Proof Positive: The Book on Brandy

Learn what makes Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados so coveted.




Merchants, brokers and shippers in 16th century Holland described France's growing number of distilled wines as brandewijns, or literally "burnt wines," later altered by the English to "brandy." The Dutch businessmen situated in the commercial centers of Amsterdam and Rotterdam named the potent grape- and apple-based libations based on the way they were (and still are) made: via a manmade purification process (distillation) that literally boils (or, burns, you could say) fermented fruit juices (wines) in metal kettles, known as stills, until the vapors condense into "spirits" that are clear as rainwater. The spirits reach high levels of biochemical purity and alcoholic content through this process. Brandies, then, are the quintessence of the wines from which they are produced.

Many other wine-producing countries have made brandy in the last half millennium, but since the mid-1600s, no nation has provided more world-class brandy than France. Of the dozen prime beverage alcohol Appellation d'Origine Controlée regions defined by the French government's Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), three—Calvados in Normandy, Armagnac in Gascony and Cognac in the Charente-Maritime—specialize in brandy. Cognac and Armagnac are grape brandies, while Calvados is comprised of apples and sometimes pears.

Today, there remains considerable confusion as to what exactly Armagnac, Calvados and Cognac are and likewise as to their places of origin. An often confused fact is that all Cognac is brandy but not all brandies from around the globe are Cognac. To be labeled "Cognac" it must be a product of the Cognac region. 

Another point of confusion is whether Armagnac is a type of Cognac. Armagnac is a unique category of grape-based distillate that comes from a distinct location, as does Cognac. They are both French in origin, but there the similarities end.

Let's forge ahead and discuss what makes these three superb brandies from France so singular, sought-after and luscious.


 

What makes Cognac Cognac
Cognac, the most internationally famous and successful of France's brandy trio, is the double-distilled brandy made from grapes that originate in the west-central region known as Charente-Maritime. Remarkably, 90% of the region's 25,000 farms grow grapes. Brandy

production, at some level of grape growing, distillery work, glass production, packaging and barrel making, puts money into the pockets of 40,000 Cognaçais. Global sales of Cognac in over 160 nations is what keeps these people busy.

The French government has demarcated six grape-growing areas that fan out in irregular concentric circles from the core cities of Cognac,
 
Cognac is produced in the west-central region of Charente-Maritime.
Jarnac and Segonzac with a total of nearly 197,600 acres under vine. The bulls-eye district is Grande Champagne, whose friable, chalky soils produce grapes, which when fermented and distilled, turn into long-lived brandies of great distinction. Cradling Grande Champagne are the larger Petite Champagne district and the compact Borderies district. Both are renowned for their outstanding, deeply flavorful brandies, with Petite Champagne being the more fruit-driven of the two and Borderies typically featuring lovely walnut-like qualities.

Encircling Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Borderies is Fins Bois, a vast area of limestone soils. Around Fins Bois lies the even bigger Bons Bois. Lastly is Bois à Terroir, which sits at ocean's edge on the Atlantic.

One of the distinctions of Cognac is the use of a copper pot still called the Charentais. French law dictates that Charentais stills may not hold more than 690 gallons. Small pot stills like these distill spirits of high quality and individuality. The Cognaçais distill twice to achieve the cleanest spirits. As decreed by law, it is never distilled at higher than 72% alcohol: the lower the alcohol, the more character left behind.  The French government's tightly controlled production laws also state that distillation of any fall grape harvest must be completed by March 31 of the succeeding year.

Once the fresh spirits (referred to as eau-de-vie) are drawn off the pot still, they are placed in French oak barrels, Limousin and Tronçais, that hold from 75 to 125 gallons for maturation. Many of Cognac's cellars are subterranean and are, therefore, humid, dark and steady in temperature. A critical element in the gradual development of the eau-de-vie into Cognac is the interaction of the raw spirit and the oils, acids and chemical compounds of the wood, under ideal conditions. By law, the eau-de-vie must age in barrels for a two-year minimum. Of course, during maturation there is evaporation of the alcohol. In Cognac, evaporation consumes at least 20 million barrels per year.

Cognac is the most refined and consistent of France's three brandy varieties, in part, because of the industry's faithful adherence to the craft of blending. By combining different brandies, the Cognaçais claim that they are able to accentuate the virtues of the many into a reliable product of superb quality. Millions of consumers across the globe wouldn't argue that point.


