Armagnac trip

Here you can talk about the experiences with the different brands and/or types of Armagnac.
Pierre
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Armagnac trip

Postby Pierre » Mon Aug 26, 2013 10:36 pm

Hi all !
As part of my holidays I recently took a few days trip in the Armagnac region. That is a quite charming region full of pretty sunflower and corn fields (so much corn you'd think they should try to make some local bourbon :P ). I visited several producers and will sum up our discussions in subsequent messages.

I was sleeping in the Chateau du Prada, a 260 years old castle owned by the most welcoming family that provide you with good cooking. They own 2.5 ha of vineyards from which they produce their own armagnac, a mixture of varying proportions between Colombard and Folle Blanche. It is very interesting that some of their vintages are 100% FB or 100% Colombard, the latter being quite rare in my experience. The castle is located in Labastide d'Armagnac, a town that is home to Domaine Boingnères and has several shops from producers in the central place of the village, including Laberdolive: they all seem to share the same price range -> the expensive one. Chateau du Prada is true to the local tradition and the bottles are not very cheap, but I was amazed by the quality of relatively young expressions. The 1996 100%FB, with only 14 years in cask, was a pretty nice expression of a folle blanche armagnac in all its flowery palet and the 1992 100% Colombard (17 years in the barrel) was very smooth with well integrated alcohol at 46%. I'll come back to that one later.

Anticipating on the next posts, I can say that none of the people I met would admit to use additives other than water for those that sell 40% bottles. I even got disapproving looks by mentionning it... They also claim, contrary to what I've heard from cognac producers, that there are differences between the vintages that do not disappear after long years in the barrels, and each vintages keeps a unique personality. I didn't taste enough things to have an opinion about this, I can only guess it could come from the distillation of armagnac: not only is it distilled at a lower proof, the vapors of alcohol have to pass through the wine before they are condensed into eau de vie, which allows them to gain more flavours from the grape (or so they say). I don't believe that happens for cognac distillation.

BSinTX
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Re: Armagnac trip

Postby BSinTX » Mon Aug 26, 2013 11:27 pm

Very cool that you were able to do this trip!! I have it in the back of my mind to take a Brazilian lady to France and I am undecided between Armagnac and Cognac.


Bourbon must be made in the US, but I have heard that due to some hard times, producers once farming grapes for Armagnac are now growing corn (because the US will buy it as a fuel supply :evil: ) I have 200ml left of a bottle from St. Aubin and once it's gone, it's gone!!

So, they frown upon the notion of additives....my kind of people!! Intrinsic quality isn't something written on a label (Super Premium) and either the producers understand this or they do not. The addition of water isn't so much frowned upon; it's the addition of so much water that it ruins the taste. As a whiskey drinker (we tend to add our own water), I am more than aware of it when I add too much water.

Armagnac is made in a very different manner from Cognac and this is fine with me. I embrace this difference as it turns into a completely different product. Where Cognac is refined, Armagnac is BOLD. I would love to be in either place at the time of distillation. I can only imagine everyone on the estate is in a festive mood. "What are you doing, Pierre?" "I'm making booze, Henri!"

Pierre
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Re: Armagnac trip

Postby Pierre » Tue Aug 27, 2013 12:36 pm

True enough, bourbon is from the States, maybe they could label it "bourbagnac" or "armaskey" :P
I can only encourage you to take a trip to France: I went both ways the last two weeks and for a trip with a lady, I'd recommend Armagnac, it's full of very charming towns and places with nice panoramas. I wouldn't say it is ugly around Cognac, just that it wasn't as fascinating and cute. Anyway both regions are maybe 300km apart and you'd do well to visit also one or two cognac producers that I'm sure you'd love ;)

