If you want proof that today’s Armagnac producers are on a quest for the best, then seek out Chateau de Laubade. Built in 1870, this intriguing chateau went through a fascinating period as an influential agronomic and scientific pilot farm under the ownership of statesman Joseph Noulens, before being discovered by Maurice Lesgourges who snapped it up in 1974. In doing so he acquired an enviable back catalogue of ancient Armagnacs, albeit that their origins and composition in terms of grape varieties were obscure.
Maurice realised from the outset that the Laubade vineyard sits in prime Bas Armagnac terroir, with slopes providing ideal grape growing conditions. So they set about taking total control of production of the eau de vie and its maturation with a view to becoming a benchmark for top quality Armagnac. These visionaries were bold and uncompromising in their approach. As a result, Chateau de Laubade now use only their own grapes, vinified themselves, distilled themselves and matured themselves in barrels coopered themselves, from Gascon oak sourced in neighbouring woodlands.
Arnaud and Denis Lesgourges now run Chateau de Laubade, and represent the 3rd generation of the family. Denis very kindly showed Amanda Garnham of BNIA and I around, having arrived from Bordeaux to host the annual distillation festivities for the villagers of Sorbets in the evening. Sadly I missed out as my flight home was in the afternoon…. 😦
Denis is fiercely proud of the achievements and visionary genius of his forbears. But he seemed at least equally proud of the fact that due to their wisdom and investment, the estate now believes it is not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative. Denis pointed out the blazing colours of autumn in a large piece of woodland in the distance, a legacy of his forbears, who recognised their role in offsetting human activity long before many of us. The importance of trees in the management of the estate is reflected in an art installation in a former greenhouse.
Speaking of legacy, if Chateau de Laubade stopped making Armagnac at this point, they would have some 15 years of stock to sell. I asked Denis if he is tempted to cash in on the family investment. Denis views himself as a custodian of the estate, so no, he won’t be selling. His destiny is to nurture Chateau de Laubade for future generations.
It was howling a gale during our visit, so it was with excitement and relief that we retreated into the distilling room. This SOFAC continuous column still was bought in 1975, evidencing the family’s commitment to making their own Armagnacs in the long term, from the outset. A recent addition to the 22-strong Laubade team is Francois, an oenologist from Bordeaux, whose task will be to maximise the quality of the wine used for distillation; many Armagnac houses are increasingly aware that the quality of the wine used for distillation is key to the quality of the Armagnac.
A key reason Armagnac is such a characterful spirit is its low distillation temperature. But it is also due to the alambic plates forcing the vapours through the wine lying on the plates. If you want to see this for yourself taste eau de vie from a still! There was a strong smell of wine and yeast in the distillation room (a small amount of lees, or dead yeast cells, are used – they can be seen in the window!), and the sample I tasted from the still was incredibly aromatic, with pastry notes from the lees, and an array of fruity aromas from the wine – squashed banana, lychee, cherry, raisin, plum and pear, to name but a few.
Denis had been anxious about the aromatics because the prolonged hot weather can result in the wine lacking in acidity and minerality, but he seemed very pleased with what he tasted from the still today. Today’s wine came from the grape variety Baco 22A, at an ideal abv of 10.5%. The range they look for is 10.2 – 10.8%. Distillation temperature is agreed each day according to the desired results, and today it was 58ºC.
The still is gas fired – Denis was proud to state that the Armagnac alambic uses considerably less gas than the pot stills of Cognac. He prefers gas to wood as it enables a more reliable regulation of the temperature. The “tails” were draining off into the wooden vat beneath. By law they must be redistilled. The “heads” were draining into a tank above, which may or may not be used, depending on their character and the character desired for the Armagnac.
After a tour of the cellar, and of the “paradise” containing shiny bonbonnes full of the chateau’s most ancient Armagnacs (the precise components of some of them being shrouded in the mists of time), we adjourned to the tasting room – which was, to my amazement, inside the family home! Denis showed us into a lavishly decorated drawing room which added a sense of heritage to our tasting experience.
A recent addition to the range is a VS, the “Signature”, created because Armagnac is now in demand for cocktails. Fruity and floral with little oak influence, the youngest spirit is 4 years old.
But today I tasted the VSOP, made from spirits aged for 6-10 years. Using a system Denis likened to sherry’s solera blending system, 33% – 50% of the previous batch is kept and married with the new blend to maintain the Laubade VSOP style consistently. The pale amber colour is natural, and the adjustment is simply reduction to bottle strength from 48% to 40% abv with petites eaux. There is approximately 20% Folle Blanche in this blend, contributing to its fruity floral notes. This is rather higher than the proportion of Folle Blanche in Laubade’s vineyard. Approachable and rounded, combining delicious apricot tarte tatin and toasted almond flavours, with a finish which over-delivers for VSOP Armagnac, this is very good.
