It’s sometimes easy to forget that the United States is a young country when compared to the rest of the world. For us Americans, a couple hundred years is pretty much the entire length of our nation’s history. For some French citizens, however, it’s merely half the age of their house. Take Chateau de Ravignan for example—a property in Gascony that dates back to the 12th century. The current house on the estate only dates back to 1663 because the original was burnt down in 1565, a hundred years earlier. There was strife back then between the Huguenots and the Catholics, and the Chateau was torched during a time when Jeanne d’Albret—the mother of King Henry VI—was caught helping the French re-appropriate land back from English territory. Surrounding the 350 year old maison are vineyards, work sheds, servant quarters, and a few warehouses full of aging brandy. In the middle of all this history, Chateau de Ravignan continues to make Armagnac today, just as it has for generations.
A hundred years can seem like an eternity to an American like myself. I’m excited when I see nostalgia from the 1980s, let alone the 1880s. But at Domaine de Baraillon it’s perfectly normal to see a few bottles from the late 1800s sitting around the property. You’re welcome to sample them, too! It’s no big deal. Just make sure you ask Paul Claverie first. He runs the domaine with his daughter Laurence and they’re both more than happy to pour you some of their family’s Armagnac selections from the 19th century, or various 20th century vintages like 1900, or 1918. Maybe some WWII-era juice from 1944? It’s up to you. When you visit a famed single malt distillery or prized Cognac house you might get to look at a bottle of forty year old spirit, but tasting it won’t likely be part of the free tour. Here at Baraillon, however, you can taste what you like, as you like it. There’s no real emotional attachment to such “young” possessions. The 1933 expression sitting on the tasting bar only dates back eighty-two years. What’s the real significance of eight decades to a genre of spirits that dates back eight centuries? It’s like a blip on the radar for these folks.
Distillation of eau de vie at Chateau Ravignan dates back officially to at least 1791 during the French Revolution, but by historical account back to 1731. That’s when the ancestor of Josselin de Ravignan purchased the estate and declared on an official record that some of wine made from the property’s grapes would be used for distillation. At that time, however, it wasn’t known as Armagnac. Distilled spirits were used for a number of medicinal purposes, poured into wine for fortification, and given to sailors to help disinfect their water supplies during long journeys. Today Josselin is bringing Ravignan into a more modern era. When he’s not faithfully carrying on the family tradition with his father Louis and aunt Cristine d’Orglandes, he’s shaping surfboards and hitting the waves at the nearby Atlantic Coast. We visited with all three of them at the Chateau this afternoon, tasting through samples in the nearby chai (the French word for an above-ground cellar). Louis pulled the ancient documents from the Chateau’s library so we could see the original records. They keep 350+ year old records like this on hand in France. Again, no big deal.
I’ve toured some of the most treasured libraries of old spirits at some of the most storied producers in the business and most of the time those reserves were kept behind glass, inside an ornate treasure chest, or under the watch of a professional security team. Not at the Claverie house, however. At the Domaine de Baraillon all of the old vintages are kept in glass demijohns inside an old shed behind Paul’s house. These brandies are the heart and soul of the Claverie family, the work of previous generations that was subsequently passed down to the next. Paul certainly has a sense of pride concerning his heritage, but he’s not handling these bottles with kid gloves. His family has been distilling at the same property since the mid-1700s. What’s one glass jug of 1965 vintage Armagnac in the grand scheme of things?
Nor is he batting an eye at the fact that ready-to-buy bottles of these rare vintages are sitting unprotected on the shelf inside the small tasting room for customers. It’s simply the way things have always been and will always continue to be. Time will continue to run the way it always has at Baraillon, and the family will continue to distill vintage after vintage of baco and folle blanche grapes from the estate vineyards. We were tasting brandies from the 19th century like it was the most casual thing in the whole world. Why make a big deal out of it?
Over at Chateau de Ravignan I spent a good hour tasting barrels in the cellar with Josselin, talking about the need for balance between the appreciation and enjoyment of Armagnac. No one in Gascony gets caught up in the age statements of their brandies or the opinions of heralded critics. They respect the conditions that create great spirits and they strive for quality with respect for their history, but it never seems to come at the expense of a good time. “Do you watch bull fighting?” Josselin asked me. “There are people who go to watch the fight, have some drinks, and just enjoy the experience. Then there are other people who overanalyze everything about the sport and who are upset when the fight is not good.”
“That sounds a lot like some of today’s wine and spirits customers,” I laughed in response.
“It is important to appreciate the beauty and the form of bull fighting, but there is a point when appreciation comes at the expense of enjoyment. That’s something that I’ve learned over time,” he said. When you’ve had 700+ years to put things into perspective, it’s probably a bit easier for the people of Gascony to take things in stride.