Armagnac is one of those distilling regions that’s fairly small and under the radar compared to more renowned places like Cognac or the Scottish Highlands. When you walk into any major spirits retailer you’ll be lucky to any bottles of the Gascogne brandy whatsoever, let alone a vast selection categorized by sub-appellation and style. Nevertheless, Armagnac—like Champagne or any other major wine producing region of France, large or small—is not simply one general area of like-minded spirits producers. It is divided into the three parts: Bas-Armagnac, Haut-Armagnac, and Tenereze, and just like most major wine regions those divisions are based somewhat on soil type and style. Whereas the Bas-Armagnac has a sandy terrain, the Tenereze has heavy traces of limestone and clay. Since Armagnac begins its life as a white wine before being distilled, the distinctions these elements present in flavor and terroir are just as relevant as those between Chablis and Chassagne-Montrachet. Many of the characteristics of the wine itself will ultimately prevail through the distillation process and into the brandy’s ultimate profile.
On Monday morning we made the hour and a half drive from Bordeaux to Domaine d’Ognoas, a longstanding distillery in the Bas-Armagnac that also operates as a school and training center for production. They have a guest house that they offered to Charles and myself for the duration of our stay, and seeing that our standard Chambres d’Hôtes closed down last year, we were ready to try something new. It’s a bit remote and rustic in its location, but that’s definitely part of the charm. I slept like a rock the first night, nothing but the silence of the country and the brilliance of the unpolluted night sky lulling me into a deep slumber. We spent our first day trekking through the Tenereze, visiting two old friends before checking out one new lead towards the end of the evening.
We started the morning at Ladeveze, hitting the old barn with the domaine owner himself Jean Ladeveze for some barrel tasting. Many producers in the Tenereze distill brandies from multiple varieties like Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche, but Jean also uses a rarely seen grape called Plaint de Grasse, which we’ve bottled for K&L in the past. He was on top of his game and we tasted a few potential vintages that might make the cut. I like Ladeveze because the Armagnacs are atypical for what one normally finds in the general market. They are the exception rather than the norm and we always have customers on the hunt for something different.
Château Pellehaut is one of our most popular selections and over the years has become our top-selling Armagnac, especially the young Age de Glace expression meant for the American cocktail market. Many of their older editions were doubled distilled from Ugni Blanc, making them much finer and more Cognac-like in their flavor. The younger brandies are made primarily from Folle Blanche and have much more spice. Unlike Ladeveze, Pellehaut operates as a fully-functioning winery as well as distillery and they have a dedicated staff on site to greet visitors and tourists to the region. If you're considering a trip to Armagnac, I would put Pellehaut at the top of that list. The Armagnacs are well-priced, high in quality, and easy to like with Bourbon-esque flavors that cater to whiskey lovers as well.
Château le Courrejot was a new arrival on the Tenereze itinerary and we spent the evening wandering through the darkness of the countryside and into the chai of Patrique who guided us through a number of fantastic vintage expressions straight from the cask. Many of them had the bold oak flavor of a great Kentucky Bourbon, but with a bit more fruit and finesse. Like Pellehaut, his older editions are 100% Ugni Blanc and have the soft fruit texture of a Cognac, but with more oak. He told us clearly from the beginning: "I make Armagnac for my own taste." Patrique has little interest in the bolder, brut de fût style, choosing to bottle all his brandies at 42% ABV. They were more haunting and nuanced in their style, completely different than the assertive character of Ladeveze and the spice-driven flavor of Pellehaut.
There's a great deal of diversity in Armagnac, even just within the Tenereze. We're just scratching the surface.