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.

Armagnac Adventures: Chateau de Lacquy

Heritage remains of crucial importance for many Armagnac producers, and it is a sad fact that for some, whose family line ends with the current owners, it is hard to see how their production will continue.  It was therefore heartening to visit Chateau de Lacquy, where it was clear to see how the passion and experience of the senior family members has been passed on to future generations.

This Armagnac house has been in the hands of the same family since 1711 and is the oldest family owned estate producing Armagnac.  Even before 1711, the estate was owned by the Pontac family (Ch. Haut-Brion), and it has been intact since the Middle Ages.  You can see why when you get there.  The approach along a long winding driveway through the 400 hectare estate is magical.  Why would anyone want to leave?

img_1572When you arrive, there is no mistaking the whereabouts of the Armagnac cellar.  It’s walls are black! The Germans, during their wartime occupation, had no difficulty locating the booze.  They also appropriated the alambic (still) for its metal.

Although this is a large estate, only 22 hectares of it is under vine.  It is a true example of Gascon poly culture.  Wheat and vegetable crops are grown, and there is an extensive oak forest which is home to abundant and varied wildlife.

The family have total control over all aspects of the Armagnac production process, all of which happens on the estate, from grape growing, to wine making, to distillation using their own wood fired alambic, to ageing, to bottling and packaging.  An elderly lady who lived on the estate for many years used to bottle the Armagnac to order.  Sadly she is no longer in residence, and inevitably, a machine now takes her place.  A new distillery will be built in the next year, and 1 hectare of vines is planted each year so investment in future production is ongoing.

The grape varieties have been adapted over the years.  Folle Blanche grows especially well here, and prior to the predations of the phylloxera louse, it was the main source of wine for Armagnac here.  But phylloxera changed that, and the grapes now used are roughly 1/3 Folle Blanche (fruity, floral and elegant), 1/3 Baco (replaced Folle Blanche – powerful, fleshy and long lived), and 1/3 Colombard (planted in the 1960’s, powerful, with pepperiness and approachability in youth).  Ugni Blanc, the Cognac workhorse, is also grown but now mostly sold to others for winemaking.  It is not thought to show at its best at Lacquy.  The estate used to make wines of its own for sale, but has chosen in recent years to focus on Armagnac.

img_1573The current owner, or perhaps guardian, Gilles de Boisséson who is the 10th generation of this noble Armagnac family, was absent when Amanda Garnham of BNIA and I arrived.  One of Gilles’ sons, Jean, kindly stepped up to show us around instead.  I did wonder how much he would know, as he apparently worked in Paris and was home for a family visit.  But it soon became clear that Jean is as passionate and committed to the Armagnacs of Lacquy as his father, and indeed, their forebears.

We ventured into the cellar, which has a number of features which make it an ideal place for Armagnac to age.  Much like wine, Armagnac needs consistent temperature and humidity levels and darkness to age successfully.  So this cellar is situated in shade, with insulation provided by its tiled roof and timber framed attic.  The floor, if you can call it that, is of beaten earth, which allows humidity to be absorbed naturally.  The walls are thick, with narrow windows.  There were cobwebs aplenty as we prized open the ancient door and took in the Armagnac aromas, which the angels would otherwise have had for themselves.

img_1575The barrels, 50% of which are new each year, are fashioned by hand by local cooper Bartholomo from local pedunculated oak of varying char levels according to the needs of the eau de vie.  The Armagnac can be moved into different barrels as it ages, according to its requirements.

While we were in the cellar, one of Jean’s brothers and his wife arrived, along with their young son, who conducted a brief but none the less thorough inspection of the cellar.  Apparently satisfied, he and his mother left us, but both brothers enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to explain anything and everything we wanted to know.  So there was now no doubt that when the time comes, Lacquy will be in expert, enthusiastic and committed hands – of both 11th and 12th generations!

img_1577My visit was in early November 2019, and Jean told us that the harvest, in September, had been very good with clean fruit – a particularly pertinent observation bearing in mind that they use Folle Blanche.  The distillation was due to start the following week, at which they aim for 53% and distill the grape varieties separately.  There were various alambic parts on show which enabled an understanding of how the character of Armagnac comes from the vapours being forced through the wine on the plates as they ascend through the still.

There were Armagnacs to taste at the far end of the cellar, starting with a 3 year old blend which was very impressive for an entry level bottling.  It was smooth and surprisingly complex with banana, caramel, prune and vanilla character.  This would be a mixologist’s dream.

img_1576I also tasted a delicate 17 year old with appealing nutty orange character.

Finally a 1999 with poise and magnificent depth of flavour; opening notes of caramel, pecans and coffee evolved into earthiness and prunes.  I didn’t write down the grapes and assumed from its profile it must be Baco; I then found I had taken a photo, so impressed was I with it – and as you can see, 80% Baco – so I have clearly learnt something on this trip! Brut de Fût means cask strength.  Both the cask number and bottle number are shown, so those seeking provenance will find it here.

