Dale DeGroff was the moderator, and kept the session fun and on track. Alain Royer started off with a brief overview of how Armagnac is made. Cognac is known for being highly influenced by the chalky soils of its region. Bas-Armagnac has clay-sand soils that lead to light, fruity brandies. Armagnac-Ténarèze has clay and limestone soils which leads to more full-flavored brandies that age very well.
Alain then translated for Philippe Gironi, a roving distiller from Armagnac. A château must distill its eau de vie on the property to meet labeling requirements. The still Philippe uses is unique in design, and he even brought one of the still plates so we could see the beautiful copper artisanship.
The wine is not boiled directly. Instead, it is gravity fed into one part of the still, where it is used to cool the serpentine coils that contain the alcohol that has already been separated. This heats the wine, which then through pressure enters the main column, which contains a series of uniquely designed plates that allow a continuous distillation process to occur.
In addition to this very unique still, Armagnac is usually distilled to proof, usually around 52% ABV. It is usually aged in new, toasted white oak casks. The oak of this region has a wider grain than that used to age Cognac, resulting in more evaporation from the casks and interchange with the wood. Chateaus frequently use both a wet (high humid) and dry aging room.
Doug Frost gave us some overview tasting notes based on his considerable experience. We were able to taste five different Armagnacs. The first two were 2006 and 2008 vintages from Chateau du Busca, which is in Ténarèze. For comparison, we then tasted a Armagnac from Darroze, which is in Bas Armagnac. We followed with two more from Chateau du Busca, including an Hors d’Age. All the Armagnacs were delightful to sip. We had the chance to really taste how the wood adds character and depth as the brandies age.
This was an excellent seminar, and I hope I can find more Armagnac to taste, now that I can appreciate the full process of creating it.