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A crash course in French brandy

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A New Zealand wine lover's wine blog.

 

A crash course in French brandy

Elissa Jordan

Cognac and Armagnac are both French brandies and when you really start to look at the details of the two that’s where the similarities start and finish. 

Armagnac sits inland, south-east of Bordeaux. Its location historically made finding an easy route to mass distribution a challenge and so it remains the lesser-known of the two. On the banks of the river Charente, Cognac had easy access to trade routes and was able to get its wares out to the key markets of the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium, making it the more recognizable of the two internationally. 

Armagnac is distilled once in a continuous still at low temperatures - the result is a more rustic spirit with fuller, more viscous texture. A blend of mostly Ugni Blanc (or Trebbiano) and the hybrid grape Baco 22A coupled with the tendency of the base wine to be higher in alcohol and lower in acidity than Cognac are the key factors leading to the fuller bodied style of Armagnac. The alcohol in a young Armagnac tends to be relatively unintegrated and the spirit needs three years of ageing before it can be released. 

Cognac is twice distilled in a copper pot still, giving the spirit a brighter, cleaner and more focused character. Cognac has eight varieties that are permitted into the blend with Ugni Blanc being the most important by far. What Armagnac considers ‘flavours’, Cognac considers ‘impurities’. The cleaner nature of Cognac allows the spirit to be released after only two years. 

Ageing criteria
V.S. (very special) or *** (three stars): designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in cask.
V.S.O.P. (very superior old pale): designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least four years in a cask, but the average wood age is much greater.
XO (extra old): designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years but on average for upwards of 20 years.

The team at Wineseeker on Vivian Street in Wellington presented the spirits - first by looking at the core components that go into brandy production. Not only those made from grapes, not only those from France. Once we had the building blocks sussed, we got into really comparing and contrasting Cognacs and Armagnacs. 

As well as some excellent spirits, we were also treated to snacks like duck liver pate; chicken and truffle liver pate; roquefort and mimolette cheese; and a selection of dark chocolates. 

If fiery spirits are not your thing then you may not see the subtleties between these two styles and prefer to drink something else. But if these are for you it really comes down to what style of spirits you prefer - the clean, bright Cognac or the more rustic, musky Armagnac. 

Tommasi ‘Il Sestanta’ Lugana DOC Trebbiano 2011 RRP $32

A still white base wine made from ugni blanc - the primary grape used in Cognac. Light and lemony, this was a very neutral and easy spirit. Lemon and a bit of musk is the only real recognizable character.   

Chateau du Brueil Calvados VSOP RRP $65

The Calvados is made from apple cider, not grapes and it retains its apple-y character along with some cinnamon, iodine and lemon drops. Rather fresh and refreshing, but overall quite simple.  

Touzeau Napoleon Brandy RRP $42

The spirit starts to show off a nuttier expression, mostly almonds. The fruit is ripe table grapes and poached pear with pungent spice and burnt sugar. Malt extract wraps it all up. Enjoyable if unexciting. 

Mascaro Prive Penedes Brandy RRP $55

This one sits between a VSOP and an XO in quality level. The nose is really appealing with some burnt sugar and caramel and candied almond. A nicely complex drink with fresher apple and pear character, along with musk and leather. Coming back to this at the end of the night, this one was far fresher and brighter than those that came after. A turning point in quality for the evening. 

Dobbe ‘Dixie Band’ VSOP Cognac RRP $78

This one is quite fresh with a lot of sweeter spice and fresh fruit - cinnamon and nutmeg, peach, nectarine. A touch of lemon, a bit apple-y. This Cognac gets big points for the rich, velvety texture.  All a bit smokey on the finish. 

Tesseron Lot 90 XO Cognac RRP $195

Hugely complex, but not overly accessible - this is the entry level product from this producer. This XO shows a very big oak character. Nuttier, darker leather and cocoa with lovely vanilla, menthol and a heap of orange peel. There’s quite a lot of fire to this one. Overall it’s far more savoury. 

Delord Bas-Armagnac VSOP RRP $65

A really interesting one - pumpkin seeds, dried apple and pistachio nuts all jump out of the glass. The complexity extends to honied pear, cashews and much more in the way of florals - orange and yellow blossoms. Liked but didn’t love this one. 

Laristan Bas-Armagnac XO Hors d’Age RRP $120

A very bright, fruity, floral spirit with notes of honey, cashew and almond, fresh mandarin. A really fantastic nose. Muskier, with a tannic grip. The palate is an oaky sweet character with plenty of cloves and vanilla. A fabulously long finish that’s fully of stonefruit. Really loved this one. 

Delord Bas-Armagnac 1982 RRP $180

By far the most popular spirit of the evening. Although it opens with a flinty, sulfurous, struck match character. You need to take your time to see beyond the closed and reductive quality. As you move beyond, it’s toffee, rum and raisin milk chocolate and candied lemon peel. Very hot and fiery and far more oaky and woodsy. Really interesting but overall too sharp for my tastes.