“One day will be the Day of Armagnac. When that day comes, we will be ready!”
Successful enterpreneurs have one thing in common: clarity of vision. And this is the vision of Jerôme Delord who is, with his brother Sylvain, the 4th generation of renowned Armagnac house Delord. I visited them in November 2019 with my incredibly helpful guide, Amanda Garnham, from BNIA.
Family owned and run since inception in 1893, Delord was founded by travelling distiller and cellarmaster Prosper Delord. In contrast, his great grandson Jerôme began his working life at Cadbury Schweppes! But his dream was always to partner with his brother and carry on the family firm, a dream which became reality nearly 20 years ago. His time in big business beverages means that he brings an unapologetically commercial approach to the House of Delord, while his brother Sylvain continues the family savoir-faire of creating and curating their treasury of Armagnac stocks.
The embracing of both the traditions of the past and the opportunities of the future sees Delord using branding which features font derived from Jerôme’s father’s handwriting, and the immaculate moustache of Prosper Delord on most of its bottles. But for the the relatively new creation, Blanche Armagnac, they have commissioned a post modernist label featuring imagery based on the view over the Delord cellar buildings in street art form, which will also appear on the wall of their distillery.
Delord undertake and control all aspects of production. They do not sell wine – it’s (almost) all about the Armagnac here – except for some Floc de Gascogne and their grandmother’s recipe for Pruneaux d’Agen!
So Delord grow their own grapes in an expanding but currently 45 hectare vineyard which contains all four of the main Armagnac grapes. Over half of the vineyard output is Ugni Blanc, the grape of Cognac, but there is also Colombard, Baco and Folle Blanche. They have invested in machine harvesting, the aim being to preserve freshness, which is of vital importance because sulphur dioxide cannot be used. They vinify their grape juice in their own high tech winery in Lannepax, where they are based.
Delord are one of the last to distil in Armagnac, their chosen date being 7th January, which conveniently follows on from the bottling to order of its Armagnacs in the run up to Christmas. In the meantime, the wine is preserved as fresh as it can possibly be in temperature controlled tanks, set up 5 years ago. This was one of the most expensive investments to date, but necessary in order to maximise quality. Jerôme remarked that “something is always going on at Delord“; this investment wasn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last.
Delord have four stills, and are unusual in that two of these are double copper pot stills of the kind used to create Cognac. They are all small stills, and the production of their 350 barrels per annum takes 5 weeks. Would the next investment be to replace them all with one large still for the sake of economies of scale? Of course not – the different stills create eau de vie of unique character which can be combined to create blends which are so much better together than they would be apart.
Jerôme took much delight in telling me that one of their two Armagnac alambics is shown in diagramatic form in WSET course books. I was able to confirm that this remains the case by showing him my Diploma Level 4 book which I had brought to refresh my memory while on tour. Here is Amanda with the sketch itself (she is a contributor to the original and the 2013 edition).
Jerôme whisked us off into the cellar, via the Paradise containing their most ancient stocks which, having reached their potential in barrel, were now resting silently in the dark in giant glass jars, or bonbonnes. Here is one occupant, almost 120 years young.
The cellar was not the spic and span showcase I had experienced in other houses. There was clear evidence on hand to show that there were many more spiders in residence than there were barrels. It was not a comfortable place for an arachnophobe such as I. The spider theme continued in that the Armagnac alambics have “spider” plates which are prized for making the oldest Armagnacs.
It was a relief to move on to some tasting, albeit in the spider infested cellar – that is until I realised that Jerôme had over estimated my Armagnac tasting skills. He decided that he would conduct a whistle stop comparison of Armagnacs made from their two Armagnac continuous alambics, the Sier which dates from 1900 (they need to look after it as Sier ceased production in 1936), and the Orthès (ditto – they too ceased production, in 1960 – for more about alambics click on Amanda Garnham’s piece about them here: https://distilling.com/distillermagazine/copper-love/ )
So to all those who say all Armagnac tastes the same, proof that this is a fallacy can be found below. This was a glimpse into the world of Armagnac’s alchemists, the cellarmasters.
We tasted Baco 2018 from the two different stills, which were ageing in different barrels, i.e. Bartholomo medium toast, and Allary medium toast. The samples were taken straight from the barrels. Though young, the colour of ageing was starting to show (Armagnac is colourless when it comes off the still).
- Sier Bartholomo: very vanilla forward, fruity and fiery.
- Orthès Bartholomo: very prune forward, woody, but sweet too with notes of date.
- Orthès Allary: restrained, fresh and floral.
- Sier Allary – herbaceous notes.
The woody character only seemed pronounced at this stage of ageing with the Bartholomo barrels. The fruitier floral notes seemed most pronounced from the Orthès still and we preferred those samples, while appreciating that the Sier samples would be very well suited to ageing.
