All Armagnac houses play their part in the history of what is France’s oldest spirit. But few are as woven into the fabric of that history as Maison Castarède. Registered in 1832 as the first Armagnac trading house, the Castarède family gave the company its name and coat of arms (for dog lovers, this includes a greyhound) before this, in 1818, when ennobled by Louis XVIII. Even before that the house had been trading, but under the name of Jules Nismes Delclou and Cie.
Six generations of Castarèdes have, over centuries, acquired, aged and crafted top quality Armagnacs from across the appellation. As someone who managed to anaesthetise her taste buds in a spirits exam, I can assure you that the assessment of quality and provenance in spirits is far from easy. It requires an unrivaled palate and knowledge, and the ability to nurture and foster excellent relationships with producers, and with merchants, both locally, and around the globe.
As testament to its long family line of expertise, Castarède can boast a collection of vintage Armagnacs dating back to 1893. On my visit, I was honoured to be offered a tasting of a 1969 (an important year in my life….) from a single producer which, I am told, is a relative rarity. Dark copper in colour, a nose of cherry kernel, candied orange, pecans, maple and chocolate invited me in, and a balanced structured palate with spices and pecans was my reward.
After about 40 years of age, Armagnacs are stored in glass bonbonnes rather than barrel to prevent further loss of alcohol (lower than 40% abv they cannot be sold as Armagnac), and in glass they can keep for many years but they won’t develop much if any further. Anyone wanting to buy a gift for a big birthday can buy Armagnac from any birth year, and so in 2019, vintages with a 9 on the end have been selling well.
A rather more famous beneficiary of Castarède’s generosity was one Tony Blair, who as one of the G8 leaders convening at Evian in 2003, was given a bottling of Castarède Armagnac from his birth year, 1953. The bottles presented to the G8 leaders are displayed in a room containing c15th frescoes at Chateau de Maniban, bought by Castarède 30 years ago, which is now its base in Bas Armagnac, and where Castarède now has its own 16 hectare vineyard of Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard and (planted in 2015) Baco.
So Castarède no longer just ages and trades. They grow their own grapes, they make their own wine, which they distill and age at the Chateau.
Florence Castarède is the present owner, and it is clear that she is a tireless ambassador for both Castarède, and Armagnac. She was absent at a trade fair in Budapest, and it was her lovely mother who kindly welcomed us into the Chateau’s tasting room which was also the family’s most tastefully appointed lounge and dining room!
Amanda Garnham of BNIA and I were shown around Chateau de Maniban by Michel, who is both vineyard manager and cellarmaster. Of Swiss origin, he has had a varied career, and has been here for a couple of years so far – the previous incumbents were here for 36 and 25 years respectively so I hope he is ready for the long haul. Michel enjoys the variety of what must be both a challenging and rewarding role. He explained that Florence is aiming to create a house style which could be said to be “feminine”, with fruit forward and floral style, not too strong with an avoidance of aggressive alcohol. Castarède Armagnac blends are also aged for longer than the legally required minimum period of years.
As part of his training, Florence has shown Michel what bad Armagnac is like, and as I had yet to taste any, I asked Michel how he found it. Think hydraulic oil and excess of acetic acid which burns your mouth such that you can’t taste afterwards for days!
Our visit came part way through aeration of ageing Armagnac, an important part of the ageing process for younger spirits. Twice a year Armagnac is piped from a large foudre over a sulphur plate and sprayed into a bucket. The aim is to lose the aggressive alcohol of youth.
Michel led us to a barn where a gas fired alambic was in pieces ready to be cleaned, with distillation due to commence the following week (our visit was in early November 2019). This was a spirits student’s delight; you can see in one photo the level of the wine on the plate, which is higher than the bottom lip of the cap, which means the rising alcohol vapour is forced down by the caps into the wine. The continuous as opposed to batch distillation means that the wine and vapours are in constant contact. It is this, along with the relatively low percentage alcohol by volume off the still, which results in the eau de vie being so full of flavour. The other photo shows a coiled pipe, which is the condenser, which you rarely get to see.
Distillation strength is set according to their plans for the spirit, so a spirit destined to be sold as a young VS, for example, will have a higher alcohol percentage by volume, and be less characterful, than one meant for ageing longer term.
Armagnac distillation being a continuous process, it cannot safely be left unattended, so the distillers eat and sleep in this barn, and change shift every 8 hours. They have another wood fired alambic they bring in as well, to speed up the process. Michel explained that compared to the double pot still batch distillation process of Cognac, the Armagnac alambics are far more energy efficient, using 4-5 times less propane.
Michel said they would distill 1,200 hectolitres of wine, 10% of which will be left as the new make spirit. He expected distillation to last for 9 days. Michel was pleased with 2019 as a vintage, even though it was a little too hot! I can attest to that having suffered 43°C heat when in the Loire in July. Gascons are no strangers to summer heat, being situated so near to the Spanish border. But this year the heat lasted far longer than usual.
We adjourned to the house for some tasting. Blends came first. Gaspard de Maniban is a VS, 45.3%. Although not especially long, it had a range of pronounced flavours of straw, baked lemon, prunes, pastry and hints of ginger. A great cocktail mixer.
The VSOP was more for your autumn fireside. There were sweet notes of plum tarte tatin, toffee, prunes, orange, cinnamon and nutmeg and it was quite fiery.
The XO, a 20 year old, at 40%, looked like and smelt of mahogany, with slightly sweet notes of treacle and prunes, cakes, pastries and oxidative coffee and walnuts, nicely balanced with tannins. A mellow sipping digestif for special dinners.
On to vintages, and there were some quirky and hugely varied character profiles here. The 1978 was copper amber in colour and of perfumed character with lychee, rose petals and liquorice evident in addition to the more familiar marzipan and prunes. It had a long pastry finish. The 1959, on the other hand, had bags of rancio buttery flavour and smokiness, as well as floral perfume and cherry and marzipan notes. See above for the 1969!
When it comes to wine, I’m no collector, since aside from lack of funds and lack of a cellar, I struggle with the idea of keeping it not drinking it. But I totally get the idea of a collection of Armagnacs one can sip and return to at whim with such a variety of styles to accumulate.
So if collecting is your thing, why not head to Castarède’s Paris showroom in Boulevard Haussmann, an uncanny historical link it its past, since Baron Haussman, better known for his renovation of Bordeaux and then Paris, assisted the Castarède family with its Armagnac trade while Deputy of Nérac between 1832 and 1839.
Castarède Armagnacs are also available in the UK. Great Western Wines in Bath have the VSOP, the XO and some vintages, including a 1946!