Jumping now to my first visit in Perquie, west of Bas-Armagnac region, to the Domaine de Nautina ! It's hard to find a more "family business" than this one: you have to step in the garden to catch their attention and they take you to their kitchen for a bit of tasting (no cellar to visit there). I guess they have just a couple of ha because everything's done by a couple of advanced age, cutting the vines and picking the grapes with no help from machines (with many critics towards those that use machines to cut the vines). It allows them to propose truly unbeatable prices (who sells 1974 or 1979 vintages for 45€ ??). They only grow baco grapes, which made them very sensitive to the recent attempt to make it illegal in the making of armagnac. From their perspective, it is mainly because pesticide companies have been lobbying against a cepage they know to be very resistant to disease and/or insects and such (I can only offer their point of view...).
They offer a few vintages with strangely different caracteristics for being all from the same cepage: their 1991 is more fruity with a nice power that could make it something really tasty with a few more years in the barrel. Their 80's vintages didn't strike me as much but their 1979 was somewhat different with more austerity, more presence of wood and walnut, very few sensation from the alcohol although it was still a good 46% and an enjoyable presence of coffee going on tobacco almost. Their Floc de Gascogne was nice, although I found out I don't like floc that much since it has to be very young by legal standards (Floc is the equivalent of Pineau des Charentes for armagnac): it may be because the Nautina people tend to use older armagnac than usual, and indeed they don't write "floc de gascogne" on it but "vin de liqueur"... All the products are without additives, and when I asked "Do you chill-filter some things ?", the answer was "Chill-what ?? What is this stuff ?"...
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Last edited by Pierre on Sun Sep 22, 2013 1:09 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Pierre
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Re: Armagnac trip

Postby Pierre » Tue Aug 27, 2013 2:01 pm

Another interesting visit: Armagnac Delord. I already have 2 bottles I have to finish at home and I didn't think about visiting them in the first place, but I heard them boast about a recent gold medal for their "cask strength blend" and I was a bit curious. Delord is one of these producers that are happy to dilute everything to 40% (not that it makes their products uninteresting, on the contrary I quite like what they do...) and I was really willing to check what 6 more percents in alcohol could provide.

I believe you could call Delord a "big producer" of armagnac, although they produce around 100,000 bottles a year, which is ridiculous by the standard of some cognac producers. Indeed, they still manage to have a team of 2-3 people that manually seal the bottles with wax. They are located at Lannepax in a simple and modern building and we were given a small tour by a well prepared and charming young woman. She explained how armagnac is traditionnally distilled and gave us an interesting information: it is now allowed to use the same distillation as cognac for making armagnac, and Delord uses it for its younger expressions (I don't which ones, probably at least VS and VSOP I believe). After that we were taken to the cellars for a bit of explanations. I've asked where the beautiful brown-red colour of their spirits was coming from and she confirmed they don't use artificial colouring or additive of any sort, rather they use barrels which wood has been bent with a high intensity fire (or the wood was closer to the fire, not sure anymore) and was thus more "burnt", which releases more colour in the spirit. The ubiquitous reduction at 40% supposedly comes from the will to produce smooth armagnacs accessible to everybody (some visitors even find their 40% products to be quite strong). However she admitted their objective was to make the vines "spit", meaning getting as much volume as possible. This is why they use mainly ugni-blanc: on their 35 ha vineyards, 2 are folle blanche, 2 colombard, 10 baco and the rest is UB. The percentage in their armagnac should be roughly the same since I think they distill everything together (probably a bit less of FB since it is not a very productive grape variety).
The end of the visit led us to a bit of tasting: I could sample their Hors d'Age, 1988, 1982 and l'Authentique (the cask strength blend). I enjoyed the "pastry" caracter of the Hors d'Age although it was a bit weak (a blend of 15 YO or more eaux-de-vie); the biggest deception was the 1988, lack of power and very mute and poor finale, I was surprised since this is the range they should use for their 25YO that I found way better (our guide admitted they concentrate on blends a lot); the 1982 was much better in this respect, the aromas were more pronounced and it held correctly on the finish (closer to what I've been used to for Delord); however the difference in intensity with l'Authentique was striking, this is a beautiful blend of 20 to 30 YO armagnacs at cask strength (45.9%) and this will pair nicely with a cigar, with a lively finish of around 45-60sec. I'd love to have an older cask strength 35YO blend from them, I'm sure it would be a killer for my palate...
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Tasting session
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1978 armagnac and already 41.5%
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Cellar 1
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Last edited by Pierre on Sun Sep 22, 2013 1:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Pierre
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Re: Armagnac trip

