ARMAGNAC AND WOOD-FINISHED SPIRITS



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This month we examine a bevy of sublime brandies from France's Armagnac district. The fabled Armagnac area is located in Gascony in the southwest of France. Gascony, which abuts Spain and the Pyrenees to the south, is a temperate region whose menu of delights includes foie gras, lovely red and white table wines, and rich local cuisine.

Part of what separates Armagnac's brandies from those of rival Cognac is the state of the locale's base wines. Whereas Cognac's wines are typically thin, acidic, and rarely employed as table wine, Armagnac's are generous and perfectly suitable as still wines served with lunch or dinner. The Cognaçais go to great lengths to assure anyone who will listen that their wines are meant to be watery and bitter because, the reasoning goes, those types of wines produce far better brandies. The Armagnaçais, on the other hand, believe that the quality and character depth of the base wine does contribute mightily to the making of brandy. Who is right? Both. The skimpy, astringent wines fermented in Cognac provide exactly what the Cognaçais require for distillation, as do the heartier wines of Armagnac for Gascony's distillers. Consumers have two distinct grape-based, oak-matured spirits that have dazzled imbibers for centuries.

This Spirits Buying Guide also cites several recently released single malt Scotch whiskies from big-name distilleries. Of particular note is the latest wood-finished offering from the talented distillers and blenders at Glenmorangie. The Glenmorangie wood-finish program has been the model for other such projects that have featured whiskies being transferred in the final stages of aging to exotic types of formerly used oak barrels. The idea is to add a different twist to a familiar theme. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. Read on and you'll see what I mean.

—F. Paul Pacult

 

ARMAGNAC

CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation

Domaine Boingneres 1977 Bacco Armagnac (France; Charles Neal Selections, San Francisco, CA); 48% abv, $138. The opening nosing passes pick up melded aromas of tropical fruit, light toffee and sautéed butter. It's downright succulent in the mouth; the midpalate stage brims with nutty and fruity tastes underpinned by oaky/cheesy rancio. The finish is long, fat, toffee-like, nougaty and tarry.

Domaine Du Miquer 1977 Bas Armagnac (France; Charles Neal Selections, San Francisco, CA); 45% abv, $120. Expansive aroma offers scents of dried fruit, old parchment and black pepper; with aeration concentrated fragrances of dried yellow fruit, roasted chestnuts, and bacon fat surface. At palate entry the bitter lead pencil flavor grabs the taste buds; midpalate the flavor detonates on the tongue in the forms of old oak, rancio, soft cheese, almond butter and bacon fat. Aftertaste is only medium-long, but full of rancio and resiny oak flavors. An Armagnac clinic and a rancio banquet.

Domaine Grassa Reserve Bas Armagnac (France; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $28. Curious opening aromas emit scents of marshmallow and cheesecake; after aeration the bouquet takes on a toffee/caramel personality with hints of ripe grapes, walnuts and red plums — not your run-of-the-mill Armagnac aroma. At palate entry huge flavors of rancio, oak resin, blue cheese, grape preserves and dark caramel explode. Aftertaste is long, lush, satiny and honey-sweet. One of the greatest brandies I've ever sampled. Best Buy.

SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended

Dartigalongue Hors d'Age Bas Armagnac (France; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $42. The bouquet is grapey/appley, even a touch peppery; after several minutes the aroma turns mildly buttery with a hint of old oak. Palate entry is buttery/creamy and viscous. The aftertaste is fruity, mildly sweet and delicious. Best Buy.

Dartigalongue XO Bas Armagnac (France; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $32. The resiny aroma is alive with scents of marzipan, paraffin, and pineapple; aeration releases further fragrances of coconut and palm oil. A dry, almost smoky entry flavor.makes the mouth pucker. The finish is medium-long, poised, vanilla-like and honeyed. A confident, multilayered brandy. Best Buy.

Domaine Boingneres 1980 Cépages Nobles Armagnac (France; Charles Neal Selections, San Francisco, CA); 49% abv, $105. The bouquet leaps from the glass in heady waves of marzipan, nougat, baked pear and woody resin; the aroma markedly calms with exposure to air. It starts dry and oaky at palate entry, then turns on the afterburners at midpalate, offering chunky flavors of oak, ripe grapes, baked pears, dark toffee and honey. Aftertaste is enchanting, caramel-like, sweet but with plenty of acid.

Domaine Boingneres 1984 Folle Blanche Armagnac (France; Charles Neal Selections, San Francisco, CA); 48% abv, $115. The bouquet is inviting, assertive, intensely nutty and seductively honeyed; air contact allows savory fragrances of paraffin, walnut, blue cheese and dried red fruit to waft up. At palate entry, succulent, fruity, mature flavors; midpalate features almond butter, roasted chestnuts, dark caramel, oaky rancio and deep honey. The aftertaste is long, fat and sweet. Perfectly depicts the multilayered side of Armagnac.

Domaine Grassa XO Bas Armagnac (France; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $65. Initial nosing passes pick up defined fragrances of nougat and roasted chestnuts; air contact unleashes aromas of hard cheese and oak resin—an aggressive but pleasing bouquet. The ferocity continues at palate entry as tastes of almond butter, nougat, sautéed nuts, oily oak and caramel overtake the taste buds; midpalate sees the flavor phase settle down only minimally as the nut and oil tastes take command. Finish is long, oily, buttery and resiny.

