WHILE I WAS IN THE Armagnac region in March, a producer (who shall remain nameless) told me: “You British, you used to buy our armagnac, but now not so much.” He shrugged his shoulders as if it was one of life’s great imponderables. This attitude was remarked on by Jerome Delord from the eponymous house: “We have been sleeping on our laurels for too long. We had a great product but didn’t sell it.” Armagnac used to rely on a home market and a few traditional markets, such as Belgium and Britain. Domestic consumption is now in decline so producers need to find new customers. They currently export about half of their annual production of 6m bottles. Compare this with Cognac, which exports 98% of production of 180m bottles a year.
Whereas most cognac sales are in the hands of the big four – Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier – armagnac production is split between more than 40 commercial houses, not including farmers who distill a little mainly for home consumption.
Sukhinder Singh from the Whisky Exchange, a great champion of armagnac, told me: “There are too many small brands who don’t understand the first thing about selling, packaging or promotion.” Most houses are still family businesses. The nearest thing to a global brand is Janneau, which is owned by Spirit France. There simply isn’t the money for a big advertising push, nor is there the volume. Almost all marketing therefore works at a personal level.
Jerome Delord is constantly travelling to promote his product. Delord is particularly successful in the US where its distinctive bottles with wax seals are now synonymous with armagnac.
Florence Casterede from Château de Maniban is another who is often on the road. This year she’s been to New York, Taiwan, Israel and travelled all over Europe with stints at the big wines fairs – Prowein, VinExpo and ViniSud. She told me the only way to sell is through “education, tasting, and then hope that they don’t forget you”. She has just hired an agency to promote the product in the US, a market that is growing rapidly though Britain is currently the number one export market by volume.
China and Russia, both big markets, are down. But Marc Darroze, whose family firm has a stellar reputation, is optimistic. He says the Russians are “educated consumers” who appreciate good brandy and in China there is a “big opportunity for a craft spirit that is not so sweet”. Darroze has been able to capitalise on the lack of commercial expertise. He buys brandies from small domaines then ages, bottles and markets them. The Darroze business model is about embracing the complexity of armagnac under a trusted brand name.
And it is complex. There are three regions – Bas Armagnac, Armagnac Tenareze and Haut Armagnac. There are 10 permitted grape varieties, the main three being Ugni Blanc (the same as cognac), Folle Blanche and Baco. There’s also Colombard and six other rare varieties. Producers are beginning to put the grape variety on the bottle. It’s all about providing information.