ARMAGNAC Talk & TASTING for the Culinary Historians of New York
From Ancient Egypt to Gascony: The Story of France’s Oldest Brandy
December 3, 2012, Astor Center, New York City
Presented by David Lincoln Ross, Member, Compagnie des Mousquetaires de l’Armagnac
“Damn, no cake! Don’t be mad, there’s Armagnac! The true treasure…”
Welcome, I am delighted to be invited by the Culinary Historians of New York to talk about, and taste with you, three wonderful Armagnacs at New York’s Astor Center.
Map of Armagnac Appellation in SW France – 3 Key Areas: Bas-Armagnac, Tenareze and Haut-Armagnac
Now let’s go to France and zero in on Gascony.
Gascony and Gascons occupy a somewhat peculiar, even compromised position in French history. We know of course of their swashbuckling character, as exemplified by the royal musketeer D’Artagnan, who bravely served Louis XIV.
But where does this image of courage and daring-do originate? Well, first, it’s ancient; it is older than Armagnac’s 700 hundred year history, as France’s oldest brandy.
You see Gascony, while in France, has always remained in temperament outside France. Set in an isolated sea of hills, this region is usually overlooked in even the most comprehensive of tours. There’s an old Gascon tale that exemplifies their unique place in God’s kingdom of France.
It’s quoted in a book about Armagnac by Abel Sempe, a distinguished French Senator, whose family still runs a famed Armagnac distillery.
Monsieur Sempe writes: “On the sixth day of creation, God realized he forgot a small portion of Gascony, and he shed a tear of regret, which, on falling to earth, became the exact outlines of the present vineyards of Armagnac, giving these lands the first taste of this noble brandy.”
From this sea of rolling hills in sight of the massive Pyrenees mountains, a courageous race was born, warriors who bravely fought Romans, Basques, English and French royal troops until once and for all the Gascons were conquered via royal marriage, and the once independent territory, came into the French realm.
But long before that, Gascons help free Iberia from the Moors; they fought alongside Joan of Arc, who was nicknamed the Armagnacaise, for all the Gascons in her immediate guard of honor, and they fought and died for French Kings, from Agincourt in the Middle Ages to the French Revolution.
But they were a wild lot too, with a notoriously short fuse, ready at a glove drop to duel, to fight and to die for the honor of their name.
In French, a gasconnade has a somewhat pejorative meaning, a line of bull, an high octane series of boasts, bordering on insults or a veritable flood of insults.
In architecture, and figuratively expressed, an esprit Gascon conveys their free, if exaggeratedly anarchic spirit.
I remember one time visiting a small Gascon village with Ariane Daguin’s father Andre, and I noticed a house across the street with windows framed at all odd levels, not at one height, like a Palladian structure of balance and symmetry, but helter skelter at different heights, widths and dimensions all askew. I asked what is that all about and Andre replied, that’s your esprit gascon ! (Editor’s note: Ariane Daguin is the founder of the fresh game and foie gras purveyor, D’Artagnan.)
Unruly, undisciplined, and free-spirited in the extreme: It’s a well-known cliche, but it must be said, Gascons have something of an image problem.
Hot-tempered, devilish — as this poster amply illustrates – and ready to duel to the death, Gascons do have at least one important saving grace – it was here in this almost forgotten corner of France that Armagnac was perfected more than 700 years ago.
But where did the art of distillation originate?
The Valley of the Nile – Birthplace of Distillation
It’s a great story, one that goes way back in time.
The origins of Armagnac, as I said before, go way back, all the way to ancient Egypt. It was their love of perfumes and make up that stimulated experiments leading to the discovery of a primitive form of distillation, according to historians.
As more and more exotic spices, aromatic floral cuttings, and mineral and vegetal substances were distilled, a lively and growing trade in medicine, perfume and make up grew and expanded quickly across the ancient world.
Fast forward from the time of Pharoahs to the Prophet Mohammed’s divine revelations and communications via the Koran in and around Mecca, circa 622 AD.
By this time distillation arts had progressed substantially, as evidenced in this Persian image, above, from about 650 AD.
With the rapid spread of Islam across the Middle East, married to its early traditions of tolerance, scientific inquiry, and its genius for imperial administration, it was not long before the arts of distillation moved east and west from the Arabian peninsula to as far as India and all the way to present day Spain and Portugal – the Iberian peninsula.
Look at how far north the Moors reached in Iberia, virtually to the Pyrenees! And with that reach, the art and techniques of distillation jumped the Pyrenees and entered Gascony by the late 1300s, if not well before. By then, Armagnac, acqua vitae in Latin, the water of life, was being heralded as a healthful spirit.
