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

Experimental cask finishes, single cask bottlings and unaged spirits… Ian Buxton has been to Armagnac and finds innovation making advances on tradition 


DO YOU REALLY KNOW ARMAGNAC? POSSIBLY NOT AS WELL AS YOU SHOULD FOR, DESPITE ITS CHARMS, THIS MOST FRENCH OF BRANDIES IS NOT FRONT OF MIND FOR MANY OF US. In fact, it’s not really well known anywhere outside its native Gascony – but perhaps it should be and perhaps in the future, thanks to an energetic new generation of distillers, it will be.

A grape-based distilled spirit, with roots dating to the 14th century, it has a claim to be the world’s oldest style of brandy. Immediately following the American War of Independence it enjoyed some popularity in the US helped by its revolutionary French credentials. But that trade dropped away – Prohibition killed it off and armagnac’s international markets never really recovered.

In a way there lies its charm for, as I discovered on a recent visit to the armagnac-producing departements, the industry is still dominated by myriad small farmhouse producers – true artisans and craft distillers who remain intimately bound up with the land. 

Long-term family ownership characterises the typical producer, together with a certain naivety in marketing and, from the older generation, studied resistance to innovation. My first impression, returning to the region after an absence of several years, was that little had changed – and, to be entirely honest, that was familiar and comforting. 

Restricted distillation

Gascony is in the south west of France, and the distillation is restricted to three districts in the departements of Gers, Landes, and Lot-et-Garonne. The region contains some 5,200ha of vines reserved for distillation – Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Ténarèze and Haut-Armagnac, each controlled by separate appellation regulations. 

Just as scotch whisky may only be distilled in Scotland, so armagnac may come only from this one place.

It’s a lightly-populated area of rolling hills, woodland, rivers and empty roads. A few villages and small towns serve the population of around 180,000 inhabitants (though I was assured they were outnumbered by 4m or so ducks) and agriculture, often on an artisanal scale, is an important occupation. 

Gascony was home to the most famous of the Three Musketeers of Alexandre Dumas’ novel and a branch of the d’Artagnan family is today still to be found in the region, making armagnac of course.

With the category as a total accounting for around 500,000 cases globally it’s little wonder that, with the exception of Pernod Ricard, none of the global industry giants have spared it much time or attention. Moreover, apart from category brand leader Janneau, few brands have anything approaching a global presence and, for years, the majority of producers appeared content to do things much as they had always done – innovation did not represent a priority and strict adherence to traditional custom and practice held sway.

This, however, as we shall see, is changing and armagnac is presenting a new face to the world with new products, experimental cask finishes, single cask bottlings and even change in the established order. 

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. 

Despite being the longest established house in the Bas-Armagnac region, Dartigalongue had abandoned its own distilling by the early 2000s and now focuses on ageing spirit from smaller producers.

It has taken this into a series of wood and cooperage trials, looking at the effect on the maturing spirit of varying oaks (contrasting Limousin, Vosges, Gascony and Allier woods) – alternative cask treatments at the cooperage and the impact of differing cellar conditions. A carefully controlled and closely monitored experiment is underway involving some 700 different casks – a very different approach to the rigid adherence to tradition which is often encountered elsewhere.

Similarly, at the Laubade, some 15ha of oak wood has been planted and experiments are being done with its own air-dried staves to determine optimum cask quality. Also at Laubade, recognising what Denis Lesgourgues describes as “our responsibility to preserve our regional grapes heritage”, 19th century varieties such as Petit Jurançon and Clairette de Gascogne have been planted. Despite their “erratic, low and inconsistent yields” these are now being distilled as a heritage varietal.

At Pernod Ricard’s Comte de Lauvia further “experimental reflections” on the direct or indirect components of Armagnac are underway, including casks of the local ‘black oak’ made from 150-year-old trees identified as the finest and rarest of their variety. 

After 30 months seasoning, the barrels are finally built and given a special toasting process unique to Comte de Lauvia defined by the barrel maker and Cellar Master Eric Durand.

Finally packaging. Though the traditional green basquaise bottle is still widely used, more innovative and contemporary packaging is also being adopted to recognise the demands of the luxury market and to give armagnac a more cutting-edge look.


Among other producers, Castarède has introduced a new decanter for its 50-year-old expression that references the traditional flask but with a modern twist; Gelas has moved completely away from the older style for its Single Cask range; Dartingalongue has introduced a number of striking decanters for its premium and super-premium expressions and, to assist sampling a range of styles, both Garreau and Château de Pellehaut offer trial packs with multiple 6cl tubes to sample.

Despite the unchanging landscape then, the brandscape of armagnac is changing as producers adapt to new markets with unexpected flexibility and vitality. Combining the category’s tradition, provenance, hand-crafted artisanal skills and small-batch production with a more upbeat approach to marketing we could be on the brink of the breakthrough this little-known spirit has long deserved.

The Brandy Report comes in 12 parts. Folllow the links here Category introduction by Hamish Smith (1/12), Brandy in the Philipinnes by Hamish Smith (2/12)Cognac by Nicholas Faith (3/12)Premium brandies by Richard Woodard (4/12)Armagnac by Ian Buxton (5/12)French brandy by Hamish Smith (6/12)Spanish brandies by Dominic Roskrow (7/8)