Armagnac Adventures: Domaine de Laguille

img_1698Domaine Laguille is found near Éauze in the westerly Bas Armagnac section of the Armagnac region.  The tawny sandy soils for which it is known can be seen in this picture.  You can see below the ancient timber framed farmhouse, which houses a cosy tasting room and the estate’s very own alambic.  They grow their own grapes, make their own wine, make their own eau de vie, age their own Armagnacs, and do all of their own marketing.  Not only that, and in common with tradition in many Armagnac estates, they combine wines from the last vintage with Armagnac from the vintage before to make the fruity appetising aperitif Floc de Gascogne.  The estate’s website paints a picture of quaintness, its Armagnacs presented in traditional tall slim understated bottles.

img_1681But things are changing at Domaine Laguille.  Sandra Lemarechal joined them 3 years ago.  She previously worked at Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (B.N.I.A.) for 8 years, but her background was in export, so her aim is to expand Domaine Laguille’s export horizons.

In order to reach a wider range of consumers, Sandra began to create a wider range of Armagnacs.  The Laguille trademark had been rounded, supple sweet Armagnacs, not least because new oak barrels were proving prohibitively expensive for small producers to purchase.  The range comprised the conventional blends of increasing minimum age, and a limited range of vintages.  Sandra therefore persuaded the estate’s owners, Guy and Colette Vignoli, to add small batch offerings to the range.  These Armagnacs are drier and less rounded in style, designed to appeal to spirits drinkers more generally.

img_1688Sandra believed that if a wider range of consumers was to be reached, the packaging and labelling of Laguille’s products needed to be brought up to date.  Traditional Armagnac bottles have taken various forms over the years, so Sandra was able to rediscover a wider shorter bottle shape which had heritage, but which also fitted recent bottle shape trends in gin and whisky.  As for labelling, Sandra has combined the estate’s traditional styling and imagery with a modern wraparound wooden label reflecting the wood so important to ageing Armagnac and the ancient forests of Gascony.

Being from Somerset, I couldn’t help but notice just how similar Laguille’s new bottles and labels were to a certain cider maker’s apple gin!

img_1689Not content with this, Sandra has gone further with product development and explored options for cask finishes, with which whisky consumers are now so familiar.  The Scotch Malt Whisky Association kindly procured a cask made from Bordeaux Limousin oak used once only by Tobermory Distillery on the isle of Mull for its peated Ledaig expression.  Laguille Armagnac from 2010, which had been aged in new oak, was then finished in it, the aim being to preserve the essence of the Armagnac, but adding to it a surprise peated element.  At four weeks results were not encouraging.  But after 3½ months, Sandra and Guy were delighted with the balance achieved.

The cask can’t be left to dry out, so younger Armagnac has been put in it. It was not aged in new oak, and is lighter in profile, so it will not be released if the result isn’t balanced.

Other intriguing cask finish options have been explored, though these are a closely guarded secret, not least because other Armagnac producers have since released their own cask finishes – see my previous piece about Chateau de Laubade.

Cask finishes are controversial.  There is debate amongst producers as to whether regulations should prevent them from being called Armagnac.  Some say with scorn that cask finishes are not needed if the Armagnac is good enough.  But I think this observation might miss the point.  In the world of wine, for example, every wine has its place.  Sweet “white zinfandel” might not be to the taste of the connoisseur, but everyone starts their wine journey somewhere, and wines like this play a valuable role in introducing new consumers to the category as a whole.  Cask finishing isn’t the same thing of course, but the point is that by using a concept which is familiar to consumers of other brown aged spirits, the potential reach of Armagnac as a whole can be increased.  Looking to her domestic market, Sandra observed that while the French consume 200 million bottles of Scotch per annum, they consume only 2-3 million bottles of Armagnac.  The 200 bottles of the 2010 cask finish sold out.  I suspect cask finishes are here to stay, and they demonstrate the flexibility and innovation within Armagnac which can be harnessed to grow its army of admirers – so long as the character of Armagnac remains intact.

So what does an Armagnac peated whisky cask finish taste like?  It was cask strength at 53% abv and medium mahogany in colour.  The nose had delicate spices, vanilla, heather, sherry and raisins, with medicinal notes.  The palate had tannic fiery bite, and began with the iodine peaty flavours of Ledaig, evolving into the sweetness of prunes and apricots.  It says much for the character of the Armagnac that it wasn’t swamped by what is probably one of the peatiest of peaty whiskies, but if this category is to succeed, I would prefer to see a more integrated array of flavours bringing something new to the party.  That said, it was discernibly and incontrovertibly Armagnac – and let’s face it, there are plenty of gins which are meant to, but don’t, taste discernibly of juniper!

I can’t wait to hear what Domaine Laguille get up to next – some intriguing options were mentioned which might well produce some new and fascinating flavours!

img_1703As we toured the winery and cellar, Sandra showed us their very own alambic, which they bought in 1990.  This sizeable investment was made so they could control their style of Armagnac and accentuate its fruity elements.  Guy adapted it with two pipes so he can decide whether to leave in the heads and tails or not.  For Baco he keeps them, but for Colombard he usually removes them.  Their blanche Armagnac is 100% Colombard.  It was Ugni Blanc and Baco, but Sandra wanted Colombard which she felt would be more punchy and better for cocktails.  I really enjoyed the blanche, there were poached pear and pineapple hints with a steely edge.  The palate was nicely rounded, and not as fiery as some blanche I have tried.  It was fruity with a long cherry finish and a pepper kick.  I agreed with Sandra that this would be great fun for mixologists to play with and create something unique.  Shame it’s not in the UK yet – our spirits buyers are not yet brave enough to take on something relatively niche.

As for viticulture, Laguille now has sustainable certification, and Sandra would like to go organic, but Folle Blanche is fragile and trickier to grow on a certified organic basis.  However, the hope is that they can grow organic Baco.

It’s great to see radical forward thinking ideas emanating from what on the outside looks like a sleepy, quaint backwater.  But make no mistake – Domaine Laguille might be steeped in tradition, but it is pushing itself and its boundaries to reinvigorate Armagnac, and to secure its own future.

Here are more tasting notes: most of these are available to wine shops stocked by UK wholesaler Vindependents:

img_1708VSOP: aged in Gascon oak which gives lots of spices, with bread, toast, sawn wood, deep caramelised orange and toasted hazelnuts.  Round and sweet.  A great all rounder.

XO (10 years minimum): prunes, orange, pecans, wholemeal toast, quite fiery with a tannic bite.  For those who like a bit of grip.

10yo small batch (selected barrels): toasted pecans, raisins, cigar smoke, baked apricot, and a very long exotic spicy finish.  A little fiery.  Warming after dinner sipper.

20yo small batch (1997 bottled 2017): everything Armagnac should be, lovely balance of fire, sweetness and tannin.  Rounded with prunes, pastry, hazelnuts, and a long apricot pastry finish.  A special dinner digestif.

Post Script: Since my visit, the cask finish technique has been further debated.  The outcome of this is that Armagnac producers using finishing as a technique cannot call their product Armagnac, and instead must specify a statement such as “Armagnac-based spirit drink”. 

No room here to comment – but ponder this – if a similar view was taken for whisky, surely there would be many whiskies which could no longer call themselves the same.

Author: Diana Lyalle BA (Oxon) DipWSET

Lawyer turned wine educator and tasting events host based in Wraxall, North Somerset. Wine Specialist for Harvey Nichols Bristol. All opinions expressed are those of Diana Lyalle only. Email: Mobile: 07772055928

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