DO YOU REALLY KNOW ARMAGNAC? POSSIBLY NOT AS WELL AS YOU SHOULD FOR, DESPITE ITS CHARMS, THIS MOST FRENCH OF BRANDIES IS NOT FRONT OF MIND FOR MANY OF US. In fact, it’s not really well known anywhere outside its native Gascony – but perhaps it should be and perhaps in the future, thanks to an energetic new generation of distillers, it will be.
A grape-based distilled spirit, with roots dating to the 14th century, it has a claim to be the world’s oldest style of brandy. Immediately following the American War of Independence it enjoyed some popularity in the US helped by its revolutionary French credentials. But that trade dropped away – Prohibition killed it off and armagnac’s international markets never really recovered.
In a way there lies its charm for, as I discovered on a recent visit to the armagnac-producing departements, the industry is still dominated by myriad small farmhouse producers – true artisans and craft distillers who remain intimately bound up with the land.
Long-term family ownership characterises the typical producer, together with a certain naivety in marketing and, from the older generation, studied resistance to innovation. My first impression, returning to the region after an absence of several years, was that little had changed – and, to be entirely honest, that was familiar and comforting.
Gascony is in the south west of France, and the distillation is restricted to three districts in the departements of Gers, Landes, and Lot-et-Garonne. The region contains some 5,200ha of vines reserved for distillation – Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Ténarèze and Haut-Armagnac, each controlled by separate appellation regulations.
Just as scotch whisky may only be distilled in Scotland, so armagnac may come only from this one place.
It’s a lightly-populated area of rolling hills, woodland, rivers and empty roads. A few villages and small towns serve the population of around 180,000 inhabitants (though I was assured they were outnumbered by 4m or so ducks) and agriculture, often on an artisanal scale, is an important occupation.
Gascony was home to the most famous of the Three Musketeers of Alexandre Dumas’ novel and a branch of the d’Artagnan family is today still to be found in the region, making armagnac of course.
With the category as a total accounting for around 500,000 cases globally it’s little wonder that, with the exception of Pernod Ricard, none of the global industry giants have spared it much time or attention. Moreover, apart from category brand leader Janneau, few brands have anything approaching a global presence and, for years, the majority of producers appeared content to do things much as they had always done – innovation did not represent a priority and strict adherence to traditional custom and practice held sway.
This, however, as we shall see, is changing and armagnac is presenting a new face to the world with new products, experimental cask finishes, single cask bottlings and even change in the established order.