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





About iwolkoff

Irvin Wolkoff is a psychiatrist and wine journalist who has been a wine enthusiast and collector since his university days.
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One Response to Fifty-Plus-Year-Old Armagnac

  1. Bruce Heinmiller says:

    Nice to read another traditional-armagnac fan. A few comments on armagnac vs. cognac:
    The grape mixes are quite different. 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.

    A votre sante.

    Bruce Heinmiller.

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