Reading Armagnac Labels
For the mainstream, commercial market (supermarkets, convenience stores, sports bars), there are various categories that describe minimum ages for Armagnac blends. These include:
- 3 Étoiles (3 stars), which must be at least two years old.
- VSOP or Réserve, which must be five years old.
- Napoléon, Vieille Réserve or XO, which must be six years old.
- Hors d'âge, which must be 10 years old.
Occasionally these blends contain Armagnacs that are older than the minimums, but they do not normally vary from their requirements by more than a few years.
Vintage Armagnacs can usually be found in upscale wine stores and restaurants. They must come entirely from the vintage listed on the label.
As Armagnac matures only in cask and not after being bottled, vintages must also state the bottling date on the front or back label. In this way, one is generally assured of the spirit's exact age.
Distillation Date vs Bottling Date
What many people do not realize is that a lot of the older vintages have been in glass demi-johns for decades and have not evolved since leaving the barrel. Bottling dates must now be put on vintage Armagnacs, yet one cannot assume that the bottling was done directly from barrel: That 1947 Armagnac may have been put in glass in 1975, truly making it a 28-year-old armagnac. Consequently, an Armagnac distilled in 1970 and bottled in 1998 has the same amount of maturity.
Independent Armagnac Producer or Négociant?
Independent estates will always show the domaine's address on the front label, along with the appellation (Bas-Armagnac, Ténarèze, Haut-Armagnac). If not, chances are the spirit was bottled by a négociant in another part of France, perhaps in the Charente or Paris. Many négociant bottlings have labels that simply read "Armagnac." This is because the spirit inside is a blend of the various sub-regions or because the grapes were grown in one sub-region of Armagnac and distilled in another.