What Is Armagnac Made From?
Armagnac shares some grapes with cognac, its northern neighbour, yet also features its own unique varieties. Like its cousin spirit, some of the grapes are somewhat unpalatable as wine but produce refined eau-de-vie after distillation.
Overall, Armagnac is predominantly produced using the four following white grapes:
- Baco 22A: A late-nineteenth-century French-American hybrid of Folle blanche and Noah grapes.
- Ugni Blanc: A celebrated cognac grape also known as Saint-Emilion or Trebbiano.
- Folle Blanche: A refined yet fragile grape also known as picpoule, gros plant, and enrageant blanc.
- Colombard: A Chenin blanc and Gouais blanc hybrid also used for Bordeaux and Goscony wines.
If you are familiar with the grapes used for cognac, you’ll notice that they consist of the above with the exception of Baco. Invented by a French schoolteacher called François Baco, the hybrid was designed to resist phylloxera and was perfectly adapted to the region’s climate and soil.
Thanks to its robust character, it requires significantly less maintenance than the other varieties. However, it was planned to be removed from the appellations in 2011. Fortunately, producers resisted and it was accepted into the revised 2005 appellation.
Meanwhile, the following grapes are particularly rare and consist of just a few hectares in the region:
- Clairette de Gascogne
- Jurançon Blanc
- Meslier St-François
- Plant de Graisse
- Mauzac Blanc & Rosé
Although cognac is governed by strict appellations that dictate the quantity and varieties of grapes, Armagnac has somewhat more flexibility in what it may use given the region’s overall smaller size.
Nevertheless, since some of the wine above is also used for producing Côtes de Gascogne wine and Floc de Gascogne liqueur, the appellation requires that its use must be officially declared beforehand.
Where Is Armagnac Made?
Armagnac is produced in the Gascony south-western region of France, which can be found between Bordeaux and Toulouse near the Pyrenées. Although the region itself spans 590,000 hectares, the vineyards cover only 15,000 of which just 4,200 are dedicated to Armagnac.
While Armagnac is also produced in the remaining 10,800 hectares, these vineyards may also be shared with Côtes de Gascogne wine and Floc de Gascogne liqueur.
Overall, Armagnac’s climate is rather temperate thanks to the Landes forest in the west, which helps reduce the oceanic humidity from the Atlantic coast. Meanwhile, it is also influenced by the Mediterranean’s dry southerly winds.
As Armagnac is a relatively smaller region than cognac, it’s divided into only three distinctive production zones, which each have their own appellations:
You can use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read about them all.
Based largely in the Gers department and somewhat towards the west in the Landes area, Bas-Armagnac is probably the most famous of the region’s zones. It consists of 8,000 hectares of which 3,500 are used to produce Armagnac.
As the name suggests, it has a lower altitude than its neighbouring zones at between 60 to 120 metres above sea level. In comparison, Haut Armagnac reaches between 150 to 200 metres in altitude.
Most of its soil is referred to as “sables fauves”, which refers to its composition of rusty-coloured sand. Meanwhile, there is a strong presence of “boulbène” soil, which is rich in clay and silicates.
Thanks to these unique characteristics, the Bas-Armagnac region has been able to resist multiple phylloxera outbreaks.
Finally, you may occasionally see Grand-Bas-Armagnac, which refers to a small territory in the northwestern part of Bas-Armagnac. Although not controlled by an official appellation, it may be used by a number of producers for marketing purposes.
Officially recognised in 1993, Armagnac-Ténarèze is the region’s central zone that surrounds a town called Condom. Interestingly, there is no link between the town and contraceptives.
In fact, its name comes from Gaulish words for “market or field of the confluence”, which were corrupted in Latin by the 10th Century as Condomus. As for the region itself, its name means “path of crests”, which refers to its route taken by merchants from Bordeaux to the Pyrénées to avoid paying taxes.
Like Bas-Armagnac, it features some boulbène soil in the west. However, it mostly boasts its own chalky clay terroir called “Peyrusquet”. With a variety of rivers and valleys, it produces something coarse eau-de-vie, which requires significant ageing.
As a result, Ténarèze crus are particularly rare and its 6,500 hectares are usually used to produce blended expressions under the main Armagnac appellation.
The most easterly of the three Armagnac zones, Haut-Armagac is also the largest and sprawls across a range of hills and valleys. However, it produces the least amount of eau-de-vie and only 500 of its hectares are dedicated to growing grapes for Armagnac.
Furthermore, the zone is sometimes referred to as Armagnac Blanc given its soil’s high concentration of chalk. This name shouldn’t be confused with Blanche d’Armagnac, which is a clear and unaged spirit as described below.
As the zone creeps underneath Armagnac-Ténarèze in the south, it also connects with Bas-Armagnac and features some of its Boulbène soil. Therefore, some Haut-Armagnac expressions may share some characteristics with Bas-Armagnac.
Aside from this part of the zone, its soil is quite acidic and heavy in calcium due to the presence of chalk. Consequently, it produces lively eau-de-vie with a relatively clear robe.
Thanks to the variety of soils in the zone, Haut-Armagnac crus can be particularly varied with lots of potential for blending unique expressions.
How Armagnac Is Made
As with cognac, Armagnac is a brandy, which is what the French call an “eau-de-vie de vin”. However, the differences between the two extend far more than just being made in different regions in France.
It is produced by using local grapes listed above, which are particularly dry and acidic in flavour. The grape harvest takes place in early October and the juice is extracted using either basket plate or pneumatic bladder presses. As Armagnac is typically artisanal, there is a general preference for the former over the latter.