Samalens Réserve Impériale XO Bas Armagnac (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $87. Opening nosing passes offer exotic aromas of coconut, light caramel, tropical fruits and apple; time in the glass sees the bouquet turn slightly peppery and spicy. In the mouth the sweet, caramelly flavor is irresistible; midpalate offers deeply creamy/oily tastes of dairy butter, nut oil, sautéed almonds and cake frosting. Finish is long, sweet, succulent, and caramel-like.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended

Domaine Boingneres 1973 Cépages Nobles Armagnac (France; Charles Neal Selections, San Francisco, CA); 48% abv, $156. Initial nosing passes unearth an unusual scent of black pepper, then that is replaced by a distant fruity aroma. The palate entry is treated to a concentrated butter taste that zaps the taste buds into instant submission; the midpalate stage features oily tastes of almond butter, creamery butter and bacon. The finish is long, dry, almost bitter and brimming with heavy, old oak flavor.

Domaine Grassa VSOP Bas Armagnac (France; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $35. The intriguing opening nosings detect viny/foresty aromas; after five minutes soft traces of new oak, vanilla and heady spirit are revealed—the bouquet of an immature, slightly awkward Armagnac. Fat tastes of sweet oak, honey and brown sugar highlight the palate entry; midpalate features concentrated grape jam and toffee tastes. The aftertaste is long and sappy sweet.

 

ACCEPTABLE (80-84)

Domaine Grassa 1975 Bas Armagnac (France; CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 47% abv, $110. The assertive bouquet is rich and fruity, then the aroma strangely turns flat and acidic; further air contact mutes the aroma even more; after about nine minutes, the bouquet bounces back in waves of oak and toffee—weird, man. In the mouth, it exhibits gorgeous flavors of caramel, nougat, resiny oak, bittersweet chocolate and toffee; the aftertaste is long, intensely toffee-like and a touch bitter.

French Eau-de-Vie

SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended

Distillerie Paul Devoille Eau-de-Vie de Poire William (France; Victoire Imports, San Leandro, CA); 45% abv, $15/375ml. The initial nosing passes reveal aromas of ripe, juicy pear; aeration stimulates the spirit as there's more of a spirity base on which the fruit perfume can develop—a comely, sturdy bouquet. In the mouth the pear flavor is dry and acidic at entry, then turns succulent, ripe and juicy sweet at midpalate. The aftertaste is beautifully textured, extended, ripe and assertively fruity.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended

Distillerie Paul Devoille Eau-de-Vie de Cerise (France; Victoire Imports, San Leandro, CA); 45% abv, $15/375ml. The opening whiffs pick up very aggressive and pronounced cherry pit and cherry preserves aromas; the aroma remains solid, and intensely spirity as the dry cherry perfume stays the course. In the mouth the power-packed spirit makes the tongue tingle at entry; the midpalate phase is alive with off-dry, ripe cherry flavor. Aftertaste is intense, long and true.

Scotch Whisky

CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation

Glenmorangie Cote de Nuits Wood Finish Northern Highlands Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Brown-Forman Beverages Worldwide, Louisville, KY); 43% abv, $300. Opening aromas are biscuity, wine-like and fatty; after several minutes the stunning bouquet offers scents of black raisins, burnt match and linseed oil. At palate entry tastes of wine, oaky resin, roasted almonds, dried fruit and malt blanket the taste buds; at midpalate a flash of dark caramel-hard cheese-vanilla extract rancio elevates the flavor experience to the divine nectar category. Aftertaste is creamy, nutty and oily.

SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended

Bowmore 1968 32 Year Old Islay Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; White Rock Distilleries, Lewiston, ME); 45.5% abv, $300. The initial nosing passes detect sweet aromas of ripe green apples, coconut oil and background peat reek; time in the glass stimulates subtle scents of old Bourbon casks, wet hay and popcorn-a low-key, understated Islay bouquet. The palate entry is malty and sweet.

Glenlivet 1967 Cellar Collection-Speyside Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Seagram Americas, New York, NY); 46% abv, $199. Lovely amber/light topaz hue. The aroma after the pour brims with inviting scents of butterscotch, nougat and oaky resin. The palate entry is surprisingly sweet; at midpalate the texture turns silky and full and the flavors become caramel sweet. The finish lingers and is semisweet with a dash of acidic/resiny bitterness and heat in the tail end.

ACCEPTABLE (80-84)

Balvenie 17 Year Old Islay Cask Speyside Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; William Grant & Sons, New York, NY); 43% abv, $60. There's no doubting the briny/iodine Islay nose and the gently sweet Speyside underpinning; aeration sees the Islay reek blow off, leaving the sturdy, sweetly oaky and malty Balvenie signature in charge. On entry, the Islay peatiness and the Speyside creaminess collide; at midpalate the medicinal Islay influence overshadows the Speyside elegance as the flavors turn sweet yet peaty. The finish is a mishmash of conflicting flavors. A noble effort but ultimately disappointing.

U.S. Whiskey

CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation

Distillers' Masterpiece 20 Year Old Port Cask Finished Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (USA; Jim Beam Brands, Deerfield, IL); 43% abv, $300. The initial aromas are intensely nutty and floral; with exposure to air the aroma expands to include rounded scents of mint, oak char and Port. At entry, the taste is off-dry and enchantingly nutty, even nougaty; midpalate the flavor soars as succulent tastes of charred oak, tobacco leaf, minerals and apple butter keep the taste buds satisfied. The finish is long, ripe, and grainy sweet. Outstanding.

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