On the Trail

A Quick Tour Through France's Brandy Regions

David Driscoll

In the midst of the December chill we yearn for something to warm our stomach and our spirit as the foggy evening gives way to the blackness of night. While K&L has long established itself as a major player in the whisky category, it's with French spirits that we've perhaps most distinguished ourselves. Having traveled extensively to France for the past five years, knocking on doors, sitting down in the homes of small farmers, and buying directly from their tiny stocks of rustic, aged brandies, we've been able to introduce our customers to an entirely new portfolio of artisan spirits; one that is indeed too small and nuanced for most major retailers to bother with. I've been hearing it the Redwood City store from annual holiday shoppers for the last two weeks: "You guys don't sell any Cognac, eh?" On the contrary! There's an entire wall of Cognac right there! "But I don't recognize any of these brands," they say in response. Ah...that's because we no longer dabble in the branded world of French spirits. We choose instead to curate the much more exciting and intricate network of les petit producteurs: the countrymen who own their own fruit, make their own wine, and distill their own brandy in small amounts. If this idea is still completely lost on you, here's a quick run-through of our latest arrivals to help get you up to speed:

COGNAC

If you're looking for something refined and elegant—an ultra high-end Cognac without an ultra high-end price tag—it doesn't get any better than the Raymond Ragnaud Reserve Rare. One of the best houses in the Grand Champagne region (Cognac is classified by the quality of its vineyards, much like Champagne or Burgundy), the original Ragnaud Cognac was produced by the collective Ragnaud family, but when the two brothers Raymond and Marcel took over they were unable to work together. The domaine was subsequently split in half and now there are two separate brands under the name of each brother.  Raymond Ragnaud is still produced on the original estate and is now overlooked by his daughter, Mrs. Ragnaud-Bricq pictured above. We've been working directly with the estate since 2012 and, while we've carried a number of different selections, the Reserve Rare is the fan favorite.

Jean-Marie has been the distiller at Raymond Ragnaud for the last thirty years and each time we visit he takes us down into the cellar for some cask tasting and a lesson on barrel aging.  Like Armagnac, the Cognac producers believe in aerating the spirit by changing casks every six months to a year, but the influence of the wood is far less present in Cognac. We usually taste a few straight from the cask, but Grand Champagne Cognac doesn't taste all that great in its youth—and by "youth," I mean anytime in the first twenty years of its life. Whereas Armagnac is like Bourbon in that it tastes pretty delicious as a single barrel entity, Cognac is more like Scotch in that the blends have more complexity because the young brandy is balanced by an older vintages.

In the Petite Champagne region of Cognac sits another of our favorite estates run by the man pictured above: Jacques Esteve. Esteve's property is very unassuming. It blends into the rest of the small village where both his home and distillery reside. Sitting on the border of Petit Champagne and Grand Champagne, divided by only a small river, his grapes grow in a very mineral, limestone-rich soil, making his base wine very similar to the GC profile: high-acid, low-alcohol, full-flavor. Like many producers in the region, he sells much of his brandy to the larger houses like Hennessy (Cognac works a lot like Champagne in this way), but he holds a little back to sell to visitors and artisan retails like K&L. 

In the garage behind his home is Esteve's gorgeous alembique still where the Cognac is made in small batches. All of his brandies have tremendous richness and a decadent flavor of dark cocoa and caramel. While we've formerly focused on his older and richer expressions, we've just received our first batch of Jacques Esteve Hors d'Age, a marriage of Cognacs at ten years old and older than we think characterizes the style of the house for a more accessible price. With flavors of toasted almonds, soft caramel, and a pureness of fruit that's never overpowered by the wood, this is one of the better Cognac deals we've seen this year for fans of the richer style.

ARMAGNAC

For those of you who imagine Armagnac be a countryside filled with quaint distillers, their tiny farmhouses full of ancient barrels and old vintages, no producer fulfills that fantasy more than Domaine de Baraillon. We've been carrying the Baraillon Armagnacs for three years now and it's been a match made in heaven for K&L, the Claverie family, and our customers—we're their biggest account and their biggest fans. There's something special about walking into the tasting room at Baraillon, which is really just a little hut next to their home with plastic furniture and humble offerings (like fresh fois gros straight from the farm next door). Mr. Baraillon will come in from feeding the pigs wearing rubber boots, while his daughter Laurence stands by quietly, yet does most of the talking. It's as "real" of a rustic French experience as I think exists, in that there's absolutely no romantic marketing or salesmanship going on in the room. You're simply stopping by a small farm in the Bas-Armagnac that sells meat, preserves, and also happens to have a little reserve Armagnac in the chai outside—some amazingly-delicious Armagnac, no less.

Mr. Baraillon and his daughter Laurence are always there to greet us each year when we pay them a visit. Over time their incredibly rich and decadent brandies have won the hearts of our most loyal Armagnac drinkers. We've just received in another batch of the incredible 1988 Domaine de Baraillon 28 Year Old Folle Blanche Armagnac, an expression that should cost about twice as much as it does. Armagnac often goes into new oak and takes on a spicier, darker, and richer wood-influenced character than Cognac does. If you're looking for a big, powerful, mouth-coating brandy that exceeds expectations and offers all the benefits of long-term aging, it doesn't get much better than Baraillon. 

The seigneury of Ognoas dates back to the 11th century. For more than seven hundred years it was occupied by various lords and viscountesses until 1847, when the last remaining heir donated the property to the church. In 1905, the Domaine was passed over to the regional government and today the 565 hectare estate is run by the Conseul General des Landes and is operated as an agricultural school. The distillery at Ognoas is considered the oldest in Gascony and has been in operation since 1780. The estate has baco, ugni blanc, and folle blanche planted on site and—perhaps the coolest part of the operation—Ognoas uses its own trees (from the 300 hectares of forest on the property) to make their own oak casks for maturation. A local cooper does all the work at the domaine and selects the trees himself. The brandies of Ognoas are alway softer and smoother in style, less spicy and woody than someone like Baraillon. If you're looking for an entry level sipper, check out the Domaine d'Ognoas Reserve with its soft vanilla and almost Four Roses Bourbon-like creaminess with an average age of 10 years in the blend. For a richer, vintage-dated edition, do the 2000 Domaine d'Ognoas Armagnac for fifteen-plus years of fruit and wood integration.

One of our favorite things about Chateau Maouhum is that the vineyards are just a few steps from the warehouse, so you can get a sense of the property while you taste. This tiny estate is being run today by Christelle Lasseignou who returned home to Gascony after living in Paris when her parents were no longer able to run the estate. Christelle's grapes are all baco and she distills only a few barrels each year. We've tasted through vintages from 1983 to 2004, and even a few younger VS and XO expressions in are visits to Maouhum. They have all been outstanding, bringing an intensely woody flavor from the extended oak aging, plenty of spice, but with a delicacy that one might not expect from a brandy that old. While we've previously carried some older vintage editions from Maouhum, our latest batch is a young, vibrant Armagnac that showcases the potential for the spirit as a mixer and cocktail ingredient. This light and easy-drinking version of Armagnac is perfect for making a more potent Sidecar or a subtle twist on an Old Fashioned or Manhattan. The fruitiness of the grapes comes through along with the wood, making for a more expressive spirit than whiskey of a similar age and style. 

Hopefully now when you come into the store and you look at the wall of French spirits, each label as unfamiliar as the next, you can start putting a few faces to those names. We think that over time and with experience, you'll be just as thrilled with the dynamism of rustic French brandies as we are. At that point, you'll never look back. 

-David Driscoll