The XO is a more intense and exotic creature, using Ugni Blanc, Baco and a little Plant de Graisse. The youngest spirit is at least 15 years old – the next XO batch will use the 2004 vintage. So smooth and satisfying….there are intense incense notes (sawn sandalwood and smoke), and plenty of fruit and nut moreishness (orange, prunes, butterscotch and pecans). The bold richness is more than a match for the alcohol. Sip and nibble with top notch dark chocolate after an autumn Sunday afternoon walk perhaps…?
We were then introduced to the innovative finishes range, only available in France for now – but watch this space….. Denis explained that in Cognac, finishing in barrels used by other spirits is only possible by forgoing the Cognac name. Although they can use oak from anywhere, e.g. USA, they cannot use barrels which have previously contained anything other than wine, or wine eau de vie (thank you Phil Duffy from Amathus Drinks for the relevant legislation!). For Armagnac, only French oak can be used, but the barrels can previously have been used for any spirit, not just Armagnac. Chateau de Laubade therefore collaborated with the Clément family, producers of rhum agricole on the former French colonial island of Martinique, which must be matured in French oak casks. 6 Armagnac barrels were sent to Martinique. Rum was then aged in them before being emptied and returned so that a 6 year old Armagnac from 2012 could be finished for 8 months in the rum casks. Tasting every 10 days was necessary to ensure that the character of Armagnac was retained and balanced with the rum elements. There was a distinct cachaça twang to the nose, but the palate was definitely the prunes and pastry of Armagnac, but with a herbaceous and straw bite from the rum. For those who are not rum aficionados, rhum agricole, including rum from Martinique, is made using sugar cane juice, not molasses, as is cachaça from Brazil. It’s character in youth is therefore very different to other rums in that it has a funky grassy herbaceous twang.
This range, labelled Les Curiosities, is exactly that – a curiosity for the adventurous. There is a whisky finish as well. These finishing innovations are controversial, but if you think about it, Armagnac lovers are by their nature adventurous taste explorers who seek out interest, depth of flavour and character; these experimental expressions are certain to intrigue them!
Another recent development has been the renaissance of lesser known Armagnac grape varieties, such as Plant de Graisse. At Amanda’s request, Denis let us taste a 2006 100% Plant de Graisse, reduced a little for bottling to 46.3% after extensive trials of the best abv level for release. Despite it fetching €55 for 50cl, it is selling fast. The aromas are delicate and perfumed, with a hint of oiliness. They are also focussed; dried orange, cinnamon stick and fig with very well integrated oak. The palate has oily weight, intensity and an evolving finish of toasted walnuts, pastries, herbs, and a marmite edge, but somehow ending on a lovely floral note. A fascinating and unique experience, sure to satisfy Armagnac maniacs everywhere.
To conclude, we were honoured and privileged to taste the first vintage of Armagnac made by Denis’s family exclusively from Chateau de Laubade grapes, in 1974. Aside from this being a family milestone, Denis told me it was also a classic vintage in Armagnac. This was incredibly potent and perfumed. I savoured deep orange, nutmeg, cinnamon and prune aromas, and a palate which was the epitome of “rancio” ageing with deep walnuts and smoke, while at the same time fresh, light and elegant, with citrus flavours still evident, and a long ethereal finish.
I had to rush away before tasting the Intemporel No.5, so Denis very kindly provided me with a sample to take home (declaration of interest please note!). He explained that this is a 20-30 year old small batch premium blend, which they first made in 2007 – when it was awarded World’s Best Brandy in the highly respected San Francisco World Spirits Competition. 3 batches a year are made, and it is intended to be the quintessence of the art of assemblage. This batch contains 48% Baco.
Back in Blighty, I am able to savour all the nuances of my gift, which is brilliant copper in colour, with an intense focused and perfumed nose of incense, vanilla, prunes, raisins, coffee and apricot jam. There were some corn notes as well, suggestive of a high quality Bourbon. The palate is quite something else. There is an intense herbal and smokey bite which evolves into very rounded and rich luxuriance of incredible complexity. Think freshly roasted coffee, toffee, chocolate, intense dried orange, toasted baklava, dried cherries…OK I’ll stop now. I will leave you to check out the price of this thing of beauty for yourselves. It really is of outstanding quality. I can’t believe I have a bottle of it!
The transformation of this estate in under 50 years is remarkable. As a wine lover, I suspect this has a great deal to do with the family’s recognition from the outset of the excellent terroir they have, and their continuing drive to make the highest quality wine which then feeds into the quality of the Armagnac. Armagnacs are incredibly long-lived, so it has taken perseverance and patience to realise Maurice’s vision from when he bought the estate over 40 years ago. It will be fascinating to see how this driven and aspirational family develop and grow their increasingly acclaimed Armagnac domaine in the future. It would be marvellous to return in a few years to see what they have been up to. In the meantime, many thanks to Denis for an amazing tour and tasting – and for my amazing Armagnac treat! You can find Chateau de Laubade Armagnacs in The Wine Shop Winscombe (see photo!).