This spirit is arguably the oldest in France. It was first distilled in the early to mid 15th century.
The growing and production area is situated in the area south of Bordeaux, in western France and has a long viticultural history stretching back to the Romans.
The name Armagnac appears in the 10th century as a geographical area and production and sales of this liquor had progressed both in the immediate French market but also with the very important Dutch and English too. In fact by the 15th century the distillation of this spirit was so technically advanced due to the connections that the Armagnac area had at the time with the University of Montpellier and its Arabic science, mention is made of the “still” production of a spirit or “eau de vie” which as we know means water of life.
This definition is, or would be in those days be used to refer to a product suitable for medicinal use.
Then in the 16th century the Dutch really began to exploit the speciality of Armagnac ,by sailing to the port of Bayonne and the Eau de Vie d’Armagnac as it was then known became simply Armagnac. By the turn of the 17th century the largely rural industry had become more integrated and the transport and sale of Armagnac grew steadily, however this brought its own problems …. that of supply! So to the rescue came the invention of the Armagnac continuous still, because previously the small cognac stills used proved very unreliable with the distillation of wines produced on heavy clay like or sandy soils.
The other feature about cognac stills are that they were extremely expensive to buy and commission at that time. By 1819 these new stills were being produced and after a few years were perfected by a person called Verdier who was able to produce spirit which retained more of the essential elements in the wine than previously had been able. This new still provided the Armagnac producers with a brandy of such raw quality it was capable of producing a more complex spirit than that of cognac.
Another development that was significant at that time , was the route to market was made easier by the building of a canal to Bordeaux from Tenareze. This allowed cheaper, quicker transportation to the important wine city of Bordeaux where this Special product could flourish.
Well, that`s enough of the history for the time being, let us now have a look at the growing area. The soil is generally sandy with a clay like rubble that is layered ,this is a legacy of its geological formation as the area is between the Massif Central mountain range and the Pyrenees, and when it was formed the ebb and flow of the sea ensured a never ending changing landscape and strata.
Part of this region is known as the “Bas Armagnac” and part “the Tenareze” and is dominated by the towns of Condom and Nerac, the river Baise runs through the heart of the area. To the north, east and south of above area the larger growing region of “Haut- Armagnac” exists, the major cities include Auch and Agen.
The grapes grown are;
The Folle Blanche ( sometimes known as the “Picpoult” or “Picpoule” )
The Baco ( This is a hybrid of the Folle Blanche and the Noah grapes)
The method of production is basic and as with Cognac it uses natural yeasts, sugars, sulphur dioxide and other small additives to produce the raw product suitable for distillation. However the difference here in Armagnac is the use the continuous still which is forbidden in Cognac
Firstly the wine is heated in a cylinder by pipes containing the very hot alcoholic vapours from the still. The wine then flows over several plates and in doing so clashes with the alcohol vapours in the upper half of the still as it rises due to it becoming hotter, this in turn absorbs some of the qualities of the wine. The vapour then condenses becoming a spirit and is collected in a cask at the end of the process.
Secondly the maturation of the spirit or brandy as it now is takes place ,it is put into wood casks for varying amounts of time, according to that year’s production and quality and as with other wines ,spirits exceptional years or vintages are declared.
Today Armagnac has established itself as a unique drink offering and stands proud along side its neighbours in Cognac and with such producers as Janneau, Sempe, de Maillac and the famous Le Roy des Armagnac it deserves its place in distilling history.