Omissions on Armagnac

Two readers have kindly commented on my Armagnac post with information about differences between the production of Armagnac and that of Cognac.  My wine writing colleague Rick van Sickle noted that unlike Armagnac, Cognac is double distilled.    Bruce Heinmiller wrote “Cognac is almost exclusively made from ugni blanc, whereas armagnac includes folle blanche, bacco, and columbard. Indeed, many armagnacs are made exclusively from one of these other grapes. Perhaps they prefer the sandy soils of bas Armagnac (Armagnac’s best region) as opposed to the chalky soils of cognac. The distillation methods between the two brandies are also, in general, quite different. Cognac is double distilled in a pot still (similar to the distillation method used in calvados), whereas almost all armagnac is single distilled in a column still, and to a lower degree alcohol (perhaps up to 55%, rather than over 70% in the case of cognac). Cognac is then generally reduced with water to 40%, as is much of the industrial armagnac production; however, traditional armagnac is often not reduced, other than by the natural losses through the oak barrels with extended aging, and often is released in the range 43% to 48%. I think the column distillation (and distillation to a lower degree) has one of the more pronounced effects in differentiating armagnac from cognac.”

Thanks, fellows.  Hey, I think I’m starting to like this “blogosphere” thing!

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Fifty-Plus-Year-Old Armagnac

Armagnac is the unsung hero of French brown spirits.  The brandy is named for its region of production adjacent to big brother Cognac in southwestern France.  Both products are made from roughly the same grape mix, harvested early to preserve acidity, distilled in pot stills and aged in wide-grained Limousin oak.  The differences between them reflect the slightly different soils and climatic variations of the zones and, perhaps most of all, the philosophy of those who make and age these products.

Armagnac tends to look a little different than Cognac with black notes to the colour.  On the nose its telltale characteristics are prune fruit, glove leather and violets.  It creates a “dancing fire” effect on the palate, striking and sometimes rustic but always pleasant.  The finish is proportional in length to the age of the Armagnac.  Most bottlings are blends but, unlike Cognac, vintage Armagnac is produced and sold by many producers.

My wife, the Queen of Cuisine, recently returned from a visit to Florida with two wonderful gifts:  an Armagnac Sempe 1963 and a Bas Armagnac Laubade 1964 (bottled in July, 2014).  We spent a delirious half-hour scoping, sniffing and tasting these beauties and teasing out the differences between the two.

The Laubade 1964 (US $300, score 91+) was amber mahogany with deep copper glints and a faint green edge (reflecting age).  The powerful rich nose was smoky with sweet spicy vanilla notes and hints of sweet leather, burnt orange peel, violets and raw spirit.  It’s a supple, rich smoky mouthful with dried fruits and a long creamy finish with a late celery salt note.

The Sempe 1963 (US$300, score 94) was paler than the Laubade ’64 medium mahogany-tinged amber colour and that watery apple-green edge.  The bouquet was attractive, complex and deep with smoky and dark toffee notes, dried date and fig fruit, sweet leather and a burnt tangerine peel note.  On the palate it’s sweetly spicy and vanillary with a Madeira note, a creamy grippy mouthfeel, overall intimations of sweetness, fresh acidity, dried date and fig flavours, that smoke, and an incredibly long powerful “dancing fire” finish.

[The Armagnacs reviewed here were purchased at Total Wines in Sarasota.]

These bottles are displayed sideways, but they’re still evocative…

Armagnacs Sempe 1963 and Laubade 1964




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Rioja Bordon: Delicious, Inexpensive and Crafted to Last for Decades

It’s no accident that the Rioja region in northern Spain is home to some of the world’s greatest red wines.  For starters, the zone is snugged up against mountains that offer protection from wind and rain.  Next, the wines are based on the Tempranillo grape.  This varietal yields medium-weight reds with unique raspberry, cherry and other characters.  The wines get longevity and structure from other varieties like Mazuelo and Graciano, with early fruit from Garnacha.  Icing the cake, the region has three zones (Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja), each with a distinct climate, topographical features and soil types.  The diversity makes a wide variety of styles possible.

Riojan reds are almost always aged in small new American oak casks which impart strong plank, vanilla and spice characters that get delightfully dusty with age–and age is one thing red Riojas do extremely well.  Wines classified as Gran Reserva are required to spend at least three years in oak and a further two in bottle.  Reservas require two years in oak and one in bottle.  These limits are often exceeded.

Bodegas Franco-Españolas, one of the oldest and most respected wineries in Spain, was founded in Logrono, Rioja in 1890 in the aftermath of the devastating epidemic of Phylloxera in France.  Immigrants from Bordeaux brought their know-how with them, establishing a firm that has survived the tumult of the twentieth century and a series of owners.  Today, one of their principal brands is Rioja Bordón.