Back in the shop and tasting room, the brothers decided I needed to try 100% Colombard from 2001 to experience its true character.  Pale mahogany in colour, this was exuberantly exotic with racy notes of spice, pepper and herbaceousness, plenty of tannins and depth of sandalwood flavour on its everlasting finish.  Many thanks to them both for this treat, and also for showing us around.

img_1579It was sad to leave such a magical place, but if ever I need to reminisce their website is first class, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for spirits students and Armagnac lovers.  Everything is on there from information about the soil, the climate, the grapes grown, the winemaking, the distillation and the ageing process, including how to drink it! There are even recipes, for both cuisine and cocktails!  Do have a look: https://www.chateaudelacquy.com/le-chateau-de-lacquy/?lang=en

For those looking to buy, great news.  UK shoppers will find that Master of Malt has a wide range of Lacquy gems available online, including 1999 which they say is 100% Baco – be quick, only 1 left when I looked.  Most bottlings come in relatively understated traditional tall Armagnac bottles,  but for those after a gift, the Carafe de Siecles is stylish and comes with a wooden box.  Whatever you go for, you will be tasting authentic Armagnac heritage at its finest.

Armagnac Adventures: Domaine d’Esperance

Day 1 of my Armagnac tour (November 2019) took in two estates run by women: Castarède, and Domaine d’Espérance.  Women seem to be particularly well equipped in terms of palate to appreciate spirits, so girl power being alive and well in Armagnac comes as no surprise.  Women also tend to favour a collaborative approach, and again, it made natural sense to find that these two estates are also friends – the Montesquious even stayed at Castarède when they first bought Domaine d’Espérance over 30 years ago, before moving in.

img_1564Domaine d’Espérance is owned and managed by the indefatigable Claire de Montesquiou, who is a comtesse; though her noble heritage is soon forgotten when you meet her.  She is generous, friendly, no-nonsense and down to earth, with no pretentious airs or graces whatsoever.  Claire appreciated that this was the first Armagnac experience of my tour, and she patiently explained to me the rudiments of crafting Armagnac without any snootiness at exactly the right level.  Indeed, her estate was an ideal first tour, as the Montesquious undertake all stages of the Armagnac production process on this one site.  They grow grapes, make wine, age Armagnac, and bottle and market everything themselves.  The only aspect they outsource is distillation, Claire favouring the services of an expert mobile distiller who operates 6 months of the year, rather than undertaking distillation herself and having to learn what is needed for two weeks of the year. Sadly I missed this year’s distillation, which was due to begin the next day.  But I learnt so much in this visit that this is perhaps a good thing!

img_1571The approach to the estate is through the vines, which lie in Bas-Armagnac, on its famous tawny sands.  The fickle yet floral Folle Blanche and the ageworthy Baco are the Armagnac grapes, and a range of both well known and local grapes are grown for their wines.  In addition, the estate also makes the local aperitif delicacy Floc de Gascogne, a blend of grape juice and Armagnac which is delicious chilled before dinner.

Selling wines is a great way to show consumers how attention to detail in the vineyard and winery carries through into the quality of the Armagnacs, and at Domaine d’Espérance they have invested over the years to improve quality.  Claire showed us their wine storage facilities, enabling them to keep the wine chilled so that it is in peak condition when the distillation takes places.  In the past, wine quality wasn’t always prioritised by some, in the mistaken assumption that flaws would vanish on distillation.  Claire, however, knows that instead flaws can be magnified.  She explained that if the wine is poor, the alcohol level of the distillate has to be raised to mask the defects, resulting in poorer quality Armagnac.

img_1565In addition, Claire now has a stunning new cellar.  She has to invest heavily in barrels (her barrels cost €800 each), as the Armagnac goes into new oak barrels in its youth.  Claire is increasingly using medium char so she can create the lighter fruitier style preferred by today’s consumers.

Fortunately, Folle Blanche, one of the two Armagnac grapes Claire chose to grow when she arrived, is very on trend for today’s consumer tastes, with its approachable fruity and floral elegance.  The down side is that Folle Blanche is to Armagnac what Pinot Noir is to wine.  While highly prized, it is also tightly bunched, and therefore rot prone, and therefore very demanding and even risky in the vineyard.  But Claire firmly believes in the quality of Folle Blanche, and she is uncompromising in her quest to produce Armagnac she herself wants to drink.  For her, Folle Blanche is worth the risk.  She has very much turned her back on the days when Armagnac was viewed as rustic and unapproachable.

A visit to the bottling room and the old cellar brought us on to commercial aspects.  Claire’s routes to market are varied.  One advantage she has as a small scale Armagnac producer is that her Armagnac can be bottled to order.  She is therefore able to bottle small quantities and “white label” them, such as her collaboration with spirits geeks PM Spirits in the USA which resulted in their Cobrafire eau de vie de raisin.  For more information about this click here: https://www.pmspirits.com/cobrafire Claire remarked on the fact that the American bar market is content with abv above 50% (Cobrafire’s abv is 51.3%) but I’m sure this is only so long as the spirit has the quality to merit it.

Claire has also supplied Armagnac to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, who were so smitten they went off with 6 barrels which they have bottled under their own quirky labels.

At the other end of the scale, Claire keeps a number of barrels in her ancient cellar for individuals, or syndicates, some of whom visit frequently from as far away as Norway, and she clearly enjoys entertaining them.

img_1570Claire therefore cleverly navigates commercial necessity while simultaneously offering bespoke craftmanship, which was very evident on tasting.

The 10 year old blend, of Folle Blanche and Baco (41% abv), invites you in with a pronounced nose of sandalwood, Christmas spices, orange and plum, with a very long and delicious coffee and vanilla finish.  So don’t bother with post prandial coffee, have this instead!

