The white heat of Gascony

Record auction prices, soaring exports and the launch of Blanche have put Armagnac in a confident mood, reports Graham Holter
27 August, 2008
You could be forgiven for thinking that very little changes in Armagnac. It's also easy to regard it as Cognac's introverted and less illustrious younger sister. Both charges are unfair. Quietly, and without enlisting the support of rappers, Armagnac has been flexing its muscles in export markets and experimenting with new products and presentations.

Armagnac produces fewer than 6 million bottles a year to Cognac's 180 million, exporting 40 per cent of what it makes (source: BNIA). France may be tiring of some of its domestic liquor, but Armagnac remains in vogue - albeit in a niche kind of way - with sales up 16 per cent in the year to November 2007. Younger styles declined somewhat, but Armagnac aged for four years or more is increasingly popular.

Exports have increased by 19 per cent over the past two years, with Britain remaining the number one customer - the most recent figures report shipments of 225,000 bottles. Germany is next in the order of current priorities, but all eyes are on Russia - currently in third place and witnessing a 41 per cent increase in volume. Sales value is up a healthy 25 per cent as exporters take advantage of the new wealth of Muscovites.

Fabio Giovinetti, vice president of Janneau, is understandably upbeat. "There is good news about Armagnac after a few years in which things were a bit difficult," he reports. "Janneau has been growing in exports for the past four years. In 2008 we will see the best year ever - we're looking at growth of between 30 and 50 per cent.

"The growth is coming from eastern Europe and Russia, but in some cases also from the mature markets like the UK, Italy and Germany. Armagnac is a really niche category so even small growth can be quite significant."

Why is it happening? "There is a trend towards these types of premium drinks and also the marketing of Armagnac has improved over the past few years - not so much the advertising, which is almost non-existent, but the packaging and by offering something more special with age statements and vintages."

Giovinetti believes Russia still has great potential, having been slowed down by some bureaucratic issues in recent years, but also feels the US is territory to be conquered. "It's the biggest market for Cognac in the world but almost irrelevant at the moment for Armagnac," he says.

"I think the US is something the BNIA should be addressing in a very aggressive way to create awareness. It's not enough just to be there with some old bottles. At the moment we [Janneau] don't do any business with the US - we've been absent for maybe 10 years. We're looking at coming back but we need to find the right solution."

Clear way forward

Armagnac's artisanal image, its captivating aromas and almost ethereal qualities win it devotees all over the planet: it seems to arouse a passion rare even by spirits' standards. Yet producers have demonstrated they are not necessarily putting all their eggs in one basket and are willing to allow Armagnac to move with the times.

La Blanche Armagnac is, arguably, as innovative a step as the region is ever likely to take. An unaged, colourless spirit designed to capture the flavours of the grapes that produced it, Blanche was given the go-ahead last year and adds a new dimension to the region's offering. True, the locals have been enjoying similar products between courses for many years, but this is the first time Armagnac has been unleashed on the wider world without oak influence.

Some 10,000 bottles have been produced so far of what is claimed to be the world's first eau de vie with its own appellation. Sébastien Lacroix, director of Armagnac producers' association the BNIA, says: "La Blanche is the most simple expression of the grape and the terroir, selected and chosen for its immense aromatic richness that combines fruit and flower for its finesse."

Lacroix argues that La Blanche's real unique selling point is that, while rivals may aim for blandness, Armagnac's great white hope can be marketed on its flavour credentials.

"Blanche will bring real originality and freshness in the setting of a huge explosion of white spirits," he says. "We are the first white eau de vie to gain an appellation. But above all, while our colleagues are aiming for the most neutral character possible through increasing the number of distillations, we are doing the opposite in trying to give Blanche real character."

Authorised to be made from Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Baco Blanc, all La Blanche Armagnacs will be assessed by a tasting panel to ensure they are "absolutely colourless, with a very fruity and floral flavour, a supple mouthfeel and non-aggressive palate ", according to the BNIA, which recommends it as a chilled aperitif, suitable for mixing with fruit juice or as a cocktail base.

Château de Laubade, Domaine du Tariquet, Domaine Marquesteau and Domaine de Lassaubatju have all released Blanche variants. In general there seems to be enthusiasm for the idea, but some producers and merchants are less impressed.

José Barbe, of Millésimes & Traditions, says: "It's going to be very hard to sell Blanche as there are so many white spirits on the market that are a lot cheaper. If you compare it with grappa, then it becomes even harder."

Janneau is keeping a watching brief. "We know it could be a very nice drink," says Giovinetti. "We would like to understand where it will compete - whether it's more in the market for mixers or more in the market for grappa."

New directions

Armagnac is not noted for its ostentatiousness, but even that could be changing. Domaine de Joÿ has teamed up with Paco Rabanne to create the world's most expensive Armagnacs, presented in gold and silver decanters, which went under the hammer at Sotheby's in Moscow in December.

