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Difference Between Cognac and Armagnac

Being France's two finest grape brandies, it is only natural to mention Armagnac and Cognac in the same phrase. Historically, however, Cognac has always stood in the spotlight, with Armagnac playing the understudy, waiting in the wings for its big chance.

Early History of Cognac and Armagnac

In the 1600s, Bordeaux was a major port for shipping wine to England and Holland. Wine tended to oxidize during long sea voyages, but fortifying it with brandy protected it from spoilage.

Cognac — being closely connected to Bordeaux by the well-traveled Garonne and Charente Rivers — became the obvious place for the Dutch and British to seek fortification material. Because of its proximity, Cognac's brandewijn (burnt wine) or brandy had an immediate outlet.

Map showing the relationship between Cognac and Armagnac in southwestern France.

People soon discovered that Cognac produced a spirit that was finer than those from other boat-accessible cities such as Nantes and La Rochelle. Demand for the spirit grew and investment besieged the Cognac region.

Armagnac distillers, however, were caught in a geographical trap. Getting their product to Bordeaux was much more difficult.

As a result, the Armagnac region was isolated from the lucrative, aggressive and well-connected British and Dutch markets flourishing in the Charente. So while investors in Cognac watched their gold coins mount, producers in Armagnac were forced to enjoy their spirit at home after a hard day in the fields.

Beyond geography, over the centuries Armagnac producers faced other obstacles to attaining its place in the spotlight. Vine disease, bug infestations, and lack of standards hindered the growth of the Armagnac industry while Cognac enjoyed worldwide popularity.

Armagnac slowly began to strengthen its reputation in the 20th century by establishing quality controls and standards. Additionally, Internet access has allowed many people who otherwise might not know of Armagnac to discover this unique spirit from the Gascony region of southwestern France.

Primary Differences Between Armagnac and Cognac

There are a number of major differences between traditional Armagnac and traditional Cognac.

Grapes

Geography

  • Armagnac's best grapes are grown on sandy soil in predominantly warm temperatures in southwestern France.
  • Cognac's best grapes are grown on chalky soil with predominantly mild temperatures about 100 miles north of the Armagnac region near the Atlantic coast.

Oak

  • Armagnac is generally aged in Limousin or local Gascon oak.
  • Cognac is aged in oak from the Limousin and Tronçais forests.

Distillation

Alcohol Content

  • Traditional Armagnac has an alcoholic content that is normally between 46° and 48°.
  • Cognac is reduced with petites eaux or distilled water to 40°.

Vintage

  • Traditional Armagnac is given a vintage date.
  • Vintages are extremely rare in Cognac. Instead, Cognac is nearly always a blend of various vintages.

Single Varietal

  • Single-varietal Armagnac is common, especially Folle Blanche.
  • One rarely sees a varietal printed on a Cognac label.

Basic Taste Differences Between Cognac and Armagnac

With regard to grapes, distillation type and politics of reductions, consumers and especially connoisseurs should become aware that Armagnac and Cognac are distinctly different products.

  • Generally speaking, at the fifteen-year mark, a single-distilled Armagnac has a fatter texture than a double-distilled Cognac. (This could be comparable to the difference between vodka in the freezer and vodka at room temperature).
  • Armagnac tends to show more primary fruit than Cognac because of its grapes and because the outgoing vapors are forced into contact with the incoming wine during its sole distillation. The most typical fruit includes vine flowers, orange, plum, quince and apricot.
  • Cognac's fruit tends to be lighter (pear, orange) and more floral.
  • The reaction with Armagnac and the sugars of the oak often yields notes of vanilla, caramel, toffee, buttered toffee, maple syrup and exotic note of coconut milk.
  • Cognac's interaction with oak normally delivers plenty of spice, but frequently herbal, steamed and resinous notes as well.
  • Traditional Armagnac is not reduced. Therefore, its heightened alcohol helps push its concentrated aromas from the glass.
  • Cognac's aromas are not always as forthcoming as those of Armagnac since Ugni Blanc is its chief grape and because Cognac is diluted to 80 proof.
  • With aging, Armagnacs often develop intriguing earth and smoke aromas.
  • Cognac's alliance with wood is often more in balance, yet rarely does it give the complexity that Armagnac offers.
  • Armagnacs generally hit their peak between 20 and 30 years of age.
  • Cognacs are the better long distance runner, however, perhaps due to their higher alcohol. They often peak around the 30-to-40-year mark and develop extremely subtle rancio notes.

How Old is Too Old?

After 35 years of age, most Armagnacs and Cognacs that stay in barrel begin to decline. Not only does the alcohol begin to drop below the legal 40%, but the wood notes begin to dominate the fruit.

While Armagnac perhaps peaks by its 30th birthday, a well-raised Cognac (perhaps because of its higher initial alcohol degree) can continue to evolve until its 50th birthday.

Common Cognac and Armagnac Lifecycle

The components of both Armagnac and Cognac pass through stages during their lives:

  • Fresh fruit (plum, apricot, pear, quince) and floral notes evolve to preserved fruit (imagine the aforementioned as jam) then dried fruit.
  • Hard toffee changes to soft toffee, then cream or even butter.
  • Slow oxidation in cask causes almond and walnut notes (rancio) to surface.
  • The barrel, which once gave pepper, clove and cinnamon notes, finally overwhelms the remaining fruit with tannin.

"Cognac" by Charles Neal. This series was orginally published in 1999 and is updated periodically.

Map highlighting the Cognac region of France.
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