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spirits of the times
Février 2004
New York Times
February 18, 2004, Wednesday

SPIRITS OF THE TIMES; Armagnac, Cognac's Country Cousin


IT is Armagnac's fate, and maybe its fortune, always to be overshadowed by Cognac. While Armagnac producers have plodded away in rustic Gascony south of Bordeaux -- the sticks, really -- Cognac has won renown as the epitome of elegance, its virtues trumpeted on billboards around the world. By contrast, Armagnac is the hick cousin, recognized but ultimately accorded secondary status.

For Armagnac lovers, this is a great thing. By existing somewhat outside the spotlight, small Armagnac producers have been left to do their own thing, producing distinctive brandies in a way that might not have been possible had Cognac's brand of corporate ownership come south to Armagnac.


I've always been drawn to the artisanal nature of Armagnac. From brand to brand, I've believed, Armagnacs show jagged differences in personalities, as opposed to Cognac's smooth consistency. I was curious to see whether a sampling of 19 Armagnacs by the Dining section's tasting panel would bear this out.

In fact, we were astonished at the diverse characters and flavors we found in the various Armagnacs, ranging from earthy chocolates, caramels and butterscotches to rich oranges, gingers and spices to dried fruit -- prunes and raisins. One even smelled exactly like tequila.

''They had greater intensity, more than Cognacs,'' said my colleague Florence Fabricant, who joined Amanda Hesser and me and our guest, Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery.

Brandies can be made from almost any kind of fermented fruit juice, like Calvados from apples, and even, as with grappa and marc, from grape stems, seeds and other residue of winemaking. But Armagnac, like Cognac, is distilled solely from wine. Brandy producers, though, have other considerations than do winemakers in selecting their grapes. Instead of distinctive wines, which don't necessarily make good brandies, brandy producers want wines that are neutral rather than flavorful, with plenty of acidity. Cognac, for example, is distilled largely from the ugni blanc grape, which produces an entirely undistinguished wine. Armagnac, too, uses plenty of ugni blanc, but that grape is supplemented with colombard, folle blanche, baco and a few others, grapes of more character than the ugni blanc, which may partly account for Armagnac's more pronounced aromatic range.

Our top-rated Armagnac, for example, the 1979 Château de Ravignan, is made from a blend of ugni blanc, baco and folle blanche. But let brandy geeks memorize the constituent grapes. What was most remarkable about the Ravignan were the complex, persistent aromas and flavors, floral, winelike and exotic, and the rich, smooth texture that went down like butter.

Incidentally, four of our top five Armagnacs were produced from single vintages, rather than blended from several. Until recently, authorities like Nicholas Faith, author of ''Classic Brandy'' (Prion, 2000), were likely to view single-vintage Armagnacs with suspicion. The freedom to issue single-vintage Armagnacs gave producers a rare marketing one-up over Cognac producers, who were not permitted to do so until 1988, and so they dated their Armagnacs with abandon. Nowadays, rigorous inspections have helped to restrain less reputable producers.

Nonetheless, Armagnac producers, like Champagne producers, reserve their best, most distinctive lots for single-vintage bottles, which are, not coincidentally, much more expensive than the blends. Our No. 2 Armagnac, the Domaine D'Ognoas of 1985, was exceptionally flavorful, with an assertive quality that some might call rustic, but which is characteristic of fine Armagnac.

The word alembic on the label indicates that the D'Ognoas was made in a pot still, a traditional method but rarely seen in Armagnac these days. Without getting too technical, Armagnac's forceful character is often attributed to the fact that it's typically distilled at a lower temperature than Cognac, and distilled once to Cognac's twice, achieving heartiness at the expense of refinement. While the grapes or the stills are important, you can't ignore the fact that so much Armagnac is distilled by small producers who are more inclined to individuality. Famous names do exist in Armagnac, but nowhere near the extent to which the big four of Cognac -- Rémy Martin, Hennessy, Martell and Courvoisier -- dominate their market.

