All Armagnac houses have so much one can write about them. Whether it be their history, innovation, accolades, or an amusing anecdote here and there, there is always much to say. But Chateau Pellehaut makes the writer’s task especially tricky as there is so much to include and so little one wants to omit. Where to begin? So….I’ll start with the cows, not just because the pouring rain meant our tour began by taking refuge in the cowshed! The “output” of these 60 bonny blonde d’Aquitaines has (together with grape pomace) helped fertilise the vines for 50 years. So the cows are a good place to start. They are key to preserving the biodiversity and natural life cycle of the vines.
Sustainability is the watchword here. Pellehaut has not just HVE certification but they were among the first 300 farms to attain Level 3. Pellehaut is not the only Armagnac house to make sustainability claims, but there is no doubt that here, they embrace sustainable practices wholeheartedly. Not only that; the estate is stunning, and anyone visiting this area must visit it. Allow plenty of time, as there are many delicious wines and Armagnacs to try in a beautiful limestone tasting room with a view to die for.
The estate lies in Ténarèze, on the border of Bas-Armagnac. They have three main soil types i.e. limestone which favours black grapes and Chardonnay, clay over limestone which local white wine varieties like, and sand with clay which is good for Armagnac. This being a typically Gascon poly-cultural enterprise, cattle and cereal are farmed on lower slopes, with vines covering the higher slopes. Nearby Roman mosaic designs indicate wine grapes have grown here since Roman times. Though Armagnac production here is a relatively recent event – Gaston Béraut began to make Armagnac in the 1970’s after doubling the size of the estate to 300ha.
As in other Armagnac estates, the wines (sold as Domaine de Pellehaut) are made not just to be distilled and aged as Armagnac; they are quality bottlings in their own right. Development of the wine range took off in the 1980’s when Gascon Béraut’s son Mathieu joined the business. He planted a range of “international A list” varieties as diverse as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as maintaining local varieties, recognising that there was sunshine aplenty, shelter from the Pyrenees, and wine friendly soils – so why not! Apart from Chardonnay and Petit Manseng, the wines they make are blends. Of the whites, I especially enjoyed the fresh and fruity Harmonie de Gascogne white, and the Réserve White (Chardonnay and Petit Manseng, which had some oak maturation) with its satisfying range of mango, papaya, custard and freesia aromas, generous butteriness, tannic edge and very long finish.
The reds I tried were both blends containing Pinot Noir. Ampéloméryx, named after the creature whose 17 million years old skeleton was found here (think half stag half giraffe) was very fresh and juicy with inviting Pinot Noir aromas of red berry fruit and Syrah aromas of leather, and a long elegant chocolate and cherry finish. The Réserve Red 2014 combines Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir – blends vary each vintage. It spent a year in oak, and had aromas and structure appealing to Cabernet Sauvignon lovers – cigar box, vanilla, blackcurrant, crunchy tannins, and a long cinnamon and vanilla finish. The role of Pinot Noir in this blend was unclear to me, but it’s a successful wine which would be interesting to try again after longer in bottle.
Assessing wine quality is key to assessing Armagnac quality. Producers know that rather than hiding flaws in inferior wine, distillation only serves to concentrate and accentuate them. Pellehaut’s commitment to making good wines which sell on their own merits without help from being part of any notable appellation (these are IGP Côtes de Gascogne) bodes well for the quality of the Armagnac range, and for the future of this estate.
When tasting the Armagnacs, what impressed me was the quality across the range. One would expect La Reserve de Gaston (20 year old Ugni Blanc, Gaston’s favourite, and 10 year old Folle Blanche, introduced by Mathieu) to be good, and it was a delightful approachable sipper. Spicy warmth, with dates, cinnamon, pecans, baked apricots, coffee and brioche. The Collection XO, a blend of 20 and 30 year olds, was much more rancio with walnuts, coffee, prunes and ginger. The L’Age d’Or, a 40 year old, had refined tannins, candied orange, honeysuckle, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, prunes and a hint of tar on a very long classy finish.
The vintages were very sound. The 1989 Ugni Blanc had meaty leather, coffee, pecans and cinnamon with even tannins fieriness and sweetness, and a finish of dates, smoke and coffee. The 1982 Ugni Blanc, bottled in 2018, was perfumed, elegant, with marzipan, clove, cinnamon aromas, and a smoky, tarry, treacly palate with a very peppery kick. I was even more impressed by the 2001 Folle Blanche, Brut de Fut 51.5%, which was unique. Intense marmalade, polish and pecan aromas, with a massive smoky surge on the palate, tannic grip in balance with its fiery warmth, and a long tingling marmalade finish.
But the really telling part of this tasting was the less expensive end of the range. The VS 3 year old L’Age de Glace is excellent, and this expression often wins the Talent de l’Armagnac Armagnac on Ice category. Aged for a time in their l’Escoubasso wine barrels (a late harvest sweet Petit Manseng), this 100% Folle Blanche is rounded with dried apricot, orange, nutmeg, prunes, brioche and banana aromas. The finish over delivers for its price, and there is a satisfying fiery surge, but nothing too raucous – an achievement given its youth.
So too is the blanche, also 100% Folle Blanche. Aromas were a little shy when served very cold, mainly very ripe pear and rosemary stalk. But once warmed a little, intense floral aromas emerged, with yellow or mirabelle plums. The palate lingered long and clean with a floral fruity flourish of violets and fresh cherries.
New consumers do not always plump for the most expensive complex offerings in a range, not least because the more unusual flavours and higher tannin levels might well be off putting. Investment in hero products like L’Age de Glace creates interest and brand awareness, which can be used to create interest in exploring the more specialist and complex Armagnacs available. The quality of L’Age de Glace in particular will hopefully bode well for the commercial future of Pellehaut, as funds for investment are vital when building up Armagnac stocks.
Above all else, Pellehaut know how to enjoy their Armagnacs. Our engaging hosts Noemie (left) and Aurélie, wife of Mathieu (centre), seen here with my tour guide Amanda Garnham from BNIA, gave me some tips for how to get the most from their range:
As a digestif, Armagnac should be served at the same time as dessert. It’s too late to serve it with or after the coffee!
Cocktails work best with both blanche and L’Age de Glace included in them. Without the oak flavours of the latter, you can be left with too much of the tails of distillation flavours of the former. Suggestions they gave me were:
- Blanche, l’Age de Glace and passion fruit juice – which must be really good quality and not too sweet. I loved this when I tried it at home.
- Mojito – muddle mint, lime peel and sugar. Add blanche, l’Age de Glace and sparkling water. I tried this at home – so refreshing, lovely with a Thai curry though don’t overmuddle or you get limey pond water!
If you visit Pellehaut, make sure you buy something as they are hard to come by in the UK. All the more reason for visiting Gascony I suppose….and if you do, take a car 😉