While the Moors reached an apogee of control in the late 8th century AD, slowly but surely Christian crusaders and indigenous Spanish and Portuguese inhabitants allied and fought numerous battles to re-conquer territory long occupied and controlled by their Islamic overlords. This reconquest was largely accomplished by the late 1400s.
So, by the 14th century, the art of distillation crossed the Pyrenees into to Gascony, where Armagnac was soon heralded for its medicinal powers. Praised as a most healthful elixir, Vital du Four (1260-1332), a Cardinal, and a distinguished doctor from Montpellier, France, wrote, “Armagnac enlivens the spirit, partaken in moderation, recalls the past to memory, renders men joyous, preserves youth and retards senility.”
A Single, Continuous Still, Four Grapes and Monlezun Black Oak
Unlike Cognac, Armagnac is distilled only once, via a continuous still. This method yields more flavor, called congenors, versus the double-distillation pot stills employed in the Charente region, where Cognac is produced, north of Bordeaux.
Four main grapes, all quite acidic, are employed in producing Armagnac: Colombard, Folle Blanche, otherwise known as mad white, Ugni Blanc and Baco Blanc, also called Baco 22A. Folle Blanche, also known locally as the Picpoul variety, is translated roughly as “lip smacker” in Gascon argot. (Editor’s note: Please see my blog post review of “Wine Grapes”, by Jancis Robinson, recently published by Ecco Press in the United States; this book review immediately precedes this article.)
So, what is the secret to Armagnac’s unique taste besides the terroir of the appellation, and the grapes used in distilling this spirit? (Terroir, a French term, may be translated as the interaction of earth, climate and place with reference to the production of wine; that is, how the unique combination of weather, soil, and location, with specific reference to Armagnac, in this instance, is different than Cognac.)
The answer to the question above: It is Armagnac’s particular kind of still, called a continuous still. This is the kind of still that yields a very flavorful spirit — one that possesses more congeners, as they are called by distillers — than other kinds of stills, such as the pot stills used in the production of Cognac. Indeed, in Cognac, the wines are distilled twice, yielding a more refined spirit to be sure, but with less congenors. Now, mind you, who doesn’t love an old Cognac, but compared to Armagnac, it’s just different in all sorts of ways, but the essential difference is that it is twice distilled versus Armagnac.
So back to Armagnac, here is an image of a movable still called an armagnacais ambulante. If you are lucky, you may see on Gascony’s back roads, come November, when the distilling season begins.
There’s another key difference between Cognac and Armagnac. It is the types of wood each brandy is aged in over time. The oak barrels in Armagnac comes from the local forest in Gascony, called Monlezun. Oak staves from this forest are known as the darkest in France, indeed they are called black oak! It gives a distinctive flavor to Armagnac; barrels in Cognac come from lighter oak from the Allier and Troncais regions.
And here’s another difference: Only in Armagnac are they permitted to declare a vintage-dated brandy. What does that mean? It means that only wine from a given year is employed in a given vintage year.
So, does a 1943 Armagnac mean it’s been ageing for more than half-a- century? No, it means it was produced from wines harvested only in that year; the resulting spirits may be aged from anywhere from 10 years to more than 30!
These vintage-dated gems are real rarities; look for producers named Darroze, Gelas, Dartigalongue, Laubade, Larressingle and Pellehaut.
Such bottles may be a blend of Bas-Armagnacs and those from Tenareze, while others are produced solely from grapes grown in Bas-Armagnac exclusively.
Chateau de Laubade, pictured, Vintage 1983 was bottled in October 2011, aged in barrel almost 30 years! This Armagnac is a superlative example of the mellow refinemant a vintage-dated Armagnac from the renowned Bas-Armagnac sub-appellation may achieve. On the nose you will discover a rich bouquet of caramel, flowers like a delicate violet, and delicious, almost treacly flavors of apple, pear and persimmon.
Now, is there any better way to end a great dinner or gathering than to share a a glass of wonderful Armagnac?
In my book, I don’t think so!
So raise a small, tulip-shaped glass– such as the one shown, at left — and toast: “ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL”, and savor fine example of France’s oldest brandy.
Editor’s Note: These remarks have been edited for this blog post and are under full copyright protection, all rights reserved.
The author wishes to thank Linda Pelaccio of the Culinary Historians of New York, its Board of Directors and volunteers, for all their help in preparing this event as well as Ariane Daguin of D’Artagnan. The author would also like to credit the Bureau National Interprofessionel de l’Armagnac and May Matta-Aliah for their donations of Chat. de Pellehaut, Chat. de Dartigalongue and Chat. de Laubade Armagnacs on Dec. 3, 2012 at the Astor Center event.
For more information about where to purchase any of the Armagnacs mentioned in this blog post, please visit: wine-searcher.com
Photograph of David Lincoln Ross by Don MacLeod, used with permission; all other images are from Google, and in the public domain to the best of the author’s knowledge.