Armagnac claims to be France’s oldest spirit but its soul is as much in wine and the terroir as it is in any alembic still. Christian Davis visits
IN 1310 A DOCTOR/PRIEST named Vital Dufour from Eauze in Gascony, south west France, apparently described the health-giving property of an eau-de-vie known as ‘aygue ardente’ (burning water). This is the first reference to what became known as Armagnac in 1461, made predominately by monks. Distilleries as we know them now came later, circa 1650, according to Frédéric Lebel’s excellent book, The Quintessence of Armagnac.
Apart from the obvious local legend, D’Artagnan of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Muskeeters, another legend, winemaker, mayor and local senator Abel Sempé, is quoted as saying: “When god created the world, he saw that he had forgotten a little corner of Gascony and this made him sad. A tear ran down his cheek and, as it fell, it formed the region of Armagnac, signifying the first drop of liquor.”
It was during the 16th century that Armagnac became popular with the Dutch to supply their ships. They were happy to buy the spirit, which was found comparable in quality to the brandy from Cognac. Local historians claimed its international fame, but in reality armagnac remained something of a rustic curiosity.
That’s enough history and literature. The fact is today Armagnac thrives but remains in the shadow of its larger neighbour Cognac. But one senses that does not bother the Armagnaçais too much. The region, Gascony, is a bit of a back water. Coupled with that, the producers are much closer to the soil and to the vineyards in a way that Cognac is not. To call Armagnac ‘rustic’ is not a pejorative. To many it would be a compliment.
Yes, Cognac talks of soil types such as Grande and Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois et al, but few of the houses own their own vineyards and Cognac’s ‘art’ is inventory management, blending and branding.
Armagnac is closer to its Bas Armagnac, Armagnac Ténarèze and Haut Armagnac regions and soils (see panel). In a country where winemakers are near obsessed with terroir, that sense and expression of place, Armagnac can stake a claim for terroir even though the wine is distilled. Crucially, it has vintages, especially important for export markets. Something cognac, in the main, lacks.
Marc Darroze of Armagnacs Darroze and current president of the BNIA (Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac), tells DI: “The world of spirits is in motion, very dynamic, innovative. But I think these innovations will continue on values that armagnac represents – quality, traceability, character.
“Our challenge is to ride this wave of optimism while preserving and enhancing our identity. Armagnac has a very wide offer. This diversity is its charm, but can also be a handicap, especially in emerging markets such as China and India.
“Our great particularity remains the vintage armagnacs which are the reflection of a particular year and often associated with specific soils,” adds Darroze.
Janneau is arguably the biggest and most exported brand of armagnac. Olivier Dusautoir, international sales director for Janneau owner Spirit France, says: “Outside of France, armagnac needs to be better known. With a great terroir, fantastic grape varieties, including the local ones such as Baco, two distillation methods allowed, a blending and ageing process as sophisticated as for any premium spirit, armagnac deserves better awareness and image.”
Pernod Ricard’s armagnac brand is Marquis de Montesquiou. Its director, Bruno Gazaniol, says: “Armagnac is to cognac what mezcal is to tequila.”
Château de Lacquy’s owner, Gilles de Boisséson, puts armagnac in perspective: “Armagnac is a dwarf in the global brandy market – 3m bottles sold in 2016, when Hennessy is selling 75m bottles of cognac. In 2016 Armagnac represented 5,135ha, and Cognac 76,000ha. Total stock of armagnac in 2016 was an equivalent of 45m bottles, 60% of the annual sales of Hennessy. Despite its size, armagnac is, among the brandies, the craft, authentic rare spirit. This is its USP.”
Domaine d’Espérance owner, Claire de Montesquiou says: “Armagnac is very close to the fruit – grapes. As the grapes chosen for distillation are different from one property to another, the taste of the armagnac changes from one place to another. In my case, I distill Baco and Folle-Blanche. Plus, the terroir is different.”
LINKS TO THE SOIL
Probably the house with the strongest links to the soil is Château du Tariquet. This is simply because it has extensive vineyards, 1,125ha with 100ha devoted to armagnac. It makes Côtes de Gascogne wine alongside armagnac. The spotless, modern facility in Bas Armagnac is surrounded by its own vineyards. Production began in 1683 and the estate was bought in 1912 by Pierre Artaud. His family, by now the Grassas, is into its fifth generation. Commercial export director Julien Ducos, tells DI: “We control everything from the vine to the bottle. It is all totally natural, we use no caramel.” That is a dig at cognac.