In October, Bordón’s export director Juan Carlos Llopart and Barry Brown, Canada’s foremost authority on Spanish wine, presented a tasting of Bordón gran reserva and reserva wines at Toronto’s National Club.  They validated the house’s reputation for delicious good-value wines.  Two of them are currently in the market and are worth buying to go with your autumnal roast meats.

Rioja Bordón Gran Reserva 2005 ($22.95, score 90+) is a limpid black cherry-coloured wine with sweet spicy dusty notes.  The American oak is youthfully intense.  On the palate the sweetly ripe black cherry huckleberry fruit is polished with fine tannins and fresh acidity for structure.  The finish is mouth-watering, well-fruited and long.

Rioja Bordón Reserva 2008 ($18.95, score 90) sports a harmonious dusty nose with black fruit and an oak note.  It has grippy velvet tannins, mouth-watering black berry fruit, fresh acidity and a long intensely fruited finish.

We also tasted some older vintages of Bordon Gran Reserva to see how the wine ages.  In short, it matures beautifully.  Here are my notes on some doozies:

Rioja Bordón Gran Reserva 1982 (score 91) has faded to a medium pale with a bewitching nose of fresh and dried blackberries and cherries married to complex sweet spicy oak, dust, ancient plank, acacia, cumin, leather and raisings.  In the mouth it offers fine ripe grippy tannin, good ripe fruit, fresh acidity, all those grace notes from the aroma, and a very long drying finish.  To be consumed by midnight and enjoyed.

Rioja Bordón Gran Reserva 1985 (score 91+) was medium deep dark garnet ruby.  The nose was intense and dusty (the evolved version of American oak) with fresh and dried black cherry and blackberry fruit with acacia, fig, sweet spice, leather, blueberry, mineral and cocoa notes (the evolved version of red Rioja.)  The tannins are velvety and the acidity fresh with aromas repeated on the palate.  It’s less enchanting but fruitier than the ’82.

Rioja Bordón Gran Reserva 1994 (score 92) is brightly fruity with black berry, cherry and huckleberry aromas dancing divinely with sweet spice, leather, dust and sandalwood notes.  It has dense velvet grip and deep spice-nuanced fruit through a grippy finish.  It’s perfect now but will age and improve over five to ten years.

Rioja Bordón Gran Reserva 1995 (score 90+) had a nose of sweet ripe fresh and dried blackberry and black raspberry fruit, pungent coffee beans, dust and sweet spicy oak.  It’s elegant and lighter than the ’94 with good fruit, firm ripe tannins, fresh acidity and good length.

Rioja Bordón Gran Reserva 2001 (score 92) features intense rich ripe black fruit with sweet spicy vanilla and sandalwood aromas.  In the mouth it’s ultra-rich and ripely fruity, mouthwatering, with nuanced spice.  The finish is sweetly ripe and long, deeply fruited with gentle grip and an oak note.Rioja Bordon #1

Rioja Bordón Gran Reserva 2005 (score 90+) is still a black cherry ruby colour.  The powerful nose sports with slightly awkward sweet spicy dusty youthful oak.  Sweetly ripe black cherry and huckleberry fruit are polished and well-presented.  It’s grippy velvet in the mouth with deep sweet fruit and spice notes through a mouthwatering long well-fruited finish.


[For more information about Franco-Españolas wines go to  For any information about Spanish wine email Barry Brown at]




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A Psychiatric Entry for a Change

On October 7 I was interviewed by 14 CBC affiliate morning-show hosts about the unacknowledged problem of ADHD in people over 60. This is the version that aired on “Metro Morning” on CBC Radio One in Toronto. The interviewer is the show’s host Matt Galloway.…

Irvin Wolkoff's photo.
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The Newly Likeable Wines of Argentina

Argentina wine image

With a few notable exceptions, I don’t like “New World” wines. Those who enjoy these bottlings admire their effortless ripeness, spiciness, robust alcohol and accessibility.  “Old World” (European) aficionados like me regard them as being closer to beet borscht and Coca Cola than to grape juice. For us, they’re too high in alcohol and extract, too low on fresh acidity and too heavy on new oak.

My anti-New-World bias extended to the wines of Argentina until a recent master class in Toronto stood my prejudice on its head. Sara d’Amato (sommelier and wine critic) and Marcelo Pelleriti (director general and winemaker at Monteviejo in Mendoza), presented fourteen different wines from Argentina which demonstrated an elegance and translucency I hadn’t encountered in older offerings from that country.

Mr. Pelleriti explained that this impressive transformation has been achieved through a decade of changes in viticulture and winemaking inspired by his counterparts in France. The most relevant beneficial factors include earlier harvesting, more careful vine irrigation, meticulous berry selection and shorter cooler fermentations.   The results were evident in a variety of wine styles ranging from sparkling through still whites and reds. Here are my favourite examples:

Bodega Ruca Malen Brut NV (estimated $25, score 89+) is a 75/25 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This substantial sparkler is gold-coloured with a hint of onion skin and a vigorous mousse. It features sweet pear fruit with earthy and toasty notes. It’s crisp and dry in the mouth with fullish body and a well-fruited finish.

