As I mentioned in my write up of our most recent Newcomers Whisky Club evening (here), I surprised the group with a non-whisky introductory dram – an Armagnac. For most of our club, this was their first Armagnac and everybody enjoyed it a lot and were very pleased to find out the relatively reasonable cost!
Armagnac is a type of brandy that is produced in the Gascony region of southwest France. Brandy is a strong alcoholic spirit distilled from wine or fermented fruit juice and has many styles, including: applejack, armagnac, calvados, cognac, eau-de-vie, grappa, kirsch, marc, mirabelle, and slivovitz.
For those who have not yet tried Armagnac, or perhaps had not even heard of Armagnac, F. Paul Pacult, one of the leading experts or spirits, wrote the following in Wine Enthusiast Magazine, August 2002, and which provides some interesting perspective on Armagnac:
“While I’ve long loved Cognac for its inherent finesse, comfortable familiarity and confident bearing, of late my brandy emotions have admittedly been in a state of ferment. Over the last three years I’ve encountered a host of utterly spectacular brandies born in Gascony, Armagnac’s balmy, bucolic playground in France’s extreme southwest. Keep reading beyond this introduction to find a bevy of sensuous, racy Armagnac beauties. Unlike their stately rivals from the demarcated Cognac district in the Charentes, Armagnacs are not brandies that enter a room quietly, politely. These are bawdy, door-busting brandies that snatch you by the lapels and keep your attention for extended periods by the force of their personalities. Armagnac is the Moll Flanders of the brandy realm. The more Armagnacs I’ve sampled, the more I’ve come to view them as a bona fide treasure trove for brandy aficionados of all ilks. An excursion to Gascony a couple of years ago cemented my belief that while Cognacs are overall more elegant and sophisticated brandy expressions, indeed, authentic French miracles of masterful blending, Armagnacs are raw and spirity and, therefore, more primal. Put another way: Cognacs encourage you to think while Armagnacs compel you to feel. That said, I still think that it’s preferable to just acknowledge each type of legendary French grape brandy for what each offers, for the regional and philosophical virtues that they each mirror. How’s that for diplomacy?” (b)
Mr. Pacult certainly makes Armagnac sound very intriguing doesn’t he! And it is!
Chateau de Saint Aubin, Appellation Bas Armagnac Controlee, Réserve du Chateau, Tour du Monde
The Armagnac that I served was Chateau de Saint Aubin (Kelt), Appellation Bas Armagnac Contrôlée, Réserve du Chateau, Tour du Monde. Quite an Impressive name, but beyond just the name, as on a wine bottle, all of this information also tells us quite a lot about what is in the bottle. So let’s take a minute to break it down and understand exactly what the label tells us.
For starters, Chateau de Saint Aubin is the estate on which the grapes used for the Armagnac are grown. Armagnac produced in the Chateau de Saint Aubin dates back to 1236. Chateau de Saint Aubin uses 100% Ugni Blanc grapes which are ideal for distilling because the wine produced is low in alcohol and acidic. The armagnac is double distilled in traditional copper pot-stills, just like whisky, and distilled to 70% abv or 140 proof and then put into French Oak barrels to mature.
The Appellation Bas Armagnac Contrôlée is a certification assigned by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which translates as “controlled designation of origin”.(a) Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) applies to French wines from precisely specified regions, and with the most rigid controls, specified by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO). The items controlled include the: variety of grapes, density and size of vines, maximum yield, minimum alcohol level, method of culture and vinification. The American equivalent of this is named – American Viticultural Area (AVA) Indicating wine-growing regions as defined through geographic and climatic boundaries by the Federal Government. Theoretically, the American version of the French AOC system.) (c)
The term “Réserve du Chateau” (Réserve/Riserva/Reserva) is a loose designation for presumably higher quality than “standard” version of a wine from the Chateau or Domain. This descriptor usually means that the wine or brandy has undergone a longer aging before release. AOC regulations determine how long this time frame is for individual wines. (d)
The Tour du Monde release, Tour du Monde translates to World Tour, is a commemoration of Chateau de Saint Aubin’s 700th year and is a blend of 1962, 1968, 1977, and 1978 vintages. The “Tour du Monde” refers to the fact that the maturing armagnac is stored in casks, put aboard a ship which sails on a 90-110 day voyage around the world. The change in air pressure, the humidity, the constant movement within the barrels, and the temperature changes speed up the aging process.
The aging of brandy, just like Scotch, is arguably the most important aspect in the ultimate quality of the spirit, since the maturation period is where the qualities of the distilled wine is developed through the interaction with the oak barrels. By regulation, both cognac and armagnac must be aged in French oak barrels. And finally, as with whisky, the final blending of the components is an art and the highly skilled Master Blenders blend different casks together to bring out flavours and aromas specific to the style of their House.
So, now that you know a little more about Armagnac, let’s get to the tasting!
Armagnac Review: Chateau de Saint Aubin, Appellation Bas Armagnac Controlee, Réserve du Chateau, Tour du Monde
Color: Bronze mahogany.
Nose: Sweet and fruity, floral and softly earthy. The nose is filled with fresh fruits, candied fruits, confectionary sugar and quite a dose of baking spices. Purple grapes, blueberries and plums, a touch of orange juice. Sweet vanilla, cinnamon Red Hots (candy), a hint of pepper, nutmeg, cardamom. A leather jacket, and, for lack of a better term, something like a fruity perfume – floral, fruits. There is also a delicate oakiness. The aromas are very rich and vibrant, with a nice balance.
Taste: Soft, buttery and spiced arrival. The fruits pick up in intensity after a few seconds. Sweet vanilla, Saigon cinnamon and nutmeg, creamy vanilla. Moderate viscosity on the tongue. Extremely nice feel, vivid flavors.
Finish: Cinnamon and vanilla dominate the early finish, the fruitiness picks up and then subsides, ending with spiced lemons and sweet vanilla cream.
Overall: This has such a beautiful nose – full of promise – and the palate delivers. The nose is expressive with a good deal of complexity and intriguing aromas that blend well with one another. The palate is delicate but not fragile – it is soft and supple, flowing easily around the tongue, but the flavors remain alive. Bottled at 40% abv, this is enjoyable as it comes, but I’d recommend just a drop or two of water, which seems to expand the aromas and flavors a bit, just be careful to not add too much. This was recommended by a friend and it is something that I have really enjoyed. It is complex and flavorful, like a good Scotch whisky, but it has this delicacy that is very appealing. If you haven’t tried Armagnac, you might do well to wander down that aisle in your local store and check some of them out!
Region: Armagnac (France)
Estate: Chateau de Saint Aubin, Appellation Bas Armagnac Controlee
Age: NAS (1962, 1968, 1977, and 1978 vintages)
Maturation: French Oak cask
Availability: Currently available (Specs, locally)
Sample Source: My own bottle