Postby Pierre » Tue Aug 27, 2013 2:42 pm

Now moving to my last day there :D And coming back to Perquie to visit the Chateau de Ravignan, or I should say only the cellar of Ravignan, sadly there was no visit of the castle on that day :cry: Well, I was visiting more for the booze anyway, so let's ring the bell (literally) and wait to be welcome by the employee in charge of the customers, the bottling and maybe taking care of the cellars in a more general way. The cellar is not that big so I guess the production is somewhat small. They use Folle Blanche and Baco and only propose vintage armagnacs. As a matter of fact you can only taste and buy 5 vintages at a time, that they think are representative of their whole production, at the moment 1981, 1984, 1988, 1994 and 1997. This is not a self-sustained activity actually, which allows them to do pretty much what they want and customers who don't like it can go somewhere else (which is not necessarily a bad thing actually, contrary to what the EU bureaucracy may believe...). They export a bit, but the guy was a bit sceptical about this emerging markets fashion: "China, well I've heard they like sweet stuff, and that's not what we propose... Plus when some details are not to the customs liking, they destroy everything. I'm better off with the domestic market." They export to the USA but not because of an aggressive marketing strategy, just that some importer particularly like their stuff :D He was surprised that forum posts can be found about their products on the web (but soon, what spirit producer won't have a review from numen on the Cognac Forum ? :lol: ).
Tasting their vintages, you realise there is a big evolution from the wood, even at 3 years distance. They managed to propose expressions that are all very particular and I salute them for that. Most of them are quite good, except for the 1994 imo who was more "undefined". The 1997 is powerful but not aggressive, I could have taken a bottle were it not for weight restrictions, the 1984 was spicy on the tongue and I really enjoy that, while the 1981 had the nicest expressions from the wood and had that seducing smoothness of 30+YO brandy. I favoured the 1981 but I now regret my choice, I think the 1984 was more "particular". All are cask strength but they distillate at no more than 50% (actually ask someone to do it for them) and their products are bottled between 42 and 45%. All in all good products but nothing that made me say "wow" or "yummy".
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Castle of Ravignan
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Cellar
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Last edited by Pierre on Sun Sep 22, 2013 1:16 pm, edited 1 time in total.

BSinTX
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Re: Armagnac trip

Postby BSinTX » Tue Aug 27, 2013 5:40 pm

Fascinating information, so thanks for sharing. Corporations can be hit or miss. As I have been to several Bourbon distilleries (most are owned my foreign corporations), many of the employees are much happier; this is coming from the employees and not their spokesperson. They corporations can provide the money required for large scale manufacturing but do not intervene on decisions made by the master distiller. Makers Mark was going to lower their ABV from 46% to 43% and because of the backlash from consumers, they reversed this decision a few days later. Four Roses was a bottom of the shelf brand and now it's one of the finest and this is because they let the masters (anyone who makes spirits anywhere is a master in my opinion) do their thing. I think I can see all of this in Armagnac based upon your descriptions. Rather than bend over backwards to provide for the Chinese, they simply tell them to buy something else. Just because it's legal to add caramel does not mean that everyone does this. Great to hear you cover details about the barrel because this is where most of the flavor comes from. I know in Armagnac, the barrels are toasted though I am not sure if they actually char them as they do in Bourbon (where they first toast and then char which makes no sense to me.)