On to the vintages, starting with 2002 100% Folle Blanche No. 43 (48.5% abv).  The nose was delicate and elegant with marzipan, cherry, coffee and caramel notes and acacia fragrance.  The palate had a sweet roundness but with a white pepper kick.

By contrast the 2001 100% Baco (51%) had a nose of pecan nuts, tarte tatin and hay with a weighty palate which had sweetness, smokiness and cherry wood tones.

Both were a “wow” in their very contrasting ways, recognised by the 2001 receiving a gold medal and the 2002 a silver medal from the Concours Générale Agricole 2020.

The 1992 No. 47 100% Baco (47% brut de fut, or cask strength) was a smoothy.  The nose was raisins, dried fig, prunes and dried cherries while the palate had in addition sweetness and waxiness with all manner of flavours such as herbs, hay, benedictine and sandalwood.  This is a sipper to be savoured.

Last was the 1941, bottled in 2012, from Ugni Blanc grapes.  This was born well before  Claire’s time at Espérance, and is a purchase from a neighbour which Claire bought in glass.  This curious creature cannot be sold as Armagnac because the abv has dropped below 40%.  This occurred because the angels helped themselves to their share over the years in barrel (some of the alcohol evaporates through the grain in the wood over time).  Armagnac is therefore very rarely left in barrel much over 40 years.  This creation had been in barrel for some 70 years!  It was a treat to try it.  The nose was walnuts, burnt orange and caramel; the palate, though light and elegant, still possessed a balancing tannic bite , with smouldering flavours of treacle, smoke and liquorice.  The only way to experience such ageing in Armagnac is to seek to slow the ageing process (for which please read by piece about Darroze).

Such a treat causes consideration of whether there ought to be some way in which such gems can still be called Armagnac, since if that would be allowed, the true potential of Armagnac could then be more remuneratively explored.

img_1567As I had yet to taste blanche Armagnac, and as we had been discussing Cobrafire, Claire kindly let me sample hers, made from Folle Blanche and Baco.  In retrospect I should have piped up at the start as tasting it at the end was perhaps not the best time to try something relatively light and new to my anaesthetised taste buds.  I found it hard to describe, the nearest flavour I could think of being something like fig sorbet!  There was a fruity tang, like biting green apple skin, with peach and plum notes, and hints of honeysuckle and white pepper.  A fiery youth, but the fire was in balance with the fruity elements.  Blanche is the eau de vie from the still without ageing, allowed to rest in stainless steel for 3 months before bottling.  It must pass a panel of professional tasters before it can be classified as blanche Armagnac.  If you call yourself a taste explorer then you need to venture into a glass of blanche.  It is nothing like anything else.  We discussed food matches; Claire suggested smoked fish, and oysters.  Maybe a new tipple for the oyster shacks in Whitstable!

While the blanche has crossed the pond to become an eau de vie de raisin, it has yet to cross the channel; although Solent Cellar were beguiled by the charms of d’Espérance when they visited with the BNIA in November 2017, and they have a tempting range available including a stylish 70cl carafe of 2000 Folle Blanche – which would be far too good to waste on a 20 year old as a gift!  Here’s a link: https://www.thesolentcellar.co.uk/?s=armagnac&post_type=product

I was bemused to be told that apart from SMWS and The Solent Cellar, Domaine d’Espérance cannot be found at home.  This is surely a missed opportunity to sell vintages of bespoke quality which can be sold with exclusivity.  All too often retailers (not just the small ones!) are stuck with trying to sell spirits which are being sold at rock bottom prices in the multiples.  So this is a shout out to all you indies and spirits buyers out there:  contact Amanda Garnham at BNIA and arrange to visit!!

Or go it alone – there’s a lovely gîte and cookery school on site – what’s not to like!  Here is the link: https://www.armagnac-esperance.com/home

PS Domaine d’Espérance have recently announced that they are now going for their HEV accreditation.  This is a voluntary scheme identifying and promoting environmentally friendly farming practices, in four areas: biodiversity conservation, plant protection strategy, management of fertiliser use, and management of water.  It takes time to get this certification, and is another example of this estate’s commitment to quality and to the future of Armagnac.   Bravo!

Armagnac Adventures: Chateau de Pellehaut

img_1726All Armagnac houses have so much one can write about them.  Whether it be their history, innovation, accolades, or an amusing anecdote here and there, there is always much to say.  But Chateau Pellehaut makes the writer’s task especially tricky as there is so much to include and so little one wants to omit.  Where to begin?  So….I’ll start with the cows, not just because the pouring rain meant our tour began by taking refuge in the cowshed!  The “output” of these 60 bonny blonde d’Aquitaines has (together with grape pomace) helped fertilise the vines for 50 years.  So the cows are a good place to start.  They are key to preserving the biodiversity and natural life cycle of the vines.

Sustainability is the watchword here.  Pellehaut has not just HVE certification but they were among the first 300 farms to attain Level 3. Pellehaut is not the only Armagnac house to make sustainability claims, but there is no doubt that here, they embrace sustainable practices wholeheartedly.   Not only that; the estate is stunning, and anyone visiting this area must visit it.  Allow plenty of time, as there are many delicious wines and Armagnacs to try in a beautiful limestone tasting room with a view to die for.