 

What makes Armagnac Armagnac
Whereas the Cognaçais reach for consistency and elegance, the Armagnaçais aspire to surprise, challenge and delight consumers through big flavors and idiosyncrasy. Some consumers say they prefer Cognac to Armagnac because of these philosophical differences (steadfastness versus precociousness) while others rave about the sensory adventure that Armagnac inherently brings.

 

 Gascony, in the southwest, is home to Armagnac.

Armagnac is the brandy of France's bucolic southwest region known as Gascony, home to the Musketeers, foie gras, and green, rolling hills. Like Cognac, Armagnac is distilled grape wine aged in oak barrels. Armagnac boasts three brandy districts. Bas-Armagnac,  whose capital is Eauze, contributes 57% of all brandy production in Gascony from its sandy/silty soils. Bas-Armagnacs are delicate, elegant and fruity. Tenarèze, whose commercial center is the town of Condom, accounts for 40% of production and is noted for its clay/limestone soils which are responsible for robust, long-lived brandies. Last is Haut-Armagnac, representing a mere three percent of production. In 2007 these three areas total only 37,050 acres of vineyard land.

Distillation in Armagnac occurs mostly in November and December of the harvest year. Unlike the techniques employed in Cognac, the Armagnaçais opt to use more efficient column stills that run continuously in a single distillation process for 95% of their brandies. The remainder is distilled in smaller pot stills. The single distillation method automatically means that the brandies of Armagnac are stouter in nature than those made in Cognac because less of the natural chemical compounds have been stripped away.

Interestingly, only a handful of Gascon Armagnac producers distill their own brandy. They prefer instead to employ roving distillers who have column stills mounted on wheeled platforms. These roving distillers move from farm to farm distilling each grower's wines. Maturation happens in black oak in Armagnac for a legal minimum of two years. Armagnac also specializes in vintage releases, meaning bottlings produced from the grapes of one particular harvest. These brandies especially showcase the peculiarities and virtues of individual vintage years in ways blended brandies can never do.

While the overwhelming majority of Cognac is exported around the world, most annual production of Armagnac (65%) remains within France. The other 35% is exported to over 130 nations. If one truth can sum up the Cognac-Armagnac rivalry, it would be this: The breadth of Armagnac's list of characteristics is broader and deeper than that of Cognac. When Armagnac is in top form, it is as exciting and compelling as any of the world's foremost aged spirits. The key lies in identifying those Armagnacs that are at their peak.

 
What makes Calvados Calvados
Calvados is the world's finest apple and pear brandy. It comes from France's northwest corner in Normandy, which has the perfect climate, precipitation, soil types and topography for fruit orchards. Calvados is defined as a distilled spirit made either from Cider apples or a marriage of Cider apples and Perry pears. Calvados production dates back to the 16th century when the Normans started boiling their apple ciders in pot stills to produce spirits. After harvesting in the autumn, apples are pressed and the juice is fermented into cider. The cider is then distilled and the resultant clear spirits are placed in oak barrels ranging in size from 50 to 105 gallons or in huge vats that can hold up to 1,500 gallons.

The Calvados region is demarcated into three brandy-making districts. The largest is designated as Calvados, in which the brandies are
 
Calvados hails from the northwest corner region of Charente-Maritime.
created out of apple cider in column stills from one distillation. The apple brandies labeled under this classification are generally good, but lacking in distinction.

Brandies from the hallowed Calvados Pays d'Auge district, on the other hand, are to Calvados what Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Borderies brandies are to Cognac—the best of the best. These frequently exquisite and delicate brandies are double distilled in copper pot stills and consequently, offer far more depth of character and the chance of long life than those labeled only as Calvados. Minimum aging in oak barrels or vats is two years in these two districts. Calvados Pays d'Auge brandies are for serious aficionados.

The third district is Domfrontais, an official designation that was created only a decade ago. As opposed to Calvados and Calvados Pays d'Auge, at least 30% of the juice must come from pears. The combination of apple and pear makes these brandies more concentrated and fruity than those from the apple-dominant districts. Minimum maturation in oak for Domfrontais is three years.

Calvados is often overlooked for its wonderful application in cooking and baking as well as a sophisticated palate cleanser between courses of a meal. Calvados also makes a lovely addition to mixed drinks like the Jack Rose, the Apple Martini and the Normandy Cooler.


 

Last but not least…
What's so attractive to wine consumers about French brandies is their undeniable relationship to the terroir that produced them. Each one is an authentic libation of place, one that enhances a fully rounded and varied lifestyle of food, wine and spirits. Armagnac, Calvados and Cognac…what's not to love?



