Gone are the days when wine for Armagnac distillation could be of mediocre quality; wine for C21st Armagnac production is of increasingly high quality, and nowhere epitomises this trend better than Domaine Tariquet.
Amanda Garnham and I approached this innovative estate through neatly trained vines and parked beside a typical Gascon chateau steeped in tradition – very similar to the estates we had visited previously. But that was where the similarity ended. Ithier Bouchard then replaced our dainty parapluies with his sturdy branded ones, and off we strode from the serenity of the chateau towards a gleaming, state of the art winery planned with efficiency and forward vision with the drive for optimum quality and the future of Armagnac at its core.
We navigated our way past a slightly intimidating series of tall cylindrical tanks, and made our way to the start of the vinification process – the point where the grapes arrive. From the outset, Ithier emphasised that everything is done to preserve the primary aromas and flavours of the grapes. So tanks are sent into the vineyards to collect the grapes where they are covered with carbonic ice before they reach the winery. Some vines are very close but some are 25 km distant, and in warm conditions, grapes can oxidise quickly. Sulphur is not allowed in Armagnac production (it would become too concentrated and taint the spirit) so this method was devised to replicate its function. More ice is added at the winery to cover the grapes. A revolving screw then gently moves the grapes into Europe’s largest pressing room, where 8 huge pneumatic presses gently coax the juice from the grapes. The juice then flows down into an underground fermentation area. The pressing room is so large to ensure grapes are pressed as quickly as possible. If the pressing takes too long, wine quality suffers. We could see the wine in full fermentation beneath us through a vent. We could not go into the fermentation room because the CO2 levels would be too dangerous. Fermentation is controlled, slow (2-3 weeks) and cool temperature, after which the wines rest in external tanks which are like thermos flasks. They have a layer of insulation to keep the wines very cold, again to prevent oxidation. There are smaller tanks inside a room kept at -0.2 °C for smaller batches, but they can’t do this for all the wines as this would use too much energy – hence the outside tanks for larger batches.
Wines to be oak matured are kept on ingenious mobile racks with rollers which enable the barrels to be rocked back and forth periodically to agitate the lees (akin to battonage but without opening the barrel and exposing the wine to oxygen). It also enables barrels to be moved around, and samples tasted, again without allowing oxygen into the wine. Armagnac is stored elsewhere for various reasons, including the fact that if an Armagnac cellar catches fire, “les pompiers” wouldn’t intervene as it is highly explosive. The risk of loss of stock is therefore spread.
There is a small bottling line for Armagnacs, and a much larger one for wines which is designed for maximum efficiency, with the entry and exit points opposite each other so that personnel don’t get in the way of the process.
We then visited Tariquet’s pair of shiny copper alambics, which are housed in one of the original buildings, very stylishly renovated. One of the alambics used to be mobile. By special dispensation it retains its wheels, now redundant as it is fixed to the ceiling. The wood fired stills have to be manned 24 hours a day once distilling begins (redundant wooden stakes from the vineyard become distillation fuel), so there is a barbecue into which the embers from the still are placed to cook food for the distillers. Two huge former blending vats have become mini kitchens with doors cut into their sides.
By contrast, the Tariquet tasting room nearby is light, airy and state of the art, complete with spittoons cleverly sunk into smart white tasting counters. No more grappling with a puny knob on a weighty bucket.
Ithier was proud to exhibit a range of wines first of all; wine appreciation is key to understanding the quality of the Armagnac. The Classic blend, containing mainly Ugni Blanc, clearly shows the starting point on the Armagnac journey. I detected more than a hint of yellow plum and red apple, notable in that prune and tarte tatin so often feature in Armagnac tasting notes. Though the star of the line up was the medium sweet Premières Grives, from 100% Gros Manseng which, after the Classic, is Tariquet’s best selling wine in France. It has an enticing nose of baked apple, jasmine and honey, which carries to the palate with a lingering finish. Stunning. An intriguing match for Asian dishes, charcuterie and – of course – foie gras.
