What is Armagnac?
Even though it is related to and often confused with Cognac, Armagnac is very different with regards to its grapes, terroir, distillation, élevage, blending, aromas, tastes and textures. In truth, France's two finest brandies made from wine are not very much alike at all.
Armagnac pre-dates Cognac by about 150 years but never achieved the widespread sales figures that its relatives in the Charente obtained. In contrast to commercial sales, however, the independent producer of Armagnac has always commanded a more important restaurant presence and level of connoisseur appreciation.
Let's look at the steps that are necessary to create France's most natural and complex brandy.
Armagnac is made from distilled wine, and grapes are the first factor that gives it an original personality. Even though there are nine permitted varietals in Armagnac, four grapes are commonly used:
- Folle Blanche
- Ugni Blanc
While these grapes ultimately give different aromas and flavors, they more importantly offer different weights and textures on the palate.
In pre-phylloxera days, the staple grape for armagnac was the Folle Blanche. Its light-to-medium-bodied wine is low in alcohol (7%-9%) and high in acidity, making it less than ideal at the table but perfect for distillation into fine brandy. Armagnacs made from high percentages of Folle Blanche offer seductive characteristics.
- They tend to be feminine and show especially well in their first fifteen years of life.
- They normally have a very fine texture and light, high-pitched aromatics (including budding vine flowers, white peach, dried apricot and orange peel).
Unfortunately, the precocious Folle Blanche (known as Gros Plant in the Loire) gives low yields, is prone to mildew and rot and today comprises less than 3% of total vineyard plantings. Folle Blanche can perhaps be viewed as the soprano of Armagnac grapes.
Known as Trebbiano in Italy, Ugni Blanc is most famous in the Charente where it comprises 98% of the Cognac vineyards. Ugni Blanc is relatively easy to grow and gives high yields — in short, a big producer and wonderful investment for growers.
This grape produces wines with elevated levels of acidity and low alcohol, yet is fairly neutral in taste. Ugni Blanc now comprises about 55% of the grapes used for the distillation of Armagnac.
At their best, Armagnacs made with Ugni Blanc contain pleasing floral aromatics that tend to accentuate the spice notes from the oak in which they are aged. They are less powerful and less flamboyant than Bacco and, in comparison with Folle Blanche, less aromatic and less fine. The alto of Armagnac grapes.
After distillation, Colombard's youthful aroma is slightly herbal and reminiscent of freshly mown hay. It never seems to develop the round flavors of Bacco or the delicate floral notes of Folle Blanche, nor does it provide the neutral foundation of Ugni Blanc.
While the tenor is especially renowned in the opera world, it is not in Armagnac. Most of the Colombard now makes its way into the region's delightful Côtes de Gascogne wines.
Bacco 22-A is a hybrid between Folle Blanche (a grape of the vinifera family) and Noah, a labrusca grape. It was developed after the phylloxera and was very resistant to rot and mildew. It dominated the Armagnac vineyards between its invention in the 1920s and the 1970s, and most Armagnacs on the market from that period are made with an overwhelming percentage of Bacco (occasionally spelled Baco).
The end of Bacco is imminent, however, as the AOC board has decided hybrids will no longer be allowed within AOC regions after 2010. Obviously the bass, Bacco delivers an Armagnac that is full-bodied, with plenty of fat and volume. With some age, it expresses itself with jammy dried plum notes, yet it can be somewhat rustic and lack finesse.
- Learn about the regions of Armagnac and their soils.