When Armagnac is discussed—if it is discussed at all—it’s typically presented as a sort of rough-and-tumble, bargain-bin alternative to France’s other, far more tony grape brandy, Cognac. It’s true that prices on Armagnac do not climb to quite the heights. Nor do the luxury marketing ploys; there are no diamond-encrusted or Lalique crystal-encased bottles of Armagnac.
Decoding the Label
- Aged in wood for a minimum of one year in France; three years for export to the U.S. and UK.
- Aged in wood for a minimum of two years.
- Aged in wood for a minimum of five years.
- Aged in wood for a minimum of six years.
- Aged in wood for a minimum of ten years.
- A single-harvest bottling from the year on the label, aged in wood for a minimum of ten years.
But Armagnac is worthy of consideration as more than just a cheaper (though it’s not “cheap,” it should be noted, hence our stretching price cap) alternative to Cognac. It’s France’s first brandy—more than 700 years on Earth and counting—after all. And while it is true that the spirit can often be a bit more “rustic” and unpredictable in profile, it is often more rewarding as a result; less the victim of luxury-market hijacking and more a wild-west expression of grape brandy. It’s a spirit that has benefitted, in many ways, by being the in the shadow of its brother to the north.
Armagnac hails from the Armagnac region in Gascony, which lies about 95 miles south of Bordeaux (Cognac lies to Bordeaux’s north) and hails from three sub-appellations: Bas Armagnac, which you’ll see most frequently as the bulk of production hails from here; Haut Armagnac; and Tenareze. (A fourth appellation, Blanche d’Armagnac, governs the production of unaged brandy.)
Whereas Cognac is typically produced from one white grape—ugni blanc—Armagnac can be distilled from a base of four white grapes: ugni blanc, folle blanche, colombard and Baco 22A. The type of wood used in the aging process differs as well. Cognac is often aged in Limousin or Troncais oak barrels, whereas Armagnac is typically aged in local black oak from the Monlezun forest (though other types of wood are permitted). Another difference? While Cognac is double-distilled in pot stills, Armagnac generally goes through a single distillation in a column still. This is an important distinction between the two, as Armagnac’s single distillation yields that bolder, richer profile.
In fact, while many Cognacs have a leaner, more haylike, white floral profile, Armagnac typically ventures into a more brooding set of flavors, like saltwater taffy, butterscotch, stone fruit and roasted nuts. There’s also often a distinctive oiliness to the texture. Think of it as Cognac with the bass turned up to ten.
To get a sense of just how much $100 or less buys you in the world of Armagnac, PUNCH’s editorial staff was joined by two bartenders with a long affinity for the spirit: William Elliott, of Maison Premiere and Sauvage; and Claire Sprouse, of Tin Roof Drink Company. We blind-tasted 16 Armagnacs ranging in price from $30 on up to $100. Here are our favorites.
Marie Duffau Hors d’Age Armagnac
This 12-year-old expression from the reputable Marie Duffau house (run by the Delord family, which also bottles under the Delord label) was a hit with the entire panel. A blend of all four major grapes aged in a mix of local Gascon oak and Limousin, it’s floral and dusty on the nose with notes of oloroso sherry and rancio. Oily and tannic on the palate, with flavors of grape must (you can really “taste the raw material” proclaimed one taster) and Szechuan peppercorn, it’s a big, unapologetic Armagnac, but one that still manages a textural completeness and nuance.
- Price: $48
Domaine d’Esperance 5 Year Bas Armagnac
This small (only about eight hectares of their total 22 hectares of vines go to Armagnac production) family operation is responsible for some of the best value, lofi Armagnacs in the market. This bottling, made from 100 percent Baco 22A grapes, and aged in a combination of new and used Gascon oak, is bottled without the addition of sugar or caramel coloring (though both are legal here and in Cognac). It’s lean and high-toned with notes of hay and white flowers, and a yeasty savoriness. Fine-boned and wine-like in texture, one taster dubbed it an “aperitif Armagnac.”
- Price: $58
Delord XO Bas Armagnac
This 15-year-old expression from the Delord family is big-boned, but still light on its feet. Distilled from all four grapes and aged, like the Marie Duffau Armagnacs, in local and Limousin woods, it’s big and floral with notes of candied orange and wax. With plenty of sweetness on the palate, this was among the richest Armagnacs we tasted, and a shoo-in for after-dinner drinking.
- Price: $50
Chateau Ravignan Armagnac 1998
Hailing from one of the most respected houses in Gascony, this 19-year-old expression from the 1998 vintage drinks like the archetypal Armagnac. Floral and sweet up front with notes of salted caramel and paraffin wax, this is backed by a rich, oily mouthfeel and countered by a hit of focused acidity. One taster described it as the bottle she’d offer someone if they wanted to know what Armagnac should taste like.
- Price: $90
Domaine d’Esperance Bas Armagnac 1998
While we did our best to not repeat producers in the tasting, two houses—Delorde/Duffau and Esperance—had numerous bottles in the top ten. This expression, like the 5 Year, is distilled from 100 percent Baco 22A, then aged in Gascon wood for 14 years. High-acid and mineral with notes of candied mushroom and butterscotch, it’s backed up with a mouthfeel that one taster described as “narrative.” This was easily the most texturally complex Armagnac in the tasting and a testament to how the spirit’s somewhat nonlinear profile can be its greatest asset.
- Price: $59