“You need to taste Baron de Sigognac. Quality benchmark Armagnac, at a sensible price.” Those were the words of one of my WSET Diploma spirits lecturers.
So I dutifully procured Baron de Sigognac VS and produced a WSET Diploma course (far from perfect) tasting note thus:
“Appearance: Medium gold. Nose without water: straw, raisin, prune, pineapple, toffee, polish, ginger. Nose with water: marmalade, pastries, tarte tatin, cooked butter, honey. Palate: dry, smooth, full body, tannins evident but integrated, Pronounced flavour intensity, walnuts, hazelnuts, coffee, lilies, prunes, marmalade, honey, pastries. Medium finish, some complexity. Quality: balance of body and flavour, some length and complexity, intense defined flavours, though aromas light in strength, they were defined. Overall very good.“
In other words, this is an Armagnac which over delivers as against its ageing duration and price point. It is also widely available in the UK (though not in supermarkets), so an ideal benchmark for students facing a spirits blind tasting examination. The definition of flavours helps fix in the mind the defining characteristics of Armagnac, as against other aged spirits, notably Cognac. It was because I had tasted Baron de Sigognac that I knew, when exam time came, that the spirit in front of me was Cognac, not Armagnac. So my lecturer was, of course, absolutely right.
It was therefore an honour to visit the distillery and cellars of Baron de Sigognac and its sister brand, Chateau de Bordeneuve, early in November 2019, with Amanda Garnham from BNIA. Our host was the genial and incredibly knowledgeable commercial export director Jerome Castledine who, fortunately for my comprehension, is English.
This Armagnac house is still family owned and run, and they control all aspects of their business. They grow their own grapes in their own vineyards, they make the wines naturally by fermentation on the fine lees, they have their own shiny copper short column continuous alembic, and they age all their Armagnacs in their own cellars, or chais.
There is nothing unduly showy or ostentatious about this house, which can trace its origins back to 1604 (and there is evidence of Armagnac production from this area from the 1400s!). Its USP is simply the time, patience and savoir-faire it brings to the making of its Armagnacs. This is nicely exemplified by the legend of Baron de Sigognac who, it is said, replaced conventional clocks in his cellar with a bespoke timepiece marked with 10, not 12 divisions on its face. The seconds became years, the big hand marked the decades, and the small hand marked the centuries. Time, patience and savoir-faire indeed.
It’s all about the Armagnac here. No wines are made for sale. The grape varieties are Ugni Blanc, the grape of Cognac (floral, fruity, light and mellifluous, in Jerome’s words) and Baco (fat, buttery, unctuous and ageworthy, again in Jerome’s words). The grapes are grown on the famous tawny sandy soils of Bas Armagnac, which has good drainage over a layer of clay. The surrounding forests shield the vineyards from frost.
The cellar we visited is “humid” as opposed to “dry”. It has the requisite thick walls and beaten earth floor which keep it consistently cool and damp, a feature evident even when the Worshipful Company of Distillers visited in June 2019, when it was very hot. Jerome advised us that this humid cellar produces a fruit driven style of Armagnac with “mellifluous” alcohol.
The wood used is of crucial importance. It is French, and the new make spirit goes straight into new oak, only being transferred out after a year. The inside of each barrel is charred not merely on the sides, but also on the top and bottom. Armagnac destined for blending tends to be aged in looser grained oak so it can age more rapidly. Conversely, Armagnacs destined to be vintage expressions for long ageing go into tighter grained oak to slow down the process and allow the Armagnac to express itself as fully as possible over time.
The Armagnacs are rarely left in barrel for more than 40 years, after which time it is thought that it becomes too bitter. It is then transferred into a glass demijohn so it can be preserved at its best. From this vessel, Armagnacs can then be bottled to order.
When it comes to bottling, petites eaux, which are a blend of Armagnac spirit and water, are never used. To dilute to bottling strength, if this is done, only osmosis water is used.