Sol.Fa.Sol Torrontes 2010, La Rioja (estimated $9.95, score 89+) is 100% Torrontés, the trademark white grape of Argentina. This pale-straw wine features elegant mango and lychee fruit aromas with floral and herbal notes. It’s bone-dry on the palate with fresh to crisp acidity and a creamy (not heavy) mouthfeel. The fruit is front and centre through a long, fresh slightly bitter finish.

Finca Agostino Familia Semillon/Sauvignon 2013 (estimated $34.95, score 89+) emulates white Bordeaux. Pale gold, it flaunts tropical fruit aromas framed by big vanilla and sawn plank oak aromas. It’s soft and rich on the palate with lemon notes joining toasty nutty oak flavours through a long finish. This wine will evolve and improve for years.

Sin Fin Guarda Bonarda 2013 (estimated $21.95, score 90-) is an Argentinian take on a northern Italian red varietal. The nose is elegant, sophisticated and complex with mixed black berry fruit and toasty vanillary sweet-spicy oak. It has grippy ripe fine tannins and a creamy fresh mouthfeel. It’s sweet, spicy, fruity and very pleasing through a long gently astringent finish. I’d love to taste this again in a decade!

Monteviejo Lindaflor 2010 Malbec/Syrah Blend (estimated $50.00, score 90) is a blend of Malbec, Argentina’s flagship red variety, with spicy Syrah. It’s opaque ruby with a purple ruby rim and has a lovely deep nose built around black currant-black cherry fruit with well-integrated toasty vanillary oak, violet and sweet-spice notes. It has fine tannins, fresh acidity, sweetly ripe fruit and harmonious oak flavours that linger undiminished for a long time. This is another age-worthy red.

Nicolas Catena Zapata 2010 (estimated $109.95, score 91) is an “icon wine.” A blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Malbec sourced from four different vineyards to ensure perfectly ripe fruit, it’s an opaque ruby-purple specimen with a very elegant nose. It sports focused Bordelais black currant and blackberry fruit with a kiss of luscious well-handled oak aromas encompassing vanilla, toasted nuts and sweet spice.  It’s a ripe round fresh mouthful with tasty oak and fruit flavours dancing divinely through along well-fruited finish.

[For more information about Argentinian wines log on to or contact representative Monica Ralphs at]


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The “Bits and Bobs” at Sea Witch

I got back to Sea Witch in Toronto to pick over the rest of their menu.  The onion rings feature the same heavy crunchy batter as the fish and have delicious onion flavour.  The cole slaw has mostly oil and vinegar dressing with some mayo.  I prefer my slaw with no mayo at all but for those of you who like this style, it’s good stuff.  I’m familiar with the Boylan soft drinks from the late lamented Penrose.  They’re sweetened with cane sugar (not high-goo fructose or corn syrup) and the flavours are wonderful.  I swigged one orange and one black cherry this time.  The birch is also good.

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Eat Like a Human Being!

The current tsunami of superstitions and magical thinking about food drives me to distraction.  People who don’t know enough to drool intelligently have millions of followers slavishly avoiding some foods and nibbling compulsively on others in the terribly mistaken belief that they’re “eating healthy.”  This has created in an epidemic of “orthorexia nervosa,” an eating disorder disguised as a form of ideological and bodily purity.  It has resulted in widespread and unnecessary anxiety and joylessness, not to mention a reduction in levels of authentic health.

Who is responsible for this perversion of the table?  Currently, it’s a passel of lean and hungry celebrities who never studied a page of biochemistry or nutrition science.  In the 1950s, it was a brilliant self-promoter named Ancel Keys.  This villain used some very faulty research to link saturated fats with heart disease.  His findings have been disproven time and time again, but lots of folks don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Keys’ story was that by eliminating red meat, eggs and dairy products from one’s diet and chowing down on carbs, one could live forever.  The necessary sacrifice enhanced the apparent virtue of a low-fat diet.  The truth is that we need fat to make brain cells, skin, and the steroid hormones that actually keep us alive.  Keys’ diet is a killer.

There are no “bad” foods with the exception of the highly processed plastic-wrapped pseudo-food widely available in convenience stores, gas stations and chain supermarkets.  There are, however, “bad” ways of eating.  These include over-large portions and over-consumption of particular foods or food groups and the phobic avoidance of other foods or food categories.

The ideal diet for Homo sapiens is the one our ancestors consumed in their environment of evolutionary adaptedness.  I don’t mean the “caveman diet” that yet more scoundrels have written about for their own fun and profit.  I’m talking about eating a little bit of everything and not too much of anything.  It’s not sexy and I’ll never make a dollar writing a book about it, but it’s what we need to be genuinely healthy.  It won’t make us live forever because nothing ever will.

Thanks for allowing me this rant.  I needed it.  I think I’ll go make myself a modest serving of bacon and eggs.

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