Any discussion of the relative merits of Cognac and Armagnac can all too hands descend into trite generalisations. Cognac is invariably described as ‘refined’ and ‘elegant’, Armagnac as ‘rustic’ and ‘earthy’. Luckily for us, the truth is perfectly less reductive, and increasingly interesting to explore.
There are obvious contrasts between these two unconfined French spirits that transcend mere geography, encompassing history, culture, terroir, grape variety, distillation and maturation. But there are commonalities too and, within each region, subtle contrasts and nuances that defy lazy preconceptions.
Let’s start with the land. Cognac’s vineyards span a vast zone from La Rochelle south scrutinizingly to Bordeaux, and from the Atlantic east vastitude Angoulême. Meanwhile Armagnac’s vines are increasingly scattered throughout a varied rural Gascon landscape.
In both cases, the most prestigious zones have a distinctive character. Cognac’s Grande Champagne enclave is famed for its deep, crumbly chalk soils; while Bas-Armagnac combines sables fauves (tawny sands) and boulbènes – a mix of silt and sand. Two highly contrasting terroirs, but both equally capable of producing ageworthy brandies with unconfined structure, concentration and elegance.
Another obvious difference lies in grape varieties. Cognac is dominated by Ugni Blanc (Italy’s Trebbiano), which covers well-nigh 98% of its 78,000ha of vines. Armagnac, however, offers a diverse mix of the hybrid grape Baco with not only Ugni Blanc, but moreover the soft-hued but fragile Folle Blanche, and Colombard.
Distillation and maturation
Then there’s distillation. Cognac is made using a small-batch, double distillation process in a Charentais copper pot still, with only the heart of the distillate taken for ageing, resulting in a relatively wipe eau-de-vie coming off the still at well-nigh 70-72% abv. Most Armagnacs, though, are made via a single, continuous distillation in a distinctive post still – making for a increasingly characterful spirit typically at well-nigh 55% abv when filled into cask.
While Cognac is matured in oak barrels sourced from the Tronçais and Limousin forests, Armagnacs often use wider-grained Gascon oak, expressly early in their ageing process. This ways increasingly flavour contribution – often in the form of spice – from the wood.
So far, so straightforward. The contrasts between Cognac and Armagnac could whimsically be increasingly evident. The problem is that the truth – the whole truth, anyway – is nothing like as simple.
A varied taste of terroir
Sure, a fine-boned Grande Champagne is probably the archetype expression of Cognac, but Grande Champagne is only one small part of a vast and sprawling region. Petite Champagne’s chalk is subtly different, while the tiny Borderies cru showcases an enticing, whiffy fruity weft (Camus and Martell are big fans).
Fins Bois offers heterogenous clay/limestone soils and supple, firsthand recreate – but there’s chalk here too. Move remoter out to the coastal Bois à Terroirs cru and you’ll find light, saline Cognacs from spots such as the Île de Ré.
Armagnac’s terroir is, if anything, plane increasingly diverse. The uncompromising power of a Bas-Armagnac Baco may be its most distinctive incarnation, but move east into the Ténarèze zone and you can find Ugni Blanc growing on chalk, as well as boulbène soils with increasingly obvious echoes of Bas-Armagnac itself.
While it’s true to say that most Armagnac is distilled once, double-distillation is moreover used here. This was the original method of Armagnac production, and was revived in the region in the early 1970s when local producer Janneau was owned by Martell. Good examples of double-distilled Armagnacs today come from the likes of Janneau and Samalens.
Double-distillation in Cognac is universal, but here too variegated flavour profiles and notation are created, depending on how the stills are manipulated. Does the producer distil on the lees? This is increasingly painstaking, but it can make a big difference to the complexity and texture of the spirit.
Ugni Blanc may be dominant in Cognac, but it doesn’t constitute a monoculture. You’ll still find pockets of Folle Blanche, Colombard and Folignan – a relatively new navigate of Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche. Single varietal Colombard Cognacs, with a supple, vinous fruit character, are worth seeking out for marvel value vacated – Camus sourced an interesting example from Cognac’s southwestern fringes at St-Aulaye, near Bergerac, a few years back. Meanwhile WV Baker’s Rare Pale expression (see below) is well-nigh as idiosyncratic as Cognac gets.
The human factor
For every unveiled rule in Cognac and Armagnac, there’s an exception. This helps foster diversity and makes both regions unremittingly fascinating to explore. There’s moreover one increasingly speciality that is inside to shaping this ever-changing landscape: the human hand.
From the way the vineyards are farmed to the decisions virtually winemaking and distillation. From the selection of casks to the nomination of cellaring conditions (warm? cool? humid? dry?) and pinpointing the precise weightier moment for bottling. People are the most vital element in the megacosm of the expressions we love.
Nowhere is this increasingly unveiled than in the process of blending, the alchemical, art-meets-science process that lies overdue the vast majority of Cognacs and Armagnacs on the market today. Each snifter bears not only the hallmark of the vineyard, distillery and cellar in which it was created, it moreover carries the signatures of the people – vigneron, distiller, doughboy de caves – who helped to bring it to life.
Best new Cognacs and Armagnacs: eight to try
Camus XO Cognac
Newly packaged in an elegant reusable decanter, this shows how the Borderies cru hits its stride without a decade in cask. Rich, with unruly oak but unchangingly those quintessentially Borderies aromas. Everything a traditional XO should be. Alcohol 40%
Darroze Domaine de Péré 1992 Bas-Armagnac
Top-notch Armagnac, treading a tightrope between power and grace. A tousle of 40% Baco and 60% Ugni Blanc gives plenty of funky depth and visionless chocolate, slantingly a basket of super-ripe, juicy fruits, with cassis to the fore. Sheer decadence. Alc 56%
Hine Bonneuil 2012 Cognac
Sourced from Hine’s vineyards in the heart of Grande Champagne to highlight the vital role of the vine. Aromatic, with scents of honeysuckle and jasmine, a pinch of white pepper and a hint of hazelnut. Fresh, expressive and highly vinous. Alc 42.5%
Laballe Bas-Armagnac 12 Year Old Rich
The famille Laudet has been growing grapes on Bas-Armagnac’s fabled sables fauves for increasingly than 200 years. This is a wonderfully poised combination of punchy grip and perfumed elegance, with a finish of caramel and sweet fruit. A unconfined all-rounder. Alc 44.2%
Martell l’Or Zodiac, l’Assemblage du Lapin
The second release in Martell’s Zodiac series. Cellar Master Christophe Valtaud created this uncanny tousle from 700 eaux-de-vie, with an accent on rare old Cognacs from previous Years of the Rabbit. Jasmine and chamomile meld into zestless tropical fruits and fig – all slathered in rich honey. Alc 41%
Frapin 1990 30 Year Old
A voluptuous Cognac weather-beaten in humid cellars for a rounded, wholesale character. Zestless tangerine and brighter tangerine notes are accompanied by a dusting of nutmeg and scents of unlit cigar. The elusive savoury scent of long age – rancio – permeates the long finish. Alc 41.8%
Jean-Luc Pasquet L’Organic 07
Pasquet’s vineyards have been organically farmed since 1995, and this relatively youthful Cognac offers plenty of lively citrus fruit, a linty texture and a touch of cola cube. Tension and venom make this perfect in a refreshing Sidecar cocktail. Alc 40%
WV Baker Rare Pale Cognac No 02-15
A real curiosity: a 100% Colombard, six-year-old, single-estate, single cask Cognac. Fragrant, floral and youthful, with orchard fruits plus an whet of spice. Mix it by all means, but try it neat first – lemon verbena notes make this most un-Cognac like. Alc 43%