Floc de Gascon....I purchased a bottle of Armagnac; not sure of the brand as it was simply something I have never seen before and wanted to try it. What threw me off was when I got home and read about Floc de Gascon on the box and thought to myself, "Did I just buy an $85 bottle of dessert wine??" Turns out that this particular house uses the same box; the bottle states 40%. It took me a while but I figured it out. Speaking of which, I am understanding of the 40% rule, especially so when it comes to products that spend a long time inside a barrel. I am a huge fan of the Castarede 20YO and it's bottled at 40% (it goes great with a cigar!!) It's just frustrating when you try something you KNOW would be much better if it were 2 or 3% higher. Of course Armagnac is distilled at a lower ABV than Cognac which means may produce less product from the same amount of wine, although Cognac typically has the "heads" and "tails" removed. I just purchased a vintage 1976 Armagnac which is 42%ABV....37 years in the barrel!!

No manufacturers are exempt from the tastings and writings of the great numen!! Maybe they should start sending him some free samples!!!

Pierre
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Re: Armagnac trip

Postby Pierre » Tue Aug 27, 2013 6:17 pm

Just happy that I can provide useful info :) I find it encouraging to hear that the consumers' criticism can be heard early and not only waiting to see the sales going down; I'd rather make my voice heard and keep a fine product as it is rather than having to abandon it to make my point to the producer ! However Four Roses made me raise my eyebrow, last I had their basic expression in a bar it was one of the most watered down spirit I had ever tasted, a complete delusion, but you might be talking about other expressions. It's like Jack Daniel's, the basic one I avoid but the Silver Select is quite drinkable (although not particularly striking imo).
And I can really understand why bourbon can feel that way when the cask strength version are around 60-65% ! (quite similar to 15-20YO cognacs actually) Armagnac is safer on that side as you noted, it's pretty natural to find 43% naturally reduced sauce, however I don't follow your reasoning, since you start from the same alcoholic degree, you produce less volume for cognac I believe... And as it comes back to my mind when you talk about heads and tails, they reuse these that they put into the wine for the consecutive distillation, so they don't really lose anything (smart people :P ).

As for numen being burried under free samples, that'd be a delighting thought but I recently discovered that shipping alcohol legally in the USA is real pain in the butt so good luck to all those producers :mrgreen:

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Re: Armagnac trip

Postby BSinTX » Wed Aug 28, 2013 5:20 pm

So when you arrive at an estate in Armagnac, do you simply go up and ring the doorbell or do they typically have welcome centers and such?



Sometimes I tend to forget there are also basic bottlings from producers. The standard Four Roses bourbon is not something I would have on hand, but most of their bottlings (in this area) are of the single barrel variety and they make 8 recipes (2 mash bills and 4 yeast strains). Now that I think about it, their standard stuff isn't on the same shelves as the good stuff (never occurred to me until you mentioned Jack Daniels.) When browsing or shopping for bourbon, I tend to never turn around and look at the shelf behind me as it is filled with products I'd rather not buy (Rebel Yell, JD, Jesse James, Old Crow.....)

To keep the subject on topic, do you have any input as to the yeasts used in Armagnac? Also, when you visit the smaller distillers, do they use wood or stainless steel fermenters? I would imagine that, in France, this sort of equipment would be very expensive. I know from watching Charles Neal's videos that the distilling "machine" is mobile so that it is taken from one house to the next to process the wine into spirits (do they call it eau de vie in Armagnac?)

numen
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Re: Armagnac trip

Postby numen » Thu Aug 29, 2013 10:56 am

Pierre,

That sounds like a really amazing trip! Thanks for all the details about it, the people, and the tasting. :D

The part about the wood at Delord is interesting. I know that bourbon makers do something similar, referring to the impact of the fire as 'char,' with accepted 'char levels.' In addition to color, it also has an effect on taste - releasing more vanilla/coconut flavors and toastiness from the wood. That's also probably related to the American oak, and I expect that French oak has its own flavors after higher levels of charring. Ravignan is right about exports! Generally speaking, armagnac production is so small (compared even to cognac) that it's done piece-meal by the companies, and it's difficult for them to go through the hassle of the paperwork and everything else to send out a rustic, personally composed spirit internationally. Francis Darroze helps the small producers, and Charles Neal has been a major boon for some estates (such as Ravingnan.) Of course, great or not, I wouldn't mind if they were to send me samples from time to time :mrgreen: I'm picking up a bottle of Ravignan that's waiting for me this weekend!