Next came a flight of three 15 year old Armagnacs. The XO is far cheaper in Waitrose at home than it is here, and as such is a steal. 60% Ugni Blanc, 40% Baco, it has very pronounced toasty aromas with prune, fig, date and tar. To taste it is smooth and warming with acacia, dried orange and chocolate notes and a very satisfying length. Le Legendaire has the fickle yet highly prized Folle Blanche added, and combined more fire and spiciness with nuts, raisins and white flowers. The 15 year old 100% Folle Blanche was totally different – rounded, not nearly so fiery, with orange blossom, prune and brioche notes as well as a lactic sweetness akin to a quality fudge. Cask strength at 47.2%. It went down well at a masterclass in Hedonism who now stock it.
Then came a pair of very special creations. The Armagnac de Cabine, 80% Baco, 43% abv, came from carefully selected barrels. There were only 500 bottles made. Tariquet say they do not usually aim to make the spendiest bottles on the market, but these sold for 400 Euros a piece. The challenge came to replicate them, which has been done three times thus far, albeit that exact replicas are virtually impossible to achieve. The aromas were powerful, and yet, despite a tannic bite, the palate was smooth, gentle and fresh with an array of defined flavours – dried orange peel, concentrated raisins, smouldering tobacco and ash, sandalwood, to name a few.
Finally the Centenarie – created in 2012 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the purchase of the estate. 2012 bottles at 53.5% were created, special also because the Ugni Blanc, Baco and Folle Blanche were joined by the rare grape variety Plant de Graisse. Known for imparting oily weight, it also adds more aromatics than it is given credit for. Subtle and elegant, with drying tannins balanced by weight, tropical fruit notes, toasted hazelnut richness, and an exotic sandalwood perfume.
Huge thanks to Ithier and Domaine Tariquet for the chance to taste such well chosen and unique treats – and for providing me extra tasting opportunities at home. Here is their 100% Folle Blanche blanche Armagnac, which is an astonishing creation. The nose is pear tart, toasted almonds, crushed fresh pineapple and a hint of margarita. The palate is rounded and fruity, with real depth of flavour. Plum tarte tatin, prunes and pecans evolve into a long cherry and almond tart finish. I enjoyed it as a sipping aperitif, and to my amazement the flavours returned once I had enjoyed supper! (I explored mixology options with Adam, who runs cocktail masterclasses in the bar at Harvey Nichols Bristol. He suggested white chocolate or apple based spirits as cocktail pairings, and the plan was that I would bring in the blanche armagnac for him to experiment with. Sadly I didn’t get round to it before Coronavirus closed the store on 19th March, but we agreed that assuming we both make it to the “other side” this is a project we will tackle without delay so watch this space!)
I asked Ithier whether the wines were in effect “cashflow” bankrolling the expansion of the business. However Ithier explained that although the cashflow from the wines is helpful, this is secondary to developing the Armagnac which remains at the heart of Tariquet. They aim to increase Armagnac stocks from 23 to 25-27 years, and to maintain a reputation for freshness and quality.
With that thought in mind, it seemed only right to conclude with a visit to one of the Armagnac cellars – so we went off site to a humid (as opposed to a dry) cellar on an estate bought by Tariquet some time ago. The torrential rain of recent days was seeping through the walls, since at one end the cellar is underground. No shiny tanks and pipes here – blackened with mould outside and in, the humidity was very evident in this cellar, as was the associated “angel’s share” hanging in the air. Lumpy black fungus was creeping its way over the barrels as the Armagnac slowly evolved in the silent darkness.
Control freaks they may be, but Tariquet have shown that quality Armagnac doesn’t have to be small scale in its production. Scaling up theoretically increases the risk of commoditisation and of compromising quality. But Tariquet know from long experience that the key to good Armagnac is the quality of the wine. By using economies of scale to control everything done from the vine to the bottle, they have put in place a sound platform for the Armagnacs of the future.