Armagnac, or rather the counts of Armagnac, the Albrets, were an important political force in France in the 14th, 15th & 16th Centuries, they created a political party opposed to the absolute power of the Monarchy and were responsible for the introduction of Protestantism into the South West of France. It was during their rule of Armagnac and Bearn that the local 'Eau-de-Vie' began to be commercialised and sold in the rest of France as 'Armagnac'.
The invention of the drink is attributed to Arnaud de Villeneuve (now Villeneuve-de-Marsan in the Armagnac producing region of Chalosse), an alchemist who died in 1311. The production of Armagnac involves the ageing of the drink in oak barrels, anywhere between 4 and 20 years. The length of the ageing process dictates the colour and strength of the Armagnac - older Armagnac is more amber-coloured and less alcoholic (losing 1 degree every 3 years).
Armagnac can now only be produced from one of 11 specified strains of grape, cultivated over an area that covers the departements of the Gers, Landes and Lot-et-Garonne, centred around Aire sur L'Adour and Eauze. The Armagnac is a major export of France, with more than half the number of bottles produced annually going abroad (Japan, Great Britain, Germany and the USA being the major importers).
The major difference between Cognac and Armagnac is the distillation method. Armagnac is distilled once in a continuous copper still. On the other hand, Cognac is double distilled. Armagnac is often aged over 10 years, which is actually longer than Cognac.
Most Armagnac brandies which have lived over 30 years could be considered as over-lived brandy. Preferred Armagnac is between is teenage years to mid-20s.
Armagnac is produced in Gascony, France. Gascony is located in southwest of Cognac region. Like Cognac area, there are 3 important areas for Armagnac: Bas Armagnac, Haut Armagnac, and Tenareze.
Producers concentrate on four grape varieties: Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Folle Blanche and the hybrid Baco. These grapes give a wine low in alcohol and high in acidity, which acts as a natural preservative, since sulphur cannot be added to a wine due to be distilled. Armagnac bottles usually show the region. If the label doesn't tell the region, it is often blended with more than two regions.
Most Armagnac is distilled in a copper column still, which functions continuously. It is cheaper and easier to operate and produces a lower strength brandy than the Cognac still, which uses double distillation. As more flavouring elements are left in the alcohol, it gives a brandy with more personality.
Allowed since 1972, a small percentage of Armagnac, Janneau for example, is produced by double distillation resulting in a smoother, lighter, rounder eau-de-vie which ages more quickly.
Armagnac brandy acquires its golden hue and lingering aroma only after several years spent in oak casks usually of 400 litres capacity. These casks are stacked and stored in wine cellars at about 12 degrees C.
Evaporation called the "angels' share" is in the order of 3 per cent for the overall stock. When the Armagnac is bottled it no longer ages. Unlike wine, bottles of Armagnac should be stored in an upright position so that the alcohol does not attack the cork.
A Contemporary Armagnac.
Having the choice of several grape varieties and two methods of distillation, Armagnac's potential complexity is enormous. Yet some producers have chosen to make varietal Armagnac.
This new product, a modern version of Armagnac, may attract younger consumers. It is the result of the distillation of white wine coming exclusively from the "Folle Blanche" vine. As it is not stored in casks it is colourless and captures the delicate floral character of the grape.
This versatile drink can be enjoyed, well chilled, as an aperitif or drunk in the middle of a meal, according to the "Trou Gascon" tradition. The special qualities appreciated by a wider consumer group should help Armagnac to position itself among the world's finest spirits. Like malt whisky, Armagnac should appeal to more discerning consumers.