Afterwards, the juice is naturally fermented in steel vats with yeast for a period of three weeks to produce what is referred to as vin de chaudière. Only white grapes are used as red grapes contain too much tannin. Similarly, each variety is distilled and aged separately.
Before distillation, the wine is lightly filtered to only retain the fine lees in order to produce a richly-flavour distillate. However, thick lees are removed as they can coat the interior of the still.
Like cognac, Armagnac is distilled throughout winter and must end on or before the 31st March to prevent the wine from undergoing secondary fermentation.
The majority of Armagnac is produced using “Armagnacais Alambics” continuous column stills. Interestingly, cognac-style copper-pot “Charentais” stills, which require a double-distillation process, have been allowed for making Armagnac since 1972.
However, these are particularly rare and represent just 5% of local production.
Some Armagnacais stills are small enough to be mobile and shared between several producers. As they perform a continuous distillation process with serpent coils, the wine only needs to be distilled once rather than twice.
Consequently, the resulting eau-de-vie is arguably more flavoursome and fruity than when made with a copper pot still. Similarly, it isn’t as strong and the alcohol content ranges between 52% to 62% ABV.
The eau-de-vie is transferred to either 400-litre Common or Sessile oak barrels that are often sourced locally in Gascon but may also come from the Limousin forest.
All the wood from a single barrel will come from the same tree and its grain is chosen according to the desired effects on the eau-de-vie. For instance, a fine grain will yield a smooth flavour whereas rough grain ensures greater contact between the wood and the liquid.
Meanwhile, Blanche d’Armagnac, an unaged and clear spirit, will rest for three months in non-reactive tanks before bottling.
As with cognac, Armagnac is first aged in new oak barrels that have been “bousiné” or charred beforehand. After at least six months, the eau-de-vie is transferred to older barrels to avoid flavours dominated by the wood.
Throughout the ageing process, the eau-de-vie will be transferred to different barrels for various reasons. Occasionally, barrels from the same batch are consolidated into a single one to slow the 2% angel’s share.
Otherwise, redistributing the eau-de-vie between barrels contributes to aeration as well as the ageing process.
Once the Armagnac has sufficiently aged, it can be transferred to glass demijohns to halt the process. Yet, while demijohns or “Dame Jeannes” stop the Armagnac from ageing, it does not prevent oxidation.
Additives & Blending
Legally, Armagnac may contain small amounts of caramel, sugar, and Boise, a syrup made from boiled wood, which adds more maturity to younger eau-de-vie. Although the use of the latter is permitted, it’s particularly rare in Armagnac and more common with cognac.
Similarly, a “Maître de Chai” would usually blend cognac. However, Armagnac is comparatively artisanal and operations are typically multi-generational family businesses. As a result, family members often work together when blending their expressions.
Furthermore, the majority Armagnac isn’t blended for consistency but released instead as a Millésime. Traditionally, Armagnac is aged and bottled in a similar way to wine where it consists of a single vintage or “Millésime”, which indicates its year and must be aged for at least a decade.
Consequently, each production may greatly vary and will express the year’s climate in different ways. With the exception of Mono-Cépages, Millésimes are still blended, though, and may consist of several batches and grape varieties for the same year.
How Strong Is Armagnac?
In both Europe and the USA, Armagnac is required to have a minimum 40% ABV to be legally regarded as a brandy or alcohol spirit. In cognac, this alcoholic content is followed particularly closely and it’s rare to find an expression above 40%.
However, as the initial distillate is already low in alcoholic content, most producers will use the natural evaporation of the angel’s share to their advantage.
To control this process, the ageing eau-de-vie may be transferred to different warehouses with varying levels of humidity. In humid storage, the alcohol evaporates faster than the water. However, a drier environment will cause the water to evaporate too and ensure a more consistent alcohol concentration.
Alternatively, producers may occasionally add a small mixture of cognac and water or “petites eaux” slowly reduce its strength as it ages. Otherwise, it may be reduced after ageing to near 40% ABV.
Depending on whether producers use a natural “brut de fût” or “réduit” hydration process, Armagnac’s final alcoholic content may vary between 40% and 48% ABV.
Different Types Of Armagnac
Armagnac is quite varied with a number of different types that are produced and marketed within its appellations:
- Blanche d’Armagnac: Clear, unaged Armagnac
- V.S. (Very Special): 2 Years
- V.S.O.P (Very Superior Old Pale) or Réserve: 4 Years
- Napoléon: 6 Years
- X.O. (Extra Old): 10 Years
- Hors d’Âge: 10 Years Or Older
- X.O. Premium: 20 Years Or Older
- Millésime: Vintage Armagnac consisting of a single year.
- Mono-Cépage: Armagnac, usually vintage, produced from only a single grape.
Since Armagnac doesn’t age when placed in a Dame Jeanne or once bottled, a Millésime’s label usually indicates how long it had been maturing in oak casks.
However, Armagnac can also be blended like cognac, whisky, and rum as described above. In 2018, the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIC), updated its X.O. classification from six to ten years so that it was consistent with cognac.
As a result, the terms X.O. and Hors d’Âge are both interchangeable. Furthermore, Blanche d’Armagnac was introduced in 2005, which is a clear, unaged spirit.
As with both whisky and cognac, the labels are classed by the youngest grape that is used in the blend. Typically, eau-de-vie from an exceptional harvest is reserved by individual producers to be released as a millésime Armagnac. Nevertheless, blends are still quite common.
Having now learned about how Armagnac is made and the different varieties, why do you read more about the surprisingly elusive spirit?