Armagnac is a highly aromatic brandy from the Gascony region of far south-western France. Armagnac was France's first brandy and is said to date back more than 700 years, to the early 15th Century. If accurate, this makes Armagnac the oldest distilled spirit produced anywhere in Europe.
Despite its long history, Armagnac is often confused with (and compared with) its more famous cousin Cognac. On the surface the two are really very similar: they are both wine-based spirits (eaux-de-vie de vin) from south-western France, produced in essentially the same way and from similar grape varieties. But there are subtle, vital differences between the two, which are the source of great regional pride.
The two most obvious differences between Armagnac and Cognac are region of origin and flavor profile. Armagnac comes from Gascony, 75 miles (120km) south-east of Bordeaux. Cognac comes from the Charente, just north of Bordeaux. Armagnac is more deeply flavored, weightier, earthier and darker. Cognac is slightly lighter, finer and fruitier.
Beyond region and style, there are a few less obvious ways in which Armagnac and Cognac differ. The most technical of these is that most Armagnac is distilled just once, in a continuous still. This single distillation creates a heavier spirit – lower in alcohol and higher in flavor than Cognac (which is distilled twice in a traditional pot still). Because the distillation process naturally separates the spirit from its heavier flavor compounds, the less refined a spirit is, the richer its flavor. Most Armagnac leaves the still between 53% and 60% ABV, versus Cognac's 72% ABV.
Armagnac is made by distilling wine, so everything begins in the vineyards. The Ugni Blanc grape variety accounts for around 55% of Armagnac-producing vines, typically accompanied by Folle Blanche, Baco Blanc and Colombard. Also permitted (but less commonly used) are Blanc Dame, Graisse, Jurancon Blanc, Mauzac Blanc, Mauzac Rosé and Meslier Saint-Francois. Each of these brings its own particular qualities to the spirit, so the varieties are harvested, vinified, distilled and aged separately. This gives producers greater freedom and flexibility when creating their final blend.
Following distillation, the spirits are aged in oak barrels: an initial 6 to 12 months in new barrels, followed by a longer period in used barrels. They are then blended together to create the desired flavor profile. This blend of spirits is then transferred back into barrel, where it homogenizes and is (if necessary) diluted gradually to bottling strength (typically between 40% and 45%). Because alcohol evaporates gradually over time in barrel, the longer a spirit is aged, the less dilution it requires. This is one of Armagnac's great advantages; older examples require no dilution at all. From this perspective, mature Armagnac is extremely 'pure', more so than even the best vodka (which is inevitably diluted with water).
The barrel maturation process is vital to Armagnac's character. It softens the spirit, deepens its complexity and introduces new flavors of vanilla and spice. Much Armagnac is aged in oak from the Limousin and Troncais forests, but some producers maintain the tradition of using the so-called 'black oak' of the local Monlezun forest.
All Armagnacs are assigned a quality level, based on how much time the spirit spent in barrel: VS (between 1 and 3 years), VSOP (between 4 and 9 years), Napolean (between 6 and 9 years) and XO (10 years+). Some are marked with a specific age (that of the youngest spirit in the blend). Vintage-marked Armagnacs are produced exclusively from the stated vintage.
Over the centuries, the desire for a sweeter, more approachable form of Armagnac led to the creation of Floc de Gascogne – a sweet, alcoholic mix of unfermented grape juice and year-aged Armagnac brandy. At the other end of the style spectrum is Blanche Armagnac, a colorless, fiery, untamed form of Armagnac, bottled after just a couple of months' ageing.
The Armagnac region is located primarily in the Gers administrative department, but spreads into Landes (to the west) and Lot-et-Garonne (to the north). This was the official 'Armagnac' province that existed prior to the French Revolution. Today, the Armagnac production area is broken down into three sub-regions: Bas Armagnac, Armagnac-Tenareze and Haut Armagnac. There are subtle differences in the brandy produced in each sub-region, due mostly to the differences in soil and climate. Bas Armagnac, the westernmost of the three, produces the vast majority of Armagnac.
The vineyards in the Armagnac region produce more than just brandy. Red, white and rosé wines are also made here (under the IGP Cotes de Gascogne appellation) and just to the south are the vineyards that produce rich, red Madiran.