To retain freshness as the aromatic Ugni Blanc and Colombard grapes are prone to oxidation, the company is obsessed with vinification in a reductive atmosphere to retain crispness and aromatics. Ducos mentions in passing that the wines are vegan friendly.
Tariquet makes 140,000 bottles of armagnac annually, with 50% being sold in France, followed by Canada (Quebec), Norway, Germany, US, Netherlands, UK and Belgium.
Ducos sees a huge opportunity for armagnacs with the interest, particularly among millennials, for ‘craft’ and small-scale producers, and premiumisation.
To that end the BNIA’s attachée de presse, Amanda Garnham, travels extensively holding masterclasses in the likes of New York, San Francisco, Beijing and London. For many in the drinks sector, Garnham, who is English-born, is ‘the face’ of armagnac. There is a feeling that the new generation of producers is galvanising armagnac through fresh thinking, new ideas, innovation and raising standards. They are not necessarily the ‘son of the owner’ anymore.
Jerôme Delord is fourth generation, the family starting in 1893 with Prosper, who was a roving distiller and cellarmaster, taking his alembic still from farm to farm. Delord worked for Cadbury Schweppes before entering the family business. “Seventeen years ago the spirits market was not very interesting,” he says. “Spirits are now fashionable but armagnac does not sell itself. We have to push and push, educate and explain.” He cites the Armagnac Academies that Garnham has been running as the way ahead.
As an amusing aside, Delord mentions that armagnac is popular with Russians because apparently they love The Three Musketeers book.
On a negative note, he says producers have to improve quality and be more consistent. “We have to explain armagnac – not just the grapes, the vintages and the taste. We do not know how to explain. We have to promote and we need to improve the wine, the distillation, the ageing and promote it. Cognac knows how to do it.”
He continues: “France is a niche market (for armagnac), a big market for whisky and rum. We are more fashionable in the US and Russia than in France. We are the last wheel on the chariot.”
Bordeneuve has the Baron de Sigognac armagnac brand but also sells cognac and calvados. It has 22ha planted, the majority Ugni Blanc, with 8ha of Bacco. Commercial director Jérôme Castledine senses that younger people see armagnac as a rather staid product. “They think of red leather armchairs and cigars. Younger consumers are thinking about cocktails,” he says. So he is compiling a monthly newsletter, looking to social media to correct that image and get armagnac considered as a base spirit for cocktails. He mentions that his Russian distributor is in negotiation with a hotel near the Kremlin which has an exclusive bar only for billionaires. It begs the question: how do you know if someone is a billionaire?
Castledine is not the only one thinking of social media. Armagnac Castarede’s Florence Castarede says: “Another important challenge is also to invest in e-commerce. My company is the trailblazer in shopping online, I opened my e-shop 20 years ago, I am very active on social media. We use all the platforms to communicate. I have figured out that the new channel of distribution will be more and more online.”
On challenges and opportunities, Domaine d’Aurensan’s Caroline Rozes says: “The craft bandwagon, for sure. What is always funny is to see distilleries, in whisky for example, claiming to be micro distilleries and doing craft spirits whereas they produce millions of bottles. In Armagnac, this is much more the opposite, we try to appear bigger than we are.”
Darroze says: “The most important markets for export (France remains the number one market for armagnac) are the British and American markets, which share the first place each year. All categories, young and old, are represented on these markets, but in these two countries, competition is tough, especially in the US, where innovation on spirits is very strong.
“The Russian market is very dynamic. We find sales comparable to the big years and the growth levers are certainly still strong. Russia is very demanding for old vintages, but younger categories are also growing.
“China is certainly the country which remains the most beautiful challenge for armagnac. Sales are growing and we must collectively work to make the reputation of armagnac grow,” says Darroze.
“The Russian market is performing very well, their love for the Musketeer gourde-shaped bottle and the maisons’ strong heritage and savoir-faire,” says Gazaniol. “The UK, at the heart of the mixology scene, is also an important market for Marquis de Montesquiou.”
GLOBAL TRAVEL RETAIL
Darroze says: “The duty free world is generally not very accessible for armagnac. The reinforcement of our reputation will undoubtedly open us the doors of this particular distribution.”
De Boisséson says Château de Lacquy’s French distributor is “activating its commercial relations with duty free groups and airline companies. Duty free will be difficult to enter as it wants global international brands, which don’t exist in Armagnac.”
Laubade co-owner and director Denis Lesgourgues says: “It is a priority and Laubade aims to be one of the three leading armagnac houses in travel retail. In 2012 we signed a distribution agreement with independent and family-owned house Camus in Cognac. Camus has always been a major player in travel retail and for Laubade this is a tremendous opportunity to develop its distribution in this channel. Major international airports carry Laubade in the five continents.”
