The Gascon countryside is quintessential rural France: picture-postcard landscapes, bastide villages and a sleepy atmosphere. Unlike the monoculture of the Médoc or the Côte d’Or, vines here compete for space with sunflowers, maize and cattle.
This is the home of Armagnac, France’s oldest distilled spirit. Reflecting the countryside it calls home, Armagnac is a drink of great variety and nuance – arguably more so than its more celebrated rival, Cognac.
Lying to the north of the Armagnac region, the Cognac region stretches from just above Bordeaux to as far north as La Rochelle, and eastwards from the Atlantic to beyond Angoulême. So what, apart from origin, differentiates them?
Cognac: the region
There are about 78,000ha of vineyards in Cognac, split into six zones or crus:
Grande Champagne: The most prized, with deep, crumbly chalk soils and located to the south of the Charente river. Produces floral, fine-toned eaux-de-vie that benefit from long ageing.
Petite Champagne: Surrounding Grande Champagne, with less-crumbly chalk soils and a more oceanic climate. Produces floral, lightly fruity Cognacs.
Borderies: A small enclave north of the Charente. It has less chalk, producing aromatic but faster-ageing Cognacs.
Fins Bois: The largest cru, Fins Bois surrounds the first three, and has mostly thin clay/limestone soils. Produces fruity, faster-maturing Cognacs.
Bons Bois: A varied cru surrounding Fins Bois, with a number of different soil and climate types.
Bois Ordinaires/Bois à Terroirs: Covering the Atlantic coast and the Ile d’Oléron and Ile de Ré. Unsurprisingly, it has a strong oceanic influence.
Armagnac: the region
Much smaller than Cognac, there are 15,000ha of vines planted in the IGP Côtes de Gascogne and PDO Floc de Gascogne, of which around 4,200ha are identified exclusively for Armagnac production. The region is split into three zones:
Bas-Armagnac: Located to the west, this area was once under the Atlantic Ocean. When the waters receded to the Bay of Biscay, they left behind tawny sands and boulbènes – a sand/silt mix – with a high iron content from the nearby Pyrenees. This soil makes Bas-Armagnac the heart of the region, source of the finest and longest-lived brandies, of fruitiness, structure and delicacy.
Ténarèze: Lying to the east, soils here are a mixed bag of chalk-clay plus some boulbènes. Armagnacs made here tend to be rounder and richer, but still express their finest qualities only after decades of ageing.
Haut-Armagnac: An L-shaped territory embracing Bas-Armagnac and Ténarèze to the east and south. Chalky soils, highly prized in the Grande Champagne part of Cognac, are less sought-after here, with only a few vineyards scattered throughout the area.
Although there are six permitted grape varieties in Cognac, one is certainly the star performer. Ugni Blanc covers 98% of Cognac’s vineyards and is prized for its resistance to disease, its high acidity and low sugar levels. It produces a light, neutral and acidic wine (typically 8%-9% abv), that is ideally suited to distillation and ageing.
Folle Blanche was historically Cognac’s dominant variety, but it has fallen from favour because of its sensitivity to rot when grafted. It now covers less than 1% of the vineyard, producing aromatic and well-balanced Cognacs.
A new cross of Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche, Folignan has an aromatic character. It can only make up 10% of a Cognac blend. The other varieties – Colombard, Montils and Sémillon – are insignificant.
When it comes to grapes, the contrast between Cognac and Armagnac is even more evident. While Ugni Blanc accounts for practically the entirety of Cognac production, here it sits cheek-by-jowl with Folle Blanche, the wine grape Colombard, six little-planted curiosities – and the intriguing Baco.
Ugni Blanc is loved here for the same reason as in Cognac, producing wines with high acidity and low alcohol, ideally suited to distillation – giving Armagnacs of precision, fine fruit and smoothness.
The only hybrid grape permitted in a French AC, Baco is a crossing of Folle Blanche and the hybrid Noah. Created in 1898 by Landais schoolmaster François Baco, it was a post-phylloxera remedy when Folle Blanche had difficulty grafting onto resistant rootstocks. The maker of singularly unimpressive wine, Baco is transformed by the boulbènes soils of Bas-Armagnac into a spirit of unbridled power and complexity. Often hard work when young, Baco Armagnacs are softened by long ageing in barrel, sometimes spending decades in oak before they reach their peak of mellow complexity.
The contrast between Baco and Folle Blanche couldn’t be greater. Light and delicate, Folle Blanche is vulnerable to mildew and rot. But in the hands of a master it boasts a jasmine-scented nose with light spices and great finesse – the other end of the style spectrum from structured, four-square Baco.
How Cognac is made
Distillation must be completed by 31 March following the harvest, and comprises a small-batch, double distillation in a Charentais copper pot still. Some producers distil ‘on the lees’, including the dead yeast and pulp from the winemaking process, to give a more complex spirit character.
Cognac must be matured in oak barrels for at least two years prior to release, but is often aged for much longer. Many factors influence the character of the maturing eau-de-vie, including: oak origin (usually Tronçais or Limousin forests), age of barrel (younger casks give more flavour, but decades-old barrels have little or no influence beyond the processes of evaporation and micro-oxygenation) warehouse and barrel location.
Cognac cellar masters use a variety of cellar types – some drier, some more humid, some cooler and some warmer. Eaux-de-vie maturing in humid cellars lose more alcohol than water, while those ageing in drier cellars lose more water than alcohol. This influences spirit strength and style.
The vast majority of Cognacs are blends, composed by the cellar master from eaux-de-vie of various ages and origins to create a Cognac that is balanced, complex and consistent. Distilled water is added to dilute to the desired strength, which is usually 40% abv.
How Armagnac is made
The traditional method of Armagnac production, dating back nearly 200 years, uses a single still, the Armagnacais alambic. This allows a continuous distillation, in contrast to the batch-by-batch, double distillation practised in Cognac. But there are a few double stills in Armagnac too, after the practice was revived in the early 1970s.
To generalise, the eaux de vie made using the Cognac method are stronger (as they’re distilled twice) and, depending on your point of view, either finer or more straightforward – because only the middle part of the distillate, the heart, is used.
But it doesn’t follow that Armagnac is therefore more rustic or less refined, as much depends on the individual still used, and how it is run. Skilled distillation to a relatively low strength (about 55% alcohol) preserves fragrance and fruit, enhancing smoothness and complexity.
With a spirit that is often aged for decades, the barrels used for maturation are just as crucial as the distillation. For the first year or two, the eau de vie is aged in new barrels – typically 400 to 420 litres, of wider-grained, spicy Gascon oak, or tighter-grained, less influential Limousin oak – to mellow and achieve a peak of wood influence. Then the eau de vie is transferred into older, more neutral barrels for continued maturation, with the finest, longest-lived often moving into large glass dames-jeannes or bonbonnes after decades in wood.
Is Armagnac more distinctive and varied than Cognac? Certainly. Does that make it better? It depends what you like. Such comparisons are invidious, anyway. I’d say it was a case of horses for courses – if I didn’t think Cognac and Armagnac were different beasts altogether.