’s childhood memories of living at Château de Bordeneuve are peppered with happiness. But he also recalls that due to the lack of central heating, in winter there was ice on the inside of the windows and in the wash basins.

Like Maxime Trijol, Thomas’ father Jean-Claude Guasch was originally a broker or courtier, giving an enviable inside track on who was who in the world of Armagnac. Since 2000, the family has built up an estate of 42ha, of which 22ha are vineyards, supplying about 90% of its needs, with the aim of becoming self-sufficient in a few years’ time.

The soil here is classic Bas-Armagnac – the sub-region’s tawny sands, scattered with boulbènes (very fine, silty soil) – and the grape varieties are a mix of Ugni Blanc (the classic Cognac variety) and the inimitable Baco 22A. A hybrid variety that was almost banned a generation ago, Baco makes some pretty dubious wine, but is capable of greatness when combined with the classic single-distillation method of Armagnac, and decades in oak.

Guasch has learned to fine-tune the combination of the two varieties – the yin and yang of great Armagnac, in many ways – dialling up the Ugni Blanc in younger expressions such as Baron de Sigognac 10 Year Old (which has only about 20% Baco), but allowing Baco to dominate the brand’s superbly textured 25 Year Old.

Baco is Bas-Armagnac’s trump card, with the obvious caveat that you may have to wait decades for all that power and character to be lulled into something with poise and harmony. And that is something of a speciality for another family business in the region, Armagnac Darroze.

Jean Darroze was a two-star Michelin restaurateur at Villeneuve-de-Marsan when he started sourcing and selling Armagnacs in 1960, alongside his sommelier son Francis. By 1974, Francis had created his first cellar in his father-in-law’s carpentry shop – and today Marc Darroze, son of the late Francis, grandson of Jean, oversees arguably the finest collection of négociant Armagnacs on the market.

These have now mushroomed to cover a range of aged blends – Grands Assemblages – organic Armagnacs and a high-end collection called Luxe Gascon. But the heart of the Darroze business remains the single-property, single-vintage Armagnacs with which the family made its name.

To open a bottle of Darroze Château de Gaube 1971 – possibly one of the finest Armagnacs you will ever have the pleasure to taste – is to celebrate the strength and heritage of the concept of family twice over. First for the domaine owners, the Morel family, for creating such an exemplary spirit; and second for the Darrozes and their expertise in selecting it, bottling it and bringing it to a wider world.

Thomas Guasch in Château de Bordeneuve’s cellar

Thomas Guasch in Château de Bordeneuve’s cellar


Improving with age: six delectable Cognacs and Armagnacs


Frapin Château de Fontpinot XO 100th Anniversaire

Cognac

From the resurrected 1923 label to the superlative blending, everything about this just oozes class. Heady hedgerow florals, luscious tropical fruit, toasted almond/hazelnut and just a whisper of elusive rancio. All that’s best about Cognac in one glass. Alcohol 41%


Jean Fillioux Très Vieux XO Extra Grande Champagne

Cognac

The familial links with Hennessy fade into insignificance here. For roughly half the price of Hennessy XO you get a fragrant, elegant, expressive Cognac of rare breadth and complexity. Ridiculous value. Alc 40%


Maxime Trijol XO Classic

Cognac

Plenty of powerful spice and oak tannin up front, along with classic notes of ripe citrus and creamy vanilla. The mid-palate is explosively fragrant and round, with a little menthol tension. A benchmark XO at a good price. Alc 40%


Baron de Sigognac 25 Year Old

Armagnac

A blending masterclass combining the grippy power of Baco with silky, fruit-forward Ugni Blanc. Great age brings aromas of cigar leaf and walnut, together with dark honey and banana bread. There’s structure here, but also a beguiling texture and a pleasing finish of white chocolate. Alc 40%


Château de Bordeneuve 1989

Armagnac

Unusually bottled ‘brut de fût’, or at cask strength, the surprise here is the elegance. Ugni Blanc, with its scented flowers and zesty citrus, is to the fore, alongside light baking spices and a little vanilla. Smooth, powerful and perfect for cocktails. Alc 49%


Darroze Les Grands Assemblages 20 Year Old

Armagnac

Although famed for its single-property vintage releases, Darroze has a formidable range of age-stated blends, including this exemplary combination of sweet, stewed plums and apples alongside cinnamon-dusted raisins and sultanas, plus a little curry spice pep. Alc 43%


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