Despite dating back to the 15th century, Armagnac is the oldest style of Brandy but has yet to capture the imagination of Britons.
Produced by countless small houses, the rustic nature of the drink is matched by the integrity and honesty of its producers. Each has its own story to tell; join us as we take a look at the region, what if offers, and seven of the finest Armagnac houses, each with unique products steeped in tradition.
Armagnac: The Region
Armagnac is a region to the south-west of France, a historic county of the Duchy of Gascony. Unlike many regions of France, such as Bordeaux which lies to the Southwest, tourism is not a large focus here – agriculture is still big business, with the region largely overlooked by travellers as they pass through, heading for the Atlantic beaches or the Pyrenees.
Armagnac itself is divided into three different areas – Le Bas-Armagnac is the most westerly region with sandy soil ideal for sustaining the huge areas of pine forest stretching toward the Atlantic.
La Tenareze is located further to the east and at a slightly higher altitude than Le Bas-Armagnac, where the sandy soil abates, giving way to clay and limestone which provides grapes more suited to quality wine production.
La Haut-Armagnac runs along the eastern and southern border of La Tenareze, as well as the southern border of Le Bas-Armagnac. While La Haut-Armagnac is the largest of the three areas, it produces the least vines, with farmers concentrating on crops such as wheat and soybeans.
The differing soil types of these areas produce different types of grape that are used to distil the world-famous Armagnac brandy with which the region is synonymous.
Armagnac: What Makes It Different?
Armagnac brandy is renowned as France’s oldest brandy, first created using a distilling process thought to have been brought over by the Moors in the 15th century. This spirit became a local speciality which, by the 16th century, had become known as Armagnac.
By this time, production of brandy in the neighbouring region of Cognac had become a much larger commercial enterprise than that of Armagnac due to its much stronger trading links with England, Ireland and Holland via the busy trading port of La Rochelle.
Cognac remained the more prominent version of the spirit until the 19th century, when the combination of the development of a new distilling process – the continuous still – and the digging of a network of canals, allowed greater production of Armagnac brandy as the process was faster and less expensive, and access to the port of Bordeaux for easier and more widespread distribution.
One of the most distinctive features of Armagnac is its enhanced, fruity flavour. This differs from its rival, Cognac, which is distilled twice and at a higher temperature, giving it a lighter, more floral tone. Armagnac is then aged in limousine oak cases, giving a delicate colour and a more complex flavour. As the spirit ages, the flavour becomes more mellow as the alcohol level drops by approximately one degree every three years.
It’s a long drive, but you could reach Roquefort in a day from Calais, the 600-mile drive being unexciting but easy to despatch. Easier might be flying into Bordeaux, as the city’s airport is just an hour from the Armagnac region.
Away from visiting the endless array of Armagnac houses – and you must do that – you’ll find plenty to keep you occupied. Oenophile’s will, of course, find much to enjoy both here and around the Bordeaux region, but those with just a passing interest will find everything from 13th century fortified villages to some of the finest cycling routes in the world.
A visit to Labastide-d’Armagnac is essential, with the Place Royale in the centre of the village being magnificent. An utterly charming place, once you’ve taken in the history you’ll be able to enjoy a meal at one of the many fine restaurants. We’d look at staying at Chateau Bellevue, a 19th-century mansion that offers rooms and a wonderful restaurant.
The Moulin des Tours de Barbaste is a picturesque fortress-like 13th-century mill that stands on the banks of the Gelise. Once the retreat of the future King Henry IV, it boasts four square towers and is flanked by a ten-arched Romanesque bridge proudly spanning the river.
Bike tours of the picturesque region are popular, with routes taking in the green countryside, sunflower fields and historic sights. Stopping for brandy samples might not be recommended (but you’ll still do it…) and they’ll be enjoyed with the finest culinary treats, including the famous foie gras duck pate.