The estate lies in Ténarèze, on the border of Bas-Armagnac.  They have three main soil types i.e. limestone which favours black grapes and Chardonnay, clay over limestone which local white wine varieties like, and sand with clay which is good for Armagnac.  This being a typically Gascon poly-cultural enterprise, cattle and cereal are farmed on lower slopes, with vines covering the higher slopes.  Nearby Roman mosaic designs indicate wine grapes have grown here since Roman times.  Though Armagnac production here is a relatively recent event – Gaston Béraut began to make Armagnac in the 1970’s after doubling the size of the estate to 300ha.

img_1722As in other Armagnac estates, the wines (sold as Domaine de Pellehaut) are made not just to be distilled and aged as Armagnac; they are quality bottlings in their own right.  Development of the wine range took off in the 1980’s when Gascon Béraut’s son Mathieu joined the business.  He planted a range of “international A list” varieties as diverse as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as maintaining local varieties, recognising that there was sunshine aplenty, shelter from the Pyrenees, and wine friendly soils – so why not!  Apart from Chardonnay and Petit Manseng, the wines they make are blends.  Of the whites, I especially enjoyed the fresh and fruity Harmonie de Gascogne white, and the Réserve White (Chardonnay and Petit Manseng, which had some oak maturation) with its satisfying range of mango, papaya, custard and freesia aromas, generous butteriness, tannic edge and very long finish.

img_1738The reds I tried were both blends containing Pinot Noir.  Ampéloméryx, named after the creature whose 17 million years old skeleton was found here (think half stag half giraffe) was very fresh and juicy with inviting Pinot Noir aromas of red berry fruit and Syrah aromas of leather, and a long elegant chocolate and cherry finish.  The Réserve Red 2014 combines Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir – blends vary each vintage.  It spent a year in oak, and had aromas and structure appealing to Cabernet Sauvignon lovers – cigar box, vanilla, blackcurrant, crunchy tannins, and a long cinnamon and vanilla finish.  The role of Pinot Noir in this blend was unclear to me, but it’s a successful wine which would be interesting to try again after longer in bottle.

Assessing wine quality is key to assessing Armagnac quality.  Producers know that rather than hiding flaws in inferior wine, distillation only serves to concentrate and accentuate them.  Pellehaut’s commitment to making good wines which sell on their own merits without help from being part of any notable appellation (these are IGP Côtes de Gascogne) bodes well for the quality of the Armagnac range, and for the future of this estate.

img_1739When tasting the Armagnacs, what impressed me was the quality across the range.  One would expect La Reserve de Gaston (20 year old Ugni Blanc, Gaston’s favourite, and 10 year old Folle Blanche, introduced by Mathieu) to be good, and it was a delightful approachable sipper.  Spicy warmth, with dates, cinnamon, pecans, baked apricots, coffee and brioche.    The Collection XO, a blend of 20 and 30 year olds, was much more rancio with walnuts, coffee, prunes and ginger.  The L’Age d’Or, a 40 year old, had refined tannins, candied orange, honeysuckle, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, prunes and a hint of tar on a very long classy finish.

The vintages were very sound.  The 1989 Ugni Blanc had meaty leather, coffee, pecans and cinnamon with even tannins fieriness and sweetness, and a finish of dates, smoke and coffee.  The 1982 Ugni Blanc, bottled in 2018, was perfumed, elegant, with marzipan, clove, cinnamon aromas, and a smoky, tarry, treacly palate with a very peppery kick.  I was even more impressed by the 2001 Folle Blanche, Brut de Fut 51.5%, which was unique.  Intense marmalade, polish and pecan aromas, with a massive smoky surge on the palate, tannic grip in balance with its fiery warmth, and a long tingling marmalade finish.

img_1728But the really telling part of this tasting was the less expensive end of the range.  The VS 3 year old L’Age de Glace is excellent, and this expression often wins the Talent de l’Armagnac Armagnac on Ice category.  Aged for a time in their l’Escoubasso wine barrels (a late harvest sweet Petit Manseng), this 100% Folle Blanche is rounded with dried apricot, orange, nutmeg, prunes, brioche and banana aromas.  The finish over delivers for its price, and there is a satisfying fiery surge, but nothing too raucous – an achievement given its youth.

img_1730So too is the blanche, also 100% Folle Blanche.  Aromas were a little shy when served very cold, mainly very ripe pear and rosemary stalk.  But once warmed a little, intense floral aromas emerged, with yellow or mirabelle plums.  The palate lingered long and clean with a floral fruity flourish of violets and fresh cherries.

New consumers do not always plump for the most expensive complex offerings in a range, not least because the more unusual flavours and higher tannin levels might well be off putting.  Investment in hero products like L’Age de Glace creates interest and brand awareness, which can be used to create interest in exploring the more specialist and complex Armagnacs available.  The quality of L’Age de Glace in particular will hopefully bode well for the commercial future of Pellehaut, as funds for investment are  vital  when building up Armagnac stocks.

img_1732Above all else, Pellehaut know how to enjoy their Armagnacs.  Our engaging hosts Noemie (left) and Aurélie, wife of Mathieu (centre), seen here with my tour guide Amanda Garnham from BNIA, gave me some tips for how to get the most from their range:

As a digestif, Armagnac should be served at the same time as dessert.  It’s too late to serve it with or after the coffee!

