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Armagnac: a French craft spirit

Armagnac: A French craft spirit

Florence Castarede is the sixth generation at Armagnac Castarede, founded in 1832 and the oldest house of Armagnac. Brews&Spirits caught up with her at The Vault Biennale:

Florence, could you first define for us what is Armagnac?

Armagnac is in the same category as Cognac, because it’s the only spirit that comes from the distillation of wine – white wine to be precise. There are, however, important differences between the two appellations.

The major difference is the distillation: the double distillation in Cognac and the single continuous distillation in the case of Armagnac.

In Armagnac, we use four cepages (grape varieties): Ugni Blanc, Baco 22A, Colombard and Folle Blanche. In the case of Cognac, 98% of the cepage is Ugni Blanc.

There are differences also in soil, climate and region. Cognac is north of Bordeaux, and Armagnac is located south-west of Bordeaux. The origin of the wood for the ageing is also different between Armagnac and Cognac regions.

Cognac has a number of crus (growth areas): Grand Champagne, Petit Champagne, etc. What are the equivalent crus in Armagnac?

In Armagnac we have Bas Armagnac, Tenarèze and Haut-Armagnac. Normally for the connoisseurs, the best region is the Bas Armagnac. But for me the most important is to promote the overall appellation Armagnac, which is not well known around the world.

When people discover the taste and all the parfums of the taste of Armagnac, they will really enjoy it. Armagnac also belongs to families and small properties.

Regarding my family, I’m the sixth generation and we are the oldest family house of Armagnac in France, since 1832.

What expressions of Armagnac do you have?

During The Vault Biennale we promoted the XO. The rules of the XO for Cognac and Armagnac have changed over the last year. The minimum maturation is of 10 years in wooden oak casks.

But my XO Armagnac Castarède  is aged  a minimum of 20 years. In fact, the average age of the eau de vie is 25 years old. That’s why it is very aromatic and well balanced with not too much wood.

The nose offers intensity, elegance and complexity. The palate is fruity, suave and well balanced. Good length and persistence. The finish is aerial and powerful. So, I hope in the future we promote other expressions; but we are starting with the XO.

Cognac has a number of global brands such as Remy, Hennessy, Martell, etc. We haven’t seen any global brands of Armagnac emerge.

Unfortunately, Armagnac brands belong to small family businesses and we are not big operators like in the Cognac market. About 80% of the Cognac market belongs to the big four families.

Other producers are like us: small companies, mostly family owned. There are no big companies in Armagnac that have the money to promote the appellation.

What kind of casks do you use?

Similar to Cognac, we age the eau de vie of wine in wooden oak barrels for maturation. In the Armagnac AOC, the size of the barrels is normally 400 litres.  In Cognac it is 200 litres.

Personally, we are using oak only from the south-west of France, from the Gascony region.

Can you explain the concept of the Cellar Master?

In Armagnac, like in Cognac, the most important function is the Master of the Cellar. In the whisky business they have Master of the Blend that is completely different.

When we visited the cellars in Scotland a few years ago, we discovered that no one is working on the Cellar! In Armagnac and Cognac, our Cellar Masters are working hard.

How would you recommend drinking Armagnac?

In India, I know that your habit is to drink before dinner. My recommendation is to drink it before dinner. You might like to add ice, or to even put the bottle in the fridge.

A good accompaniment of Armagnac is also with cigars. I know a lot of people in India like cigars, so that works well. In India people go to sleep after dinner, not like in France. But of course, it can also work like a digestif.

So, my recommendation is to taste Armagnac before dinner and during dinner also, because it can be a good opportunity to blend the spicy food and the spirits.

(The Vault Fine Spirits is the official importer for Armagnac Castarede in India).