 

Contemporary French Brandy Benchmarks
The following is a roster of 10 representative bottlings from each of France's esteemed brandy districts that lean towards the cutting-edge. These 30 landmark brandies make the irrefutable case that France produces more sensational, top-drawer brandy than any other country.
10 Armagnacs
That You Should Know About

CLASSIC (96-100)/HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION
Château de Busca Hors d'Age 15 Ans Tenarèze-Armagnac; 40%, $99.
Delord 25-Year-Old Bas-Armagnac; 40%, $95.
Francis Darroze 1976 Domaine de Dupont Bas-Armagnac; 46.5%, $112.

SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Castarède 1974 Gers Armagnac; 40%, $84.
Château de Briat 1986 Bas-Armagnac; 46%, $110.
Dartigalongue 1974 30-Year-Old Bas-Armagnac "Celebration Collection"; 43%, $140.
Domaine d'Espérance 1990 Vintage Bas-Armagnac; 43%, $75.
Domaine de Laubade XO Bas-Armagnac; 40%, $52.
Gélas 20-Year-Old Bas-Armagnac; 40%, $75.
Marie Duffau Hors d'Age Bas-Armagnac; 40%, $60.
10 Calvados
That You Should Know About

CLASSIC (96-100)/ HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION
Boulard Millésimés 1977 Calvados Pays d'Auge; 43%, $100.
Château du Breuil 15-Year-Old Calvados; 41%, $50.
Coeur de Lion 1963 Calvados Pays d'Auge; 42%, $310.

SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Apreval XO Calvados Pays d'Auge; 42%, $125.
Busnel Hors d'Age 12-Year-Old Calvados Pays d'Auge; 40%, $50.
Comte Louis de Lauriston 40-Year-Old Domfrontais Calvados; 42%, $300.
Lecompte 5-Year-Old Calvados Pays d'Auge; 40%, $30.
Lemorton 10-Year-Old Domfrontais Calvados; 40%, $55.
Père Magliore XO Calvados Pays d'Auge; 40%, $70.
Roger Groult Age d'Or 30-year-Old Calvados Pays d'Auge;  41%, $126.
10 Cognacs
That You Should Know About

CLASSIC (96-100)/ HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION

A Hardy Noces de Diamant 60-Year-Old Grande Champagne;  40%, $500.
Cognac Tesseron Perfection Lot No. 53 XO Grande Champagne;   40%, $150.
Frapin XO VIP Grande Champagne; 40%, $160.
Jean Fillioux Trés Vieux Grande Champagne Cognac; 40%, $90.
Pionneau 1969 Cask Strength Cognac; 56.4%, $1,200.

SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Cognac Leyrat XO Elite Domaine de Chez Maillard; 41%, $170.
Daniel Bouju Fines Saveurs Grande Champagne Cognac;  40%, $40.
Le Réviseur VSOP Fine Petite Champagne Cognac; 40%, $38.
Lheraud XO Petite Champagne Cognac; 44%, $200.
Raymond Dudognon Vieille Réserve Grande Fine Champagne Cognac; 40%, $70.
—F. Paul Pacult
Understanding French Brandy Labels and Classifications
Different legal classifications for Armagnac, Calvados and Cognacs are defined by age and the amount of time that brandies have spent maturing in oak barrels. Though consumer fascination with pricier vintage and single-barrel bottlings is growing, the overwhelming majority of all three types of French brandy are blended for VS (Very Special), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) and XO (Extra Old) varieties. Here are the breakdowns:

Armagnac VS: 2-year minimum in barrels
Armagnac VSOP: 5-year minimum
Armagnac XO: 6-year minimum
Armagnac Hors d'Age: 10-year minimum
Armagnac Vintage: Grapes must all come from the harvest year displayed on the label.

Calvados Fine/Three Stars: 2-year minimum in barrels
Calvados Vieux/Réserve: 3-year minimum
Calvados VO/Vieille Réserve/VSOP: 4-year minimum
Calvados Extra/XO/Napoleon/Hors d'Age/Age Inconnu: 6-year minimum

Cognac VS/Three Stars: 2-year minimum in barrels
Cognac VSOP: 4-year minimum
Cognac XO/Hors d'Age/Napoleon/Extra: 6-year minimum
Cognac Vintage: Grapes must all come from the harvest year displayed on the label.
—F. Paul Pacult







 

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