Cocktails work best with both blanche and L’Age de Glace included in them.  Without the oak flavours of the latter, you can be left with too much of the tails of distillation flavours of the former.  Suggestions they gave me were:

  • Blanche, l’Age de Glace and passion fruit juice – which must be really good quality and not too sweet.  I loved this when I tried it at home.
  • Mojito – muddle mint, lime peel and sugar.  Add blanche, l’Age de Glace and sparkling water.  I tried this at home – so refreshing, lovely with a Thai curry though don’t overmuddle or you get limey pond water!

If you visit Pellehaut, make sure you buy something as they are hard to come by in the UK.  All the more reason for visiting Gascony I suppose….and if you do, take a car 😉


Armagnac Adventures: Darroze & Domaine au Martin

Darroze is family business, begun by Francis Darroze and carried on by his son Marc (whose sister Hélène Darroze is renowned head chef at The Connaught Hotel restaurant in London which has two Michelin stars).  It is essentially a cellar of sought after, hand picked and expertly raised Armagnac treasures.

img_1648I was privileged to be welcomed to Darroze by none other than Marc himself for a cellar tour and tasting.  My guide Amanda Garnham and I had an early start, because Darroze, situated in the village of Roquefort (not related to the cheese), is found at the far western edge of the Bas Armagnac region.  Bas Armagnac, with its distinctive tawny sandy soils deposited by ocean tides, is regarded by some as the region producing the highest quality Armagnac.

Darroze do not make their own eau-de-vie.  Instead they have established trusted partnerships with small artisan producers, from whom they buy the eau-de-vie, which they then age in their own cellar.  Their aim is to enable each Armagnac to reach its true potential, and to express its own unique terroir.  Some producers distil their own Armagnac, while others use mobile distillers who tour the region for several months each year.

Finding and obtaining the best Armagnacs is not something anyone can do.  Francis’s father Jean took a humble local café to Michelin star status.  In doing so, he built up an enviable relationship  with the region’s finest food and beverage producers, and he passed on his skills to Francis, who learnt how to identify the very best Armagnacs, as well as how to gain the trust and co-operation of the producers.  He in turn passed on his skills and network to Marc.

img_1656When Marc sat me down in the tasting room with an array of 14 Armagnacs to sample (somewhat daunting mid morning!), it was soon obvious that he knew each one of them intimately, and takes very seriously his role in maintaining the reputation and quality of each one of his producer partners.  Except for Armagnacs much older than the business itself, acquired some time since their creation, where the history of ageing or in some cases the grape varieties used remain shrouded in mystery!  Marc therefore has to trust his knowledge and experience when tasting these mysterious offerings, rejecting anything which tastes as though it was not well made, or well kept.

I began with a pair of organic blends, a minimum of 4 and 7 years old respectively.  The 4 year old, 100% Folle Blanche, had an approachable honeysuckle and fresh plum profile, and an attractive almond finish.  The 7 year old, from Ugni Blanc & Colombard, was more complex, with hazelnuts, prunes, pastries, orange, cinnamon and a long pine smoke and walnut finish.  There must be something older than 7 years in here, it is very impressive for its stated age.

Moving on to the Les Grands Assemblages range, the 12 year old was delicate and elegant with bready pastry, yellow plum, mango and caramel notes, a hint of burnt hazelnut and a long spicy smokey finish.  I loved the 30 year old, with its exotic perfume of nutmeg, cinnamon, candied orange zest, sandalwood and dried pineapple, pecans and tobacco leaf.  Plentiful yet soft tannins with a sweet and sour tang completed an intriguing experience.  Perfectly balanced, this would be a magnificent digestif for a special meal.  These are both available online from Harvey Nichols.  The 60 year old was dark but with floral fruity aromas – honeysuckle, pears, and apricots, incredible given its age.  Tannins were powerful, with bitter walnuts and smoke to savour on the finish.  Quite a character!

Then came the collection, vintage expressions from some of the domaines in the Darroze family.  1995 from Dom. du Ponnon, 1989 from Ch. de Lahite, 1976 from Dom. de la Poste, 1972 and 1964 from Ch. de Gaube, and then vintages 1946, 1936 and 1929!  I’m not sure where these came from.  Marc has also recently acquired barrels from 1923 and 1924!

img_1655There isn’t room to include tasting notes for all of these gems, but here is what the 1929 tasted like: aromas of sawn sandalwood, butter, orange, fig, chocolate and coffee.  Plenty of tannin but in elegant balance with a sequence of flavours – figs, creosote, incense, prune, raisin, and medicinal notes.  The finish was very long.

Though for me the 1936 was perfection, so here’s a note about that too:  A very intense nose of prune, cigar, old leather seats, manure, cedarwood, raisins, coffee and chocolate.  Softening but abundant tannins on the palate, with bitterness perfectly counterbalanced by sweet raisins.

The Gaube 1964 had aged for 55 years in oak.  Armagnac does not usually age that long in oak because alcohol is lost through the wood each year (the “angels’ share”); once the abv drops below 40%, it can’t be called Armagnac, so it is bottled before that happens, usually by 40 years of age.  But this was 42% abv, and for whatever reason (possibly that the oak barrels it aged in were large and old), the angels had not claimed their usual helpings of share.  This being 100% Baco, a grape which has particular longevity, it was interesting to see what it could achieve with longer than usual wood ageing.  Think treacle and rich apricot jam along with prunes and pastries, with rounded tannins in perfect balance, a lively fresh palate and a long tingling exotic incense finish.