Bottle No 1 from the Armagnac d'Exception collection fetched a world-beating price of E16,000, in return for which the buyer receives a blend of 23 vintages ranging from 1888 to 1974. Only 397 decanters have been produced.

The Grands Millésimes collection of rare single vintage Armagnacs is in slightly greater supply, though certain vintages are in short supply. There are just 14 bottles of the 1912 and 12 bottles of the 1914.

It's a bold move by the domaine's owners, Olivier and Roland Gessler, but not all producers have the budgets to enter the big league. The owners of Domaine de Lauroux, British couple Nicolas and Karen Kitchener, borrow a still to produce their Armagnac and, though they export successfully to Belgium, Italy, Germany and the UK, they are one of many producers who feel a little left out of the big league.

"We don't have the marketing resources that people like Domaine de Joÿ or Tariquet have," says Karen. "When we get people here to taste the Armagnacs they see they're very high quality and they buy them. But the journalists who come over from the States are taken to Tariquet and Janneau."

Does Kitchener think a divide is emerging between the bigger, commercial Armagnac houses and the artisans? "I wouldn't say we were going in separate directions," she says. "But I think we are struggling in their wake. What they're doing is very positive. If Armagnac as a generic product is promoted I will benefit from it - but they very much plough ahead."

Kitchener is supportive of the efforts being made by the BNIA, including the creation of the Armagnac Route (see box), to promote Armagnac. But she bristles at the suggestion that the strength of a small producer such as Domaine de Lauroux's marketing hook is its rusticity.

"If you came here and called it a rustic product they would tear your head off," she laughs. "It's not this rustic fire water, but an incredibly sophisticated drink. It does have the problem of being perceived as a rustic drink and a poor cousin of Cognac."

Kitchener applauds the ingenuity of Domaine de Joÿ's excursion to Moscow and also sees merit in the launch of La Blanche, even if the style is not to her personal taste. "I can see why it would have value in the marketplace," she says.

"I think it's good that producers are looking for other ways of marketing their Armagnac, not just as an after-dinner digestif."

The fact that Armagnac exists at all is arguably grounds for celebration - 10 years ago, some observers were questioning whether the region's decline over the course of the 20th century was terminal. Growers and producers are still going out of business, but there is a confidence in the quality of the product that seems to have filtered through to export markets.

It will never eclipse Cognac, and neither would it attempt to. But recent developments have offered proof, if proof were needed, that Armagnac has a bright future.
----=== Armagnac's top 10 export markets ===1 Great Britain 6 US

2 Germany 7 Hong Kong

3 Russia 8 Netherlands

4 Italy 9 Belgium

5 Spain 10 Denmark

Source: BNIA----=== Armagnac news ===l The BNIA is encouraging tourism in the region with the creation of an Armagnac Route , focusing on the touristic and cultural points of interest. The project has got under way with the publication of the Escapades en Armagnac map, available from tourist offices and producers. This spring, direction signs will appear along the route and an accompanying guidebook will be published.

l The third Armagnac Habano Trophy was due to be presented on Feb 27 to the best vintage and best blended Armagnacs. Taking place at the 10th International Habano Festival in Cuba, the event attracts all 12 members of the Armagnac-Cigar Club: Castarède, Delord, Jean Cavé, Baron de Sigognac, Château de Briat, Château de Pellehaut, Bouscau-Vintage, Château du Tariquet, Dartigalongue, Domaine de Boingnères, Domaine de Joÿ and Veuve Lafontan. The final takes place after a public tasting for 300 people.

l The BNIA has given an upbeat assessment of the 2007 vintage. "The first tastings of the 2007 eaux de vie have been very promising: aromas of ripe fruits, spicy and sometimes floral, round in the mouth with great length," said a spokeswoman. Although alcohol levels are slightly above average, "the total acidity of the wines has been good following a harvest in perfect sunny conditions which all bodes well for the future of the 2007 vintage ".
----=== Armagnac factfile ===l Armagnac can trace its history back further than Cognac, having probably been introduced by the Moors in the 12th century. It was not until the 18th century that the spirit was traded outside the region.

l Armagnac is often described as having a more "rustic" flavour than Cognac, though products can display great finesse as well as pungent intensity. These characters derive from the use of fragrant grape varieties, the single-distillation process, and ageing in barrels produced from local oak.

l VS (very special) indicates at least two years of ageing; VSOP (very superior old pale) indicates at least five; XO, Napoléon, Extra or Vieille Réserve means the spirit is at least six years old. Armagnac labelled Hors d'âge is at least 10 years old.

l Production is divided into : Bas Armagnac, to the west, noted for fruity , delicate styles; La Ténarèze in the central region, where the spirit tends to be rich and powerful ; and Haut Armagnac to the east, which has limited production and is known for quality.

l Armagnac has 3,700ha under vine, Cognac 75,000ha and Champagne 33,000ha