Back in August, I had my first Cognac tasting and, today, I’m going to be trying its older cousin, Armagnac. Like Cognac, this is a spirit that I don’t usually find to be very visible in bars, although we know a couple of fans who have inspired me to give it a try.
Armagnac is a type of grape brandy or distilled wine made from grapes from a very specific region in the south of France. This wine is then distilled (traditionally only once) in column stills and left to mature in oak barrels until it reaches the desired strength. It’s then kept in glass jars until it is ready to be bottled or blended.*
Armagnac is sold under a variety of labels or grades: blends can use a label based upon the length of time that its youngest component has spent in wood:
– VS (“Very Special” or three stars) – at least two years;
– VSOP (“Very Special Old Pale”) – at least five years;
– XO (“Extra Old”) – at least six years; and
– Hors d’âge – at least ten years.
Older bottlings tend to contain Armagnacs from a single year or vintage, which is given on the label instead.
The Armagnac that I’m looking at today is Comte de Lauvia VSOP; a blend of Armagnacs from the village of Eaux in the Bas-Armagnac region of France, the youngest of which has been aged for at least eight years. I tried it both on its own and in a variety of cocktails, very kindly mixed for me by DTS.
#1) On its own
Nose: Fresh and vibrant. Initially full of sweet wood and varnish, this gradually gives way to softer, fruity notes of white grapes and a warm sweetness, like spiced, stewed peaches. It ends with a hint of marzipan. You might miss all of these notes if you were put off by the initial burst of varnish, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Taste: This packs a fine punch, indeed; it has a powerful flavour unlike anything I’ve tried before. It starts off sweet and soft, with hints of grape and vanilla that are intermingled with darker, sweeter woody notes (like a whisky with strong fruit cake flavours), but this quickly develops into a sharper, more bitter and refreshing finish of fresh, white wood.
Initially, this reminds me of lemon sherbet, but any thoughts of this are swiftly swept away by rich, sweet (but not sickly) notes of lemon and orange fondant. These notes, which are more weighty than those in Sidecar’s that I’ve had made with Cognac, are quickly followed by richer notes of grapes, warm orange and fruit cake. The finish is more measured, with the lighter, sharper grape notes and oak coming through, along with a pleasant warmth and a final, brief burst of fresh citrus. Different, but delicious.
Smooth and tasty; this has an initial, viscous burst of sweet, red fruits and more delicate hints of warm spices, like cinnamon, before the more bitter, almost slightly sour, notes of grapes come through. The finish is light, but lasting, and is a subtle combination of almonds and orange pith.
#4) Old Fashioned
Sweeter than the previous cocktails, with more notes reminiscent of Christmas cake: cinnamon, cloves, and allspice, along with lemon and orange. There’s a more perfumed note in the middle, followed by a sweet finish of cinnamon.
#5) Fine à l’eau
This is a Cognac cocktail that was popular in France up until the end of the Second World War; in the book Casino Royale, James Bond orders one for his ally, Mathis.
The recipe is very simple:
3 parts Water
1 part Cognac or, in our case, Armagnac
A much lighter way to enjoy this Armagnac: the water makes this much smoother so that, at least initially, it tastes like a very light whisky or bourbon, with vanilla and wood being the predominant flavours. The finish is then more bitter, with the fruitier aspects of the spirit coming through; mainly grape, with a herbal bitterness at the very end. I was impressed at how well the flavours stood-up to water being added.
I have to admit that Comte de Lauvia VSOP was not what I had been expecting. Its flavour was stronger and more distinctive than the Cognacs that I’ve tried, with sweeter, woody notes to start, followed by more bitter, fruity notes towards the end. Although the flavours developed much quicker than whisky – my usual tipple of choice – they emphasised different notes; as such, I found that it worked very well to bring out new sides to familiar cocktails, like the Sidecar and the Old Fashioned, which were my favourites of those that we tried. The Sidecar, especially, was excellent.
I was also surprised at how much I enjoyed drinking this simply with water. Bringing the strength down to the level of wine produced a tasty drink that had all of the woody and fruity elements of the spirit at 40%ABV, but in a lighter style. I can imagine this being a perfect, light drink when summer returns!
For now, though, I will be more than content with an Armagnac Sidecar. Or two!
– Mrs. B
* In comparison, Cognac has to be distilled at least twice and is distilled using pot stills. The grapes also come from a different region.