Among the famous Armagnac names that made our list was our No. 3 bottle, the 1978 Domaine de Saint Aubin from Francis Darroze, a family-run operation that is really a painstaking négociant rather than a producer. The Darrozes do not make their own Armagnac but buy lots from small producers and market them. The Saint Aubin had unusual floral and herbal qualities that Ms. Fabricant, especially, found intense as well as elegant. Our Best Value came from Samalens, another old Armagnac name. This, our top-rated nonvintage Armagnac, had depth and complexity, with flavors like butterscotch and prunes, and cost only $50, a bargain compared with the single-vintage bottles.

The Armagnac growing region is divided into three areas -- Bas Armagnac on the western side, Ténarèze in the middle and Haut Armagnac to the east. The best brandies invariably come from Bas Armagnac. Indeed, 8 of our top 10 bottles came from Bas Armagnac, and the remaining two, both from Larressingle, were blends of brandy from Bas Armagnac and Ténarèze.

As with Cognac, the nomenclature used for Armagnac has long had a black market vagueness. But recent efforts have made it more systematic. The current rules require Armagnacs labeled VS to be aged at least three years; those labeled VO, VSOP or Réserve to be aged at least five years; those labeled Extra, XO, Napoléon or Vieille Réserve to be aged at least six years; and those labeled Hors d'Âge to be aged at least 10 years.

Unlike wine, brandy does all of its aging in barrels. Once it's in bottles, there's nothing left but to enjoy it.

Tasting Report: Out of the Shadows With a Personality All Its Own

Château de Ravignan $120
Bas Armagnac 1979 92 proof

*** 1/2 [rating: three and a half stars]
Floral, with a winelike complexity, buttery texture and caramel, ginger and orange flavors.

Domaine D'Ognoas Alembic $75
Bas Armagnac 1985 92 proof

*** [rating: three stars]
Unusual and assertive, with a spicy aroma, and flavors of chocolate, caramel and coffee that expand in the mouth.

Francis Darroze $140
Domaine de Saint Aubin 1978 97 proof

*** [rating: three stars]
Rich, intense and honeyed, with floral, herbal aromas; the high alcohol content comes across as heat in the mouth.

Samalens VSOP $50
Bas Armagnac 80 proof

*** [rating: three stars]
Sweet, rich aromas of caramel, butterscotch and prunes, depth and complexity, persistent flavors.

Domaine Boingnères $120
Cépages Nobles Bas Armagnac 1987 96 proof

** 1/2 [rating: two and a half stars]
Soft, velvety fruit and floral aromas, sweet flavors of orange and caramel that open up in the mouth.

Larressingle XO Grande Réserve $67
86 proof

** 1/2 [rating: two and a half stars]
Pure and clear with spicy flavors of pepper, cinnamon and smoke, but slightly harsh.

Château du Tariquet $70
XO Grande Réserve Bas Armagnac 80 proof

** 1/2 [rating: two and a half stars]
Smooth and straightforward, with flavors of caramel, chocolate and mint.

Larressingle VSOP Réserve $35
80 proof

** [rating: two stars]
Odd at first, with an aroma reminiscent of tequila, but improves in the mouth, with minty, chocolate flavors.

Paul Loubère Napoléon $35
Bas Armagnac 80 proof

** [rating: two stars]
Creamy vanilla, honey and orange aromas, smooth and almost elegant in the mouth.

Château de Briat $60
Hors d'Âge Bas Armagnac 88 proof

** [rating: two stars]
Big, intense but rustic with butterscotch and apple aromas. Lacks complexity.

(None) Pass it by
* Passable
** Good
*** Excellent
**** Extraordinary

Ratings reflect the panels reaction to Armagnacs, which were tasted with names and vintages concealed. The panelists this week are Eric Asimov, Amanda Hesser, Florence Fabricant and Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery. The brandies tasted represent a selection generally available in good retail shops and restaurants. Prices are those paid in liquor shops in the New York region.

Tasting Coordinator: Bernard Kirsch

Recent wine columns from the New York Times are online:


Published: 02 - 18 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section F , Column 3 , Page 6


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