Marc explained that Darroze are increasingly using huge oak barrels for ageing, especially useful for Baco which lives long and needs to age slowly to reveal its true potential.  They might use new oak for 3-4 years, then smaller oak barrels for 5 years or so, but then 200 hectolitre vessels for long ageing to slow the angels’ share, and thereby to slow the ageing process to allow greater complexity to develop, with later bottling maximising the potential of the Armagnac to express itself.

Although I was meant to be noting the differences in terroir, which were evident from the disparity and range of flavours in my tasting notes, I also noticed common themes.  One was that Marc seems to have a particular liking for Baco.  The other was that with the exception of the very youngest blends, Darroze Armagnacs seem to lack the fiery attack which can make some Armagnac appear rustic and unrefined.  The Darroze style seems to be approachable, polished and balanced with tannic structure readily softening on the palate, and mellow alcohol.  I therefore asked Marc whether he agreed, and if so, how that had been achieved.

Marc explained that like other producers, they aerate young Armagnac so that it loses its most aggressive alcohol.  But Darroze like to aerate more than most.  There is usually annual aeration for the first 3-4 years, then every 18-20 months until 8 years of age, after which the aeration stops.

I also wondered whether the tasting experience was further enhanced by the glassware, which seemed better suited to Armagnac tasting than most I had used so far on this trip.  Marc said his glasses were from Riedel.  They are more generous in size and wider at the top which I found enabled a better appreciation of the range of aromas.  I find a narrow top for Armagnac tasting a daunting prospect; everything is very powerful making it more difficult to pick out the full range of aromas.  I believe this is a particular issue for female tasters who are believed generally to have more sensitive aroma and flavour receptors than men.  I later discovered that BNIA recently updated their tasting glasses to a very similar style, which will hopefully increase appreciation of Armagnac in their tasting room.

img_1680As we chatted, Marc discovered that I had yet to experience a distillation.  This being early November, the distilling season was just beginning, yet despite various visits, no one had been distilling when we were there.  He promptly and very kindly arranged for us to visit Domaine au Martin in Hontanx, a Darroze partner of many years standing, so I could see distillation first hand.   You can see Martin Armagnac barrels from 1997 and 1998 in the photo further up.

img_1664Amanda therefore very kindly made a detour from our tight itinerary and took me into the heart of rural Gascony where (despite my map reading) we found an utterly charming and welcoming senior citizen called Jean-Luc Deyres tending an even more senior gas fired alambic (made by Sier in 1901), in an immaculate distillery which, from the outside, looked like any other farm building.  The room was cosy, despite inclement autumnal weather, due to the heat from the still.  Jean-Luc enthusiastically imparted numerous nuggets of information but my French is terrible, so Amanda translated the important points for me.

img_1668The wine being fermented came from Baco grapes, from their 5 hectares of vines, and was coming off the still at 54% abv.  It was tepid, clear, and incredibly fragrant. It takes 8 hours to fill a barrel.  Wine was being pumped from tanks at the opposite end of the room into the still, and in between was a long trestle table at which the Deyres family and friends would gather in the evenings to eat and celebrate the distillation.  The still can’t be left unattended, and runs continuously, so someone has to sleep in the room while the distillation continues.  The white gunge in the photo shows that the alambic plates were sealed with a paste of flour and water, i.e. a natural glue; anything not natural would result in an unacceptable taint of the eau-de-vie.

Jean-Luc then left the still briefly to show us his small but equally immaculate cellar.  He keeps two barrels each year and sells the rest to Darroze.  Traditionally, Armagnac producers would keep some Armagnac in case of a “rainy day”, to fund family weddings, etc.  Jean-Luc continued to chat animatedly with us, and Amanda brought him up to speed on the latest happenings at BNIA, Armagnac’s regulatory body.  There are many small Armagnac producers dotted about in very isolated corners of Gascony, and it is difficult for BNIA to reach out to all of them as regularly as they would like.  So this was a lovely opportunity for Amanda and Jean-Luc to have an impromptu catch up.

Domaine au Martin is very typical of the smaller Armagnac producers who put their land to a variety of uses.  In addition to their vines, Jean-Luc and his son also farm various cereals and, inevitably, ducks.  There appear to be more ducks than people in Gascony.

It was a special honour to meet Jean-Luc.  He is the personification of high quality artisan Armagnac production.  Unassuming, unpretentious, and yet an undisputed master craftsman, quietly creating a hidden gem in the heart of the Gascony countryside.  Those seeking authenticity and craftsmanship in their spirits need look no further.  Many thanks to Marc, Amanda and Jean-Luc for a special and memorable tour.

Armagnac Adventures: Domaine Tariquet

Gone are the days when wine for Armagnac distillation could be of mediocre quality;  wine for C21st Armagnac production is of increasingly high quality, and nowhere epitomises this trend better than Domaine Tariquet.