Having established that the Orthès samples were more approachable, Jerôme poured us two more Orthès samples:
- Ugni Blanc – orange, cinnamon, sandalwood and incense with big tannins and fire.
- Folle Blanche – rich cherry, fig and toffee, big tannins, and a long vanilla finish.
While my brain and taste buds recovered from this rapid upping of my tasting game, Jerôme took us to the bottling line which was an impressive operation in full swing in the pre Christmas quarter. These bottles were destined for Russia and China, where Delord Armagnac is particularly prized. The bottles are rinsed out with white (unaged) Armagnac, which they find much more effective than any cleaning agent. Each bottle and wooden case is sealed with wax, the colour depending on the age of the Armagnac. More about this later!
Back in the tasting room, in Jerôme’s grandmother’s former home, Jerôme poured yet more samples. Even after a week in Armagnac this was daunting, as I had been to another house first thing, and had a flight to catch late in the afternoon!
I was very taken with the blanche. It was one of the most refined samples I tasted. Enticing aromas of pear cake led on to a rounded palate where the fieriness of youth built gradually rather than being aggressive. Elegant and drinkable, there were fresh red cherries and elderflower notes to enjoy in a long and fruity finish.
The 25 year old blend, a favourite amongst Delord’s customers, had smooth barely noticeable alcohol, and powerful prune, toasted hazelnut, clove and smoke character balanced with sweet juicy apricots. Approachable and satisfying.
The 1988 had class. Light, fruity and elegant, with toasted pecans, tarry notes and wood smoke and a long marzipan finish.
L’Authentique is a blend of 5 vintages, or at least 30 years in age, and 45.9% abv. Aromas of pastries, marzipan and cigar smoke led on to a balanced palate where some fieriness was balanced by sweetness and tannic attack. Prunes and dates evolved into a long incense finish. This was quite a mouthful! One for connoisseurs.
Creation No. 10 is a small batch blend of 3 vintages, 1988, 1990 and 1993. Again an impeccable balance of sweet apricot pastries and caramel with tannic structure, heat and freshness with a long finish. Craftsmanship very evident here.
Finally a 1990 single cask for the French market. A vibrant nose of orange, cinnamon, fig and sandalwood, and a fruity palate which built into a smokey cloud of a finish. Perfection.
The house philosophy has always been to create Armagnacs which are not elitist, and easy to drink. They aim to combine quality with affordability. The phrase “easy to drink” might imply mellow alcohol, smoothed out tannins and bags of fruity appeal. But there is much more to this range than that. The key is balance – you can have plenty of tannic structure and fieriness in Armagnac so long as it is in proportion to the acidity, flavour profile and flavour intensity. These Armagnacs had in common refinement and elegance, from the unaged Blanche style through to the vintages.
I was then returned to the bottling room where, again, Jerôme over estimated my capabilities. I was handed what was to become my very own bottle of 25 year old, and made a very lame attempt at sealing it myself. Applying the wax was just about achieved, but the gold powder seal was another matter. I was offered a replacement, but felt it was far better to be able to show folks at home that this bottle was my very own handiwork. As you can see! I blame the preceding tasting…..
The generosity of Jerôme Delord did not stop there. He kindly hosted a delicious lunch, and then as I had no room for his kind gift in my luggage, he very kindly despatched it to me, along with another from elsewhere. It arrived safely! You will note that it has been personalised. I will cherish it always – even when I have consumed the contents!
So what does all this say about Delord? My “take home” message was that this is a house which takes enormous pride in its traditions, heritage, experience, and craftsmanship. When the seal is applied to each bottle, by hand, the Delord brothers are giving you their assurance that they have striven at every stage to produce the very best Armagnac they can, and they are personally expressing the fervent hope that you will enjoy drinking it as much as they enjoyed making it.
This personal touch sums up not just Delord, but Armagnac as a whole. As Amanda kindly drove me back across the Gers to Toulouse airport for my homeward flight to Bristol, I knew I was leaving a very special place.
It remains for me to thank not only Jerôme Delord for making me so welcome, but also my indefatigable guide Amanda Garnham for arranging my tour so successfully, and for her own hospitality, the BNIA, the WSET and the Worshipful Company of Distillers, who so kindly awarded me a scholarship which funded my 5 night visit.
I also thank Hélène & Jean Royer of Les Bruhasses, a superb guesthouse which was my base for this tour. They could not have made me more comfortable, and it was lovely to try the family wines from Domaine Millet while I was there which I can recommend!
This tour was outstanding from beginning to end. I learnt a huge amount. I will never forget my time in Gascony, and I very much hope that I will return with my family in the near future.
If reading about my visit has inspired you to visit Gascony, I recommend that you contact the BNIA which is a mine of useful information: http://www.armagnac.fr/bnia
You can fly direct from Bristol to Toulouse and it is a good hour and a half’s drive from there to the Armagnac region. But you might want to take a car as many of this region’s finest products are hard to find at home!