It is easy to be dismissive of the éleveur business model of creating Armagnac by ageing and blending eau de vie made by others, when elsewhere, houses aim to control every aspect of the process, from the vineyard to the bottle.
But in Armagnac, as in Champagne, some of the most awesome (and I use that word in its truest sense) skills of all are needed to find, age and blend the best Armagnacs from artisan producers throughout the region to produce a marriage of Armagnacs better together than they are apart.
As with whisky, there are spendy Armagnac blends as revered as vintage or varietal bottlings, but at the same time, blends at all levels are vital to the success of Armagnac as a spirit. This is because they perform an invaluable function, giving newcomers a benchmark they can expect for both consistency, and quality. High quality levels are incredibly important. If quality is lacking, consumers look to alternative spirits, and the whole industry suffers.
Blends are also a “must have” in any back bar. (The miniature cask shown is for barrel-aged cocktails – huge in the USA!). Bartenders need a flavour profile they can rely on to deliver the perfect serve time after time. They also crave unique expressions to build their reputations for unique high quality cocktails. A blend needs enough character to match up with other ingredients, and to deliver a perfect balance of the cocktail elements.
Armagnac blends are ideal for cocktails. The low distillation temperature results in a very characterful spirit right from its emergence from the alambic, let alone once it has aged, and the infinite style permutations available due to the range of grapes, soils, alambics and producer styles gives plenty of scope to create reliable blends of individuality and distinction.
Huge effort goes into making even the least aged blends as good as they can be at an affordable price point. While Armagnac producers revel in their uniqueness, every single house I have visited has been extremely proud and protective of the quality of their products.
Marquis de Montesquiou is one such house. With the benefit of the resources available from its parent business Pernod Ricard, they create Armagnacs at all levels, volumes and budgets which are made from eau de vie sourced from their trusted partner producers, and aged in their “cathedral” cellar under the watchful eye of Eric Durand, their respected cellarmaster. I visited one of their partners and saw first hand the craftsmanship and attention to every detail they put into their Armagnacs, so Marquis de Montesquiou seem to have have chosen their sources very well.
Ghislain Dumas guided Amanda Garnham of BNIA and I through a tour and tasting on my recent visit to the Armagnac region. The “cathedral” cellar was impressive. As is usual in Armagnac, there is a short maturation in new oak followed by a longer maturation in older oak barrels (sometimes called “double maturation”), and then for blends, a gradual reduction in strength by adding demineralised water blended with armagnac (“petites eaux”) until bottling strength of 40% is reached. The cellar is dry (as opposed to humid), which is relatively unusual.
The blending vessels can be huge, the largest used for quality supermarket bottlings. These vessels are rarely empty; a proportion of the blend is kept inside so that when the new spirit is added, it can be “married” not only with the blend ingredients, but also with the previous blend, so that the end result is as near as possible in character to the previous bottling.
Both Marquis de Montesquiou and Comte de Lauvia (made by Marquis de Montesquiou) blends are popular in The Wine Shop Winscombe, so what are they all about?
We compared the Marquis de Montesquiou XO with the Lauvia Hors d’Age. The former has spirit aged 10-25 years old from grape varieties Ugni Blanc, Baco and a small proportion from Folle Blanche. The latter is a blend of Armagnacs made between 1975 and 2000, again mostly from Ugni Blanc and Baco.
The house styles are very different from each other. The Marquis de Montesquiou is likened to a full orchestra with a full and satisfying range of flavours, i.e. fruitiness, spiciness, and oak flavours, at an affordable price point with a correspondingly shorter finish. If necessary it is adjusted. The curious bottle shape is inspired by the flasks used by the Musketeers. The XO is a glossy coppery mahogany colour with enticing aromas and flavours of raisins, dates, walnuts, coffee, cinnamon, clove and well integrated sandalwood. It is a pleasingly complex rounded mouthful of characterful flavours in balance with its structure. A satisfying all rounder.
The Comte de Lauvia is so different. Ghislain explained that it is more like a jazz band than an orchestra with a specific range of high tone and vanilla notes, and a long finish. It is not chill filtered so as to preserve its character, so it isn’t as shiny bright as a finely filtered Armagnac. UK drinks importer Emporia were very much instrumental in the creation of this range. The Hors d’Age is deep amber. The aromas are elegant and floral, with notes of orange blossom, toasted almond, vanilla, marzipan and pastry, fruity notes reminiscent of a good rum, and ageing flavours of fig and nuts. The finish is long. All colour is natural. Adjustment is only gradual reduction to bottling strength. Elegant, unique to its house style.
It is easy to see why bartenders gravitate towards these ranges – and there are plenty of inspiring recipes for budding mixologists to try out on the Marquis de Montesquiou website. You could even use both ranges in one cocktail to flesh out the flavour profile!
In the Wine Shop Winscombe we have the Lauvia Fine (which is equivalent to VS with a minimum ageing of 1 year) and the Reserve (equivalent to VSOP, minimum ageing of 4 years). The Fine is relatively simple in profile, with the same house style of fruity floral aromas, prunes and pastry but with a surprisingly long finish. The Reserve is my favourite of the Lauvia range. Expect a range of flavours including prune, fig, coffee and honey, a smooth texture, and a lovely lingering finish. Sip from a small tulip shaped glass with quality chocolate nearby to nibble in between – dark chocolate ginger thins perhaps?
Ghislain also showed us a trio of vintages with standout flavour profiles which they use in blending masterclasses. The 1973, with oaky character, was very herbaceous, with a robust tannic structure, cooling peppermint aromatics and length. The 1976 was more spicy, with sandalwood, prune juice, clove, cinnamon, tobacco and a fiery bite of black pepper. The 1989 was the floral element. It was highly perfumed with acacia and herbal aromas, and deep prune and tarte tatin flavours. The finish was shorter.
Had time permitted it would have been fun to make our own blend, and we could see how a blend of these three elements could create a quality Armagnac greater than the sum of its parts.
Although alas we didn’t taste any of them, Ghislain also showed us recent bottlings of a range of premium blends of various spirits in the La Distillerie Générale range, including Armagnacs from Marquis de Montesquiou’s cellar, with luxurious fabric labels which fetch high prices. These are limited bottlings of 35cls each – the Armagnac “Réserve Cathédrale Single Cask”, is of 830 bottles. There is also a Folle Blanche Single Cask. Sadly they are not available in the UK as far as I know.
So it’s not all about scale. The team here, despite the larger scale of their cellar, is aspirational in terms of quality. Expect more limited release bottlings from this house.
My overall impression of Marquis de Montesquiou is that it neatly exemplifies the rise and rise of quality in Armagnac as a whole, and the role played by everyone in the region, at whatever scale their business may be, in driving up quality levels. Houses like Marquis de Montesquiou are a vital part of the future of Armagnac. Long may they be there to look after their artisan partners.
Marquis de Montesquiou Fine Armagnac, and Comte de Lauvia Fine and Reserve Armagnacs are available from The Wine Shop Winscombe (01934 708312).