Amanda Garnham and I approached this innovative estate through neatly trained vines and parked beside a typical Gascon chateau steeped in tradition – very similar to the estates we had visited previously.  But that was where the similarity ended.  Ithier Bouchard then replaced our dainty parapluies with his sturdy branded ones, and off we strode from the serenity of the chateau towards a gleaming, state of the art winery planned with efficiency and forward vision with the drive for optimum quality and the future of Armagnac at its core.

img_1602We navigated our way past a slightly intimidating series of tall cylindrical tanks, and made our way to the start of the vinification process – the point where the grapes arrive.  From the outset, Ithier emphasised that everything is done to preserve the primary aromas and flavours of the grapes.  So tanks are sent into the vineyards to collect the grapes where they are covered with carbonic ice before they reach the winery.  Some vines are very close but some are 25 km distant, and in warm conditions, grapes can oxidise quickly. Sulphur is not allowed in Armagnac production (it would become too concentrated and taint the spirit) so this method was devised to replicate its function.  More ice is added at the winery to cover the grapes.  A revolving screw then gently moves the grapes into Europe’s largest pressing room, where 8 huge pneumatic presses gently coax the juice from the grapes.  The juice then flows down into an underground fermentation area.  The pressing room is so large to ensure grapes are pressed as quickly as possible.  If the pressing takes too long, wine quality suffers.  We could see the wine in full fermentation beneath us through a vent.  We could not go into the fermentation room because the CO2 levels would be too dangerous.  Fermentation is controlled, slow (2-3 weeks) and cool temperature, after which the wines rest in external tanks which are like thermos flasks.  They have a layer of insulation to keep the wines very cold, again to prevent oxidation.  There are smaller tanks inside a room kept at -0.2 °C for smaller batches, but they can’t do this for all the wines as this would use too much energy – hence the outside tanks for larger batches.

Wines to be oak matured are kept on ingenious mobile racks with rollers which enable the barrels to be rocked back and forth periodically to agitate the lees (akin to battonage but without opening the barrel and exposing the wine to oxygen).  It also enables barrels to be moved around, and samples tasted, again without allowing oxygen into the wine.  Armagnac is stored elsewhere for various reasons, including the fact that if an Armagnac cellar catches fire, “les pompiers” wouldn’t intervene as it is highly explosive.  The risk of loss of stock is therefore spread.

There is a small bottling line for Armagnacs, and a much larger one for wines which is designed for maximum efficiency, with the entry and exit points opposite each other so that personnel don’t get in the way of the process.

img_1604We then visited Tariquet’s pair of shiny copper alambics, which are housed in one of the original buildings, very stylishly renovated.  One of the alambics used to be mobile.  By special dispensation it retains its wheels, now redundant as it is fixed to the ceiling.  The wood fired stills have to be manned 24 hours a day once distilling begins (redundant wooden stakes from the vineyard become distillation fuel), so there is a barbecue into which the embers from the still are placed to cook food for the distillers.  Two huge former blending vats have become mini kitchens with doors cut into their sides.

By contrast, the Tariquet tasting room nearby is light, airy and state of the art, complete with spittoons cleverly sunk into smart white tasting counters.   No more grappling with a puny knob on a weighty bucket.img_1607

Ithier was proud to exhibit a range of wines first of all; wine appreciation is key to understanding the quality of the Armagnac.  The Classic blend, containing mainly Ugni Blanc, clearly shows the starting point on the Armagnac journey.  I detected more than a hint of yellow plum and red apple, notable in that prune and tarte tatin so often feature in Armagnac tasting notes.  Though the star of the line up was the medium sweet Premières Grives, from 100% Gros Manseng which, after the Classic, is Tariquet’s best selling wine in France.  It has an enticing nose of baked apple, jasmine and honey, which carries to the palate with a lingering finish.  Stunning.  An intriguing match for Asian dishes, charcuterie and – of course – foie gras.

Next came a flight of three 15 year old Armagnacs.  The XO is far cheaper in Waitrose at home than it is here, and as such is a steal.  60% Ugni Blanc, 40% Baco, it has very pronounced toasty aromas with prune, fig, date and tar.  To taste it is smooth and warming with acacia, dried orange and chocolate notes and a very satisfying length.  Le Legendaire has the fickle yet highly prized Folle Blanche added, and combined more fire and spiciness with nuts, raisins and white flowers.  The 15 year old 100% Folle Blanche was totally different – rounded, not nearly so fiery, with orange blossom, prune and brioche notes as well as a lactic sweetness akin to a quality fudge.  Cask strength at 47.2%.  It went down well at a masterclass in Hedonism who now stock it.

img_1608Then came a pair of very special creations.  The Armagnac de Cabine, 80% Baco, 43% abv, came from carefully selected barrels.  There were only 500 bottles made.  Tariquet say they do not usually aim to make the spendiest bottles on the market, but these sold for 400 Euros a piece.  The challenge came to replicate them, which has been done three times thus far, albeit that exact replicas are virtually impossible to achieve.  The aromas were powerful, and yet, despite a tannic bite, the palate was smooth, gentle and fresh with an array of defined flavours – dried orange peel, concentrated raisins, smouldering tobacco and ash, sandalwood, to name a few.

Finally the Centenarie – created in 2012 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the purchase of the estate.  2012 bottles at 53.5% were created, special also because the Ugni Blanc, Baco and Folle Blanche were joined by the rare grape variety Plant de Graisse.  Known for imparting oily weight, it also adds more aromatics than it is given credit for.  Subtle and elegant, with drying tannins balanced by weight, tropical fruit notes, toasted hazelnut richness, and an exotic sandalwood perfume.