Darroze says: “Armagnac works to give an image that is not only turned towards the after-dinner drink. The variety of styles we propose allows a very wide imagination. Whether it is on ice, as an accompaniment to the table, in the afternoon or of course in a cocktail, armagnac finds its place. The Blanche d’Armagnac, non-aged and very pure brandy, or young, fiery and little wooded armagnacs and finally more complex and deep old eaux-de-vie are all variations that please mixologists,” says Darroze.
Marquis de Montesquiou’s Gazaniol says: “Bartenders are looking for these forgotten and underrated spirits, alternative to traditional brown spirits.
“At Marquis de Montesquiou we didn’t wait for the trend to pop out, we already adapted our art of blending to sublimate our armagnacs in cocktails,” says Gazaniol.
He continues: “The goal is to first show bartenders that armagnac is an excellent alternative to all the classic spirits they use for their cocktails, whether it is a bourbon, a rum or a cognac.
“In collaboration with our distribution partner in the UK, we are organising an Armagnac Cocktail Week in 2018 from June 12-17 with a quest to reinvent armagnac cocktails and signature serves,” says Gazaniol (emporiabrands.com/armagnac-cocktail-week).
BNIA’s Darroze sums up: “Armagnac remains a niche market. We must affirm that armagnac is the reference for premium artisanal spirits in the world, based on the values of authenticity, heritage, territorial roots and quality.”
Janneau’s Dusautoir says: “As long as the producers respect the positioning, armagnac should absolutely have in terms of price but, above all, quality, armagnac can continue developing a better awareness. It takes time. but it is feasible.”
Castarede says: “The way forward is to keep on travelling, meeting new potential consumers and listening to their demands in terms of packaging or blends, to make this product easily accessible to millennials who are demanding high-end products mainly online. We are aware that the future of our business is online.
“Not only is our e-shop available all around the world, we also partner with companies specialising in wine and spirits who sell on line our armagnacs.”
Rozes says: “I’m convinced there is great improvement in the sustainable approach of vine cultivation to be done globally. We are quite behind the wine world. As for us, we’ve decided to renew our ways of working: we’ve planted some faba beans in the vineyards, we use organic fertiliser, we do preserve biodiversity. We are now involved to be certified.
“Also, not being afraid of being innovative. The idea would be to consider the tradition not as a burden but more as a strength to imagine new things. For example, we’ve decided to plant again all the ‘ghost’ grape varieties of Armagnac. Actually, by next summer we will be the only ones to have the 10 grape varieties authorised in the AOC in our vineyards. We’re very excited about that,” says Rozes.
“The greatest challenge armagnac producers face is money. The region needs to invest in stock, barrels, packaging and communication to increase the production, visibility, quality and sales,” says Lacquy’s De Boisséson.
“There is no Diageo, LVMH, Grants, etc investing in armagnac and the profession is not organised, or badly organised. There is no global trademark or brand in Armagnac.
“Armagnac has a great opportunity to develop and become the reference of confidential craft spirits but in a very selective market,” he concludes.
Claire de Montesquiou’s conclusion? She almost shouts: “To be better known. Education, education and, again education. Once you come to armagnac, you never go back.”
Tears for fears? Hardly – the product of a godly tear for our peers.
Blanche armagnac: A clear eau-de-vie often a little over 40% abv. Used in cocktails or served ice-cold with oysters, shellfish, caviar or poured over sorbet.
VS/3-star: Minimum one year’s ageing in oak. Young, fruity armagnacs that are often used in cocktails.
VSOP: Minimum four years ageing in oak, though most producers age above the legal minimum. Young, fruity and mellow with a touch of oak. An introductory style.
XO: Currently a minimum of six years, though from April the minimum age will be 10 years. To be drunk as a digestif with more influence of the oak ageing.
Vintages: Quite specific to Armagnac and must be a minimum of 10 years. The year of the vintage is marked on the bottle and is the harvest from just that one year. Kept in cask and bottled to order the vintages will vary depending on the individual year’s climate/conditions and the bottling date.
(Source: Amanda Garnham, attachée de presse for the BNIA)
IN THE MIX: permitted grape varieties
There are four main grapes – Ugni Blanc, Baco (specific to Armagnac), Folle Blanche and Colombard – but 10 are permitted. The other varieties are: Plant de Graisse, Meslier St François, Clairette de Gascogne, Jurançon Blanc, Mauzac Blanc and Rosé. Some of the older varieties are making a comeback.