I do wonder whether armagnac and cognac producers are aware of discussions and (some) consumer dialogue about their products. Bourbon and scotch whisky producers are media savvy (with international brand ambassadors) and try to keep the pulse of their consumer base -- then again, with their volume of production, it makes sense. I imagine that many armagnac producers just go and make what they'd like because they're making it for themselves, and a bit to sell. It's almost more about pride of product for them than just selling something to be super rich. It leads to a lot of really interesting, dynamic, and fun spirits that are unique :D

Did you find that there was a sweet spot for age (more than vintage) of armagnac or different/specific varietals of it? Were there any profiles that you found that you enjoyed more than others? And, like BSinKY, I'm really curious about how you went to the places: do you just drive up and ring the doorbell? It seems like a really great place to just drive around, meet people, and consume great spirits! Thanks again for the really awesome write-up!

Pierre
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Re: Armagnac trip

Postby Pierre » Fri Aug 30, 2013 4:22 pm

I don't know why but I can't access the forum anymore, I just managed using a proxy... Anyway, it will probably get resolved as it appeared, unexpectedly.

To answer you both, you pretty much caught the spirit there: you drive, find the producer you're looking for or just spot a pannel "Selling armagnac here", stop in front of their house and ring the bell... I had emailed those I wanted to visit but I had to swap some visits to a different day than I had warned them and they didn't give a damn :mrgreen: They actually don't make any planification, you get there, they stuff you with local brandy and you leave happier than you arrived, that's the concept. Even at Laubade, which is a "big producer" (100 ha of vineyards) although they had a welcome center (like Delord). Next time I think I'll pick at random along the road, it might make for bad surprises but I'm sure there are awesome unpublicised small producers selling at small prices like the Domaine de Nautina.
For the yeast I don't really know, I never really asked myself that question :P The guy at Francois Peyrot mentionned it a bit while talking about pineau but I forgot what he said... I just remember he used stainless steel containers for the fermentation, but that was cognac. I remember seeing big concrete containers that contain a layer of ceramic inside, otherwise there were very large wooden casks but I believe these are used for the blending process (this was at Delord). I didn't see anything at Nautina since they just welcomed us in their kitchen, no tour of the cellar (maybe I could have asked but I didn't dare :mrgreen: ).

Now to numen questions: yep many of them are quite small and don't really care for all the paperwork needed to export to the States, even Christophe Forgeron (see my thread in the cognac zone) who has 24 ha of grapes is too small for such complications, so if you consider many producers in the Armagnac will have 2-10 ha... And no, actually they don't know consumers are talking on the net or elsewhere, they're always surprised when I tell them so :D However I believe they still hear things one way or another because you can detect trends: it is only fairly recently that producers who were only selling 40% ABV bottlings started proposing cask strengths products. Laubade comes to mind but also Gélas who started selling 18 YO mono cépage bottles at cask strength and quite recently Delord with "l'Authentique"...
As for sweet spots and profiles, hmmm well... I wouldn't say there is a best age for me, every period can display nice caracteristics, I enjoyed the mastered power of 15 YO cask strength vintages and I regret not having acquired a bottle of this sort (limitations, limitations...), strangely this time the 20-25 YO stuff did not strike me although I do have bottles at that age at home that I do appreciate (Delord 25 years, Clos Martin 1987 cask strength, with these dry fruits that I enjoy)... I tend to be naturally attracted to the 30-40 YO range though, I find that the wood makes itself noted in the most interesting manner, actually in armagnac I feel different types of wood as opposed to only oak, like e.g. cedar or other, in other words a nice particular expression of rancio that I'm really a fan of. Some time ago I would have labelled it as my sweet spot but now I'm set on getting myself younger bottles as well.


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