In the tasting room, we began with the VS, my notes of which differ little from those above. Jerome explained that Baron de Sigognac go to much trouble to get this right, as it is most people’s first venture into Armagnac, and it needs to be good enough to hold its own in a cocktail. It is a blend of Armagnacs aged 3-5 years, mostly from Ugni Blanc. He suspects it is of relatively generous quality for a VS and I would certainly agree with that. Jerome also knows that it has to be consistent in terms of its style.
Next up was the 10 year old. Elegant and rounded with trademark prunes, pastry and hazelnuts in abundance with an evolving finish. This sells particularly well in the UK market.
The XO Platinum was a different beast altogether, and had spent a generous 15 years in tight grained oak. It was tarry, smokey and woody with an exotic spicy perfume, despite which it was fresh and elegant. 15 year olds are regarded as entry level for the Asian market, and this one does very well there.
The 20 year old was different again, with abundant nuttiness. After the inviting aromas of walnuts, pecans, dates, and prune, the palate on entry had intensity with tannic bite and fire in balance, smouldering on to a lingering wood smoke finish.
The 25 year old was another contrast, this time sweet and mellow, with a nose of marzipan, sandalwood and walnuts. There was tannic attack initially on the palate which soon softened into coffee, chocolate, and pecan nuts.
In the blends, the Baco percentage increases with age, but the vintages are either all Baco, or Baco dominant.
The 1981 was an exotic creature, ethereal, round and light with complex aromas of dates, pepper, clove, cinnamon and wood smoke with a long exotic perfumed finish. The idea of a sip after a tagine sprang to mind.
The 1976 was packed with sundried fruits, almost certainly reflecting the hot summer that year. Concentrated and voluptuous with raisins, prunes, dates, nutmeg and vanilla balanced by tannic structure and exotic perfume. A post prandial sipper after a special dinner.
Just when I thought we had concluded, Jerome produced a 1924! This had been bottled on 11th June 2019 from a bonbonne. This beat the 1929 I tasted at Darroze the next day by 5 years and was therefore the oldest Armagnac I tasted on this tour – and indeed, have ever tasted! It was delicate yet expressive, with candied peel, toasted walnuts and jasmine on the nose, and a rounded yet focused palate of prunes, tobacco, forest floor, and Christmas cake made with very well macerated fruit. It was certainly not at the end of its life, and was everything you could want in your Armagnac.
After 8 Armagnacs one would think it was time to call it a day – my novice taste buds starting to show distinct signs of being anaesthetised. But no – it was time to taste La Grande Josiane, a liqueur combining Armagnac, sugar syrup and 100% natural extracts of bitter Seville oranges, Jamaican coffee beans, cocoa, and Madagascan vanilla of 36% abv. It has roughly 1/3 of the sugar of its nearest equivalents Cointreau and Grand Marnier, and was awarded 95 points by Wine Enthusiast to become their top awarded liqueur in 2019. It had an appealing balance of citric tang, spiciness, sweetness and alcoholic fire, which reinvigorated my palate, and reminded me of the delicious pastèque jam I was enjoying at my guesthouse (made with an unusual white fleshed watermelon, citrus fruits and spices). It can be served over ice on its own, or by discerning mixologists making unique cocktails, but I would love to try it in a crêpe!
The more you taste wines and spirits, the more you realise there are some producers who seem to nail it across the board. It can be hard to pinpoint why or how, they just do.
Of course we WSET students know that quality comes from balance, length, intensity and complexity. Of these, intensity is the hardest concept to grasp, but for those struggling with it, look no further. These Armagnacs have flavours which express themselves with pinpoint precision, giving each one its own unique voice. If you are someone who thus far has thought all Armagnacs taste the same, then get yourself some of these. Not only will you be able to taste the array of flavours as the palate evolves (another sign of quality), you will see from what you note down that they could not be more different, or indeed, more versatile.
Baron de Sigognac is not available in UK supermarkets, but it is not hard to find in independent specialist stores both on high streets and online. As I hope many are finding during this curious down time, there is so much more for taste explorers to find by venturing away from the comfort zone of the supermarket aisles. I hope this encourages you to look further afield….for which I can assure you there will be immense reward!