This month, we focus our attention on the pleasures of grape-based brandies from around the world. To the surprise of many consumers, France's oldest brandy isn't Cognac. Armagnac, the rustic, sometimes spectacular brandy of Gascony, owns that distinction. Indeed, winemakers from Gascony in France's balmy southwest corner were distilling their wines into Armagnac by the start of the Renaissance, in the 1400s. That's two centuries before the Cognaçais began producing their own regional brandy. Yet today, global sales of Cognac dwarf those of Armagnac.
The reasons for Cognac's overwhelming dominance over Armagnac read like the answers to a multiple-choice quiz: a) Though they started later, the Cognaçais have proven to be better, savvier, more aggressive international marketers; b) Much more Cognac is produced (10 to 1), so the sheer production numbers tip the scale toward Cognac. In fact, thousands of acres of Gascony vineyards formerly devoted to Armagnac have been planted over to table wine grapes such as Merlot and Chardonnay; c) The Armagnaçais distillers don't like each other. They cannot put up a united front even for the mutually beneficial cause of international promotion; d) All of the above. Unfortunately, the last choice is the correct answer.
Things have gotten so Rodney Dangerfield-ish of late for Armagnac that even the highly touted Encarta World English Dictionary, published by St. Martin's Press and Microsoft, doesn't include the word Armagnac while Cognac and even Calvados (France's great apple brandy) appear. This stellar, ancient brandy category stands the chance of disappearing by the end of the 21st century if drastic, positive steps of cooperation aren't taken immediately by the Armagnac distilling community. In the meantime, here are a few wonderful Armagnacs to stock up on if the worst happens.
France's illustrious apple-based brandies from Normandy, Calvados, are some of the most sublime brandies in the world. Calvados production was first recorded in 1563. Calvados, one of three officially demarcated (Appellation d'Origin Controlée) brandy regions in France along with Cognac and Armagnac, has been commercially produced in Normandy since the 17th century. The flagship district is Pays d'Auge, a locale equally famous for its thoroughbred horses. Calvados is distilled twice and aged in small 55-60 gallon oak barrels. Calvados has a multitude of uses, from being part of everyday cooking and baking to making marinades. It is also served chilled as a splendid palate cleanser between courses, and is enjoyed as a room temperature digestif as would any fine brandy.
Finally, no survey of brandy would be complete without brief visits to Italy and the United States. Cheers.
—F. Paul Pacult
CLASSIC (96-100) Highest Recommendation
A.B. Pollentes 1965 Coeur de Terre Bas Armagnac, Cask Strength/Unfiltered (France; VOS Selections, New York, NY); 47% abv, $125. The aroma jumps from the glass upon pouring, emitting a delightful woody/resiny perfume. Following eight minutes of air contact, the nosing adds scents of paraffin, lead pencil, prunes and spice. This complex and savory bouquet doesn't show a trace of slowing down, even at age 30. The palate explodes with dark caramel, toffee, chocolate covered cherries, candied walnuts, prunes and oak resin (that approaches being rancio-like). The aftertaste is luxuriously long, oaky sweet, and intensely nut-like.
Domaine Boingneres 1985 Folle Blanche Bas Armagnac (France; Charles Neal Selections, Oakland, CA); 49% abv, $105. At opening, the bouquet is very piquant, almost prickly; after a few minutes, what's left behind is a serious oaky/resiny aroma, plus bacon fat and seared meat; this pepper steak bouquet is an aficionado's delight. Intense richness of ripe grapes, raisins, concentrated oakiness, and lip-smacking bacon fat is immediately apparent at palate. This has one of the best Armagnac palate entries that I've yet encountered. At midpalate, mature, melded flavors of old wood, paraffin, smoked meats and dried fruit totally charm the taste buds. Aftertaste is long, austere, ashy, woody, and warming. Fantastically complex and satisfying.
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
A.B. Pollentes Hors d'Age Bas Armagnac (France; VOS Selections, New York, NY); 40% abv, $55. Bright, pure amber/honey-tinted appearance. The opening nosing reveals a firmly structured bouquet that features caramel-like traces of hard candy and nougat; milk chocolate and coffee bean notes get added to the complex aromatic dynamics. This is a beguilingly harmonious and multilayered bouquet that fills the nasal cavity with sweet scents of caramel and old oak. In the mouth, it begins sublimely sweet and toasty, but not in the least cloying or syrupy. The aftertaste is long, silky, candy sweet and just a touch resiny. Nothing subtle or namby-pamby about this big-hearted Armagnac. Best Buy.
A.B. Pollentes 1973 Epices Bas Armagnac, Cask Strength/Unfiltered (France; VOS Selections, New York, NY); 48.4% abv, $100. After three minutes of aeration, the first stirrings of aroma are found; following seven minutes, the aroma develops scents of black pepper, allspice, licorice, mild caramel and almonds. Supremely luscious right from the palate entry as succulent, bittersweet tastes of toffee, toasted almond and apple butter greet the taste buds; the midpalate is even more glorious as toasty flavors of ripe grapes, buttery oak and light caramel are not overshadowed by the cask-strength alcohol (48.4%). The finish is a wonderful display of alcohol supporting inherent fruit and wood flavors.
Chateau de Briat 1979 Bas Armagnac (France; Charles Neal Selections, Oakland, CA); 46% abv, $115. Deep copper/burnished orange color. The zesty opening aroma is laden with oaky notes as well as mature spirit. With time in the glass, handsome aromas of citrus rind, grape must and wood resin combine to create a formidable fragrance. As much as I admire the bouquet, I like the sweet, focused palate entry even more; by midpalate, the flavor blossoms into multiple layers of wood, ripe fruit, resin and spice. The aftertaste is medium-long, resiny sweet, and, at the very end, a bit candied in a butterscotch way.