One of Armagnac’s many charms is that it is, as a category, small but perfectly formed. While Cognac shifts a whopping 200 million bottles per annum, the equivalent figure for Armagnac is merely 4 million bottles per annum from family run estates. You might therefore expect that there would be a handful of estates all operating in a fairly standard fashion. But the articles I have written about the Armagnac houses I visited in November 2019 have revealed that there seem to be almost infinite variations in the way houses of various sizes involve themselves in production and marketing. Some undertake all aspects of production and even make wines for sale as well. Others buy Armagnac from small producers which they age and bottle themselves.
But at Baron de Lustrac, things are done differently. It is a boutique scale business, consisting of Ina Bornemann and José Barbe, who have contracts with 20 small individual estates with whom they have forged relationships of trust and respect over many years. They seek out Armagnac’s finest treasures, but rather than buy and age them in their own cellars, the Armagnacs remain in the cellars where they were born. José then becomes their cellar master, watching over them, aerating them as and when necessary, and blending if/when he sees fit.
Baron de Lustrac’s own cellar is relatively modest, so instead of going there, I was privileged to meet Ina over lunch with Amanda Garnham of BNIA at Château Bellevue in Cazaubon. Ina is classy, charismatic, friendly and highly intelligent. She leads a busy and fascinating life, dividing her time between the Armagnac region itself and the metropolis of Bordeaux. Her role in Baron de Lustrac is as national and international brand ambassador, while José keeps his expert eye on the Armagnac.
I digress here because this lunch was a treat for me as a lover of wine and food pairings. The dishes were all impeccably presented and thought through, with wines recommended by Thomas, the sommelier, which took wine and food pairing to heights of excellence I had not previously enjoyed. Thomas took particular delight in offering me wines I would not have tried before, whether local or from further afield. He was encyclopaedic about wine, but he also knew exactly how each wine would work with each dish. Anyone thinking of becoming a sommelier would do well to visit Chateau Bellevue. It might not have the polish of Michelin starred fine dining establishments, but you will nevertheless find yourself in food and wine matching heaven. They also know their Armagnacs too, as you would expect. Read more here: https://www.chateaubellevue.org/en/
Just as this lunch was a chance to enjoy the finer things in life, so too are the Armagnacs of Baron de Lustrac. There is no doubt that this is a premium end house. Their specialism is vintages. There is a blend, but this is no youthful cocktail component. It is a 25 year old!
Vintages are heaven for collectors, and amongst these vintages there are rarities. Folle Blanche, the fickle and highly prized grape variety with its approachable floral fruity notes, isn’t generally recognised for its ageing potential – the ageworthy hat usually fits Baco best – but here we find selected batches of Folle Blanche as a single varietal in vintage form. The various vintages available online in the UK come with wooden gift boxes.
Vintage Armagnacs make special gifts for milestone birthdays and other anniversaries, giving full expression to the meaning of the passage of time. After all, Armagnacs, like people, need time and careful nurturing to reach their full potential.
But the especially lovely thing about Baron de Lustrac is that they are small and adaptable enough to be able to offer not merely rarity, quality and provenance, but also bespoke bottlings. They bottle to order in a wide range of quantities, from 35cl (half bottle) to 300cl! There is an array of bottles to choose from, including mouthblown Rothschild bottles for rare and old vintages, decanters, and old cognac bottles. There is even a personalisation service available. Those seeking attention to detail and exclusivity need look no further than here: http://armagnac-baron-de-lustrac.com/en/h/
Ina very kindly gave me a sample of their 2001 to taste at home (see photo above – the cake is co-incidental, not a food pairing suggestion!). It is beautiful to look at in the glass with its copper arms, amber core and mahogany hints. The nose has it all; elegant yet precise aromas of pencil shavings, walnuts, acacia, dried apricots, hints of polish, as well as the Armagnac trademarks of prunes and pastry. So often such an inviting nose leads to a disappointment on the palate but not here. This is a vivacious 18 year old, and yet, unlike 18 year old humans of my acquaintance, it also has elegance and finesse. Warming yet smooth, with marzipan and apricot sweet notes initially, the palate moves on through savoury walnut skin bite, then wisps of smoke, and when you think you’re done, it morphs again, into plum tarte tatin. I could go on. The balance of fire, fruit, and developmental flavours is pretty much perfect. Those preferring powerful exotic perfume, or strong tannins, might find this one a little light, but those wanting a thinking person’s Armagnac which they can sip and savour will be more than satisfied.
Inevitably, with this operation being so heavily dependent upon two individuals, the inescapable realities of the human, as opposed to the Armagnac, ageing process are becoming a consideration. José, now in his 60’s, has been involved in creating and curating Armagnac since he was 14 years old! Succession planning when your cellarmaster has a lifetime of experience is not easy. But this is a house of enviable pedigree. Whatever the future may hold, I do hope that these Armagnac treasures will continue to be created, curated and enjoyed for many vintages to come.