The Brandy Report (5/12): Armagnac - Springing the lid of innovation

That was seen most clearly in October 2014 by the acquisition of a majority stake in Janneau by Spirit France group, hitherto best known as the world-leading producer and distributor of calvados. 

However, contacted by Drinks International, its spokesman was unable to comment further on the group’s plans or the implications for possible investment so we must wait for further news.

But, while Janneau may be tight-lipped, other producers have been more forthcoming and willing to challenge established norms. One such convention is that armagnac would rarely, if ever, be served over ice. 

But, looking to new serving occasions, Château de Pellehaut in the Tenarèze armagnac appellation has recently released its Age de Glace armagnac, specially conceived to be served on the rocks. This young blend of several vintages is the creation of Mathieu Béraut, the oenologist of the two brothers who run the Pellehaut estate just outside Montréal du Gers.

Recently described in a blind tasting as reminiscent of a lowlands malt whisky, it is made from 100% Folle Blanche, the historical grape variety used in armagnac, giving great finesse and elegant aromas to the spirit (UK importer Maison Sichel, rrp £25+).

Other producers have recognised the burgeoning cocktail opportunity with the creation of Blanche – unaged, clear armagnac, first officially recognised in 2005 (though favoured clients had obtained clandestine supplies well before that) and subsequently taken up by enterprising mixologists as a fruitier pisco. 

Leading brands in the Blanche category include the Domaine d’Esperance, Delord, Dupeyron and Château du Tariquet. At the Domaine de Saoubis they produce their Blanche biodynamically, adding a further layer of appeal to the connoisseur consumer. 

And, at de Montal, where an excellent Blanche is also produced, I was frankly shocked to learn that they had employed a flying winemaker from New Zealand to advise on vinification – not at all what one expects to hear in a French vineyard.

Cocktail community

Going beyond this to further seduce the cocktail community, Château de Laubade was instrumental in the UK’s inaugural Armagnac Cocktail Competition last October. Its Denis Lesgourgues, Co-owner of Château de Laubade, reports that “a good number of bartenders were using our Blanche in their creations, finding our product to be unique, tasty with genuine characteristics, but also very easily mixable as a great base for premium cocktail”. Such was the success of the competition that Laubade aims to repeat it this autumn at a prestige London venue.

Other producers have taken a leaf from the scotch single malt whisky playbook to come up with single cask or cask finishes – a radical development for a spirit that traditionally is blended and seldom strays out of French oak.

Leading these experiments is Philippe Gelas with his Single Cask Gelas range, which includes finishes in former Jurançon, pacherenc (sweet white wine), Sauternes, sherry from Jerez and former port casks. Supplies are necessarily limited to between 500 and 800 bottles of each expression, but Gelas believes such experimentation is vital to attract new drinkers into the category and present a fresh and diverse range of flavour profiles.

Similarly, at the well-regarded house of Dartigalongue, a number of progressive experiments with different casks are well underway. The brand sells well in Europe, the US and has developed in Russia and China.