Huge thanks to Ithier and Domaine Tariquet for the chance to taste such well chosen and unique treats – and for providing me extra tasting opportunities at home.  Here is their 100% Folle Blanche blanche Armagnac, which is an astonishing creation.  The nose is pear tart, toasted almonds, crushed fresh pineapple and a hint of margarita.  The palate is rounded and fruity, with real depth of flavour.  Plum tarte tatin, prunes and pecans evolve into a long cherry and almond tart finish.  I enjoyed it as a sipping aperitif, and to my amazement the flavours returned once I had enjoyed supper!  (I explored mixology options with Adam, who runs cocktail masterclasses in the bar at Harvey Nichols Bristol.  He suggested white chocolate or apple based spirits as cocktail pairings, and the plan was that I would bring in the blanche armagnac for him to experiment with.  Sadly I didn’t get round to it before Coronavirus closed the store on 19th March, but we agreed that assuming we both make it to the “other side” this is a project we will tackle without delay so watch this space!)

I asked Ithier whether the wines were in effect “cashflow” bankrolling the expansion of the business.  However Ithier explained that although the cashflow from the wines is helpful, this is secondary to developing the Armagnac which remains at the heart of Tariquet.  They aim to increase Armagnac stocks from 23 to 25-27 years, and to maintain a reputation for freshness and quality.

img_1615With that thought in mind, it seemed only right to conclude with a visit to one of the Armagnac cellars – so we went off site to a humid (as opposed to a dry) cellar on an estate bought by Tariquet some time ago.  The torrential rain of recent days was seeping through the walls, since at one end the cellar is underground.  No shiny tanks and pipes here – blackened with mould outside and in, the humidity was very evident in this cellar, as was the associated “angel’s share” hanging in the air.  Lumpy black fungus was creeping its way over the barrels as the Armagnac slowly evolved in the silent darkness.

Control freaks they may be, but Tariquet have shown that quality Armagnac doesn’t have to be small scale in its production.  Scaling up theoretically increases the risk of commoditisation and of compromising quality.  But Tariquet know from long experience that the key to good Armagnac is the quality of the wine.  By using economies of scale to control everything done from the vine to the bottle,  they have put in place a sound platform for the Armagnacs of the future.

Armagnac Adventures: Chateau de Laubade

If you want proof that today’s Armagnac producers are on a quest for the best, then seek out Chateau de Laubade.  Built in 1870, this intriguing chateau went through a fascinating period as an influential agronomic and scientific pilot farm under the ownership of statesman Joseph Noulens, before being discovered by Maurice Lesgourges who snapped it up in 1974.  In doing so he acquired an enviable back catalogue of ancient Armagnacs, albeit that their origins and composition in terms of grape varieties were obscure.

Maurice realised from the outset that the Laubade vineyard sits in prime Bas Armagnac terroir, with slopes providing ideal grape growing conditions.   So they set about taking total control of production of the eau de vie and its maturation with a view to becoming a benchmark for top quality Armagnac.  These visionaries were bold and uncompromising in their approach.  As a result, Chateau de Laubade now use only their own grapes, vinified themselves, distilled themselves and matured themselves in barrels coopered themselves, from Gascon oak sourced in neighbouring woodlands.

Arnaud and Denis Lesgourges now run Chateau de Laubade, and represent the 3rd generation of the family.  Denis very kindly showed Amanda Garnham of BNIA and I around, having arrived from Bordeaux to host the annual distillation festivities for the villagers of Sorbets in the evening.  Sadly I missed out as my flight home was in the afternoon…. 😦

Denis is fiercely proud of the achievements and visionary genius of his forbears.  But he seemed at least equally proud of the fact that due to their wisdom and investment, the estate now believes it is not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative.  Denis pointed out the blazing colours of autumn in a large piece of woodland in the distance, a legacy of his forbears, who recognised their role in offsetting human activity long before many of us.  The importance of trees in the management of the estate is reflected in an art installation in a former greenhouse.

Speaking of legacy, if Chateau de Laubade stopped making Armagnac at this point, they would have some 15 years of stock to sell.  I asked Denis if he is tempted to cash in on the family investment.  Denis views himself as a custodian of the estate, so no, he won’t be selling.  His destiny is to nurture Chateau de Laubade for future generations.

img_1777It was howling a gale during our visit, so it was with excitement and relief that we retreated into the distilling room.  This SOFAC continuous column still was bought in 1975, evidencing the family’s commitment to making their own Armagnacs in the long term, from the outset.  A recent addition to the 22-strong Laubade team is Francois, an oenologist from Bordeaux, whose task will be to maximise the quality of the wine used for distillation; many Armagnac houses are increasingly aware that the quality of the wine used for distillation is key to the quality of the Armagnac.

img_1779A key reason Armagnac is such a characterful spirit is its low distillation temperature.  But it is also due to the alambic plates forcing the vapours through the wine lying on the plates.  If you want to see this for yourself taste eau de vie from a still!  There was a strong smell of wine and yeast in the distillation room (a small amount of lees, or dead yeast cells, are used – they can be seen in the window!), and the sample I tasted from the still was incredibly aromatic, with pastry notes from the lees, and an array of fruity aromas from the wine – squashed banana, lychee, cherry, raisin, plum and pear, to name but a few.

img_1783Denis had been anxious about the aromatics because the prolonged hot weather can result in the wine lacking in acidity and minerality, but he seemed very pleased with what he tasted from the still today.  Today’s wine came from the grape variety Baco 22A, at an ideal abv of 10.5%.  The range they look for is 10.2 – 10.8%.  Distillation temperature is agreed each day according to the desired results, and today it was 58ºC.

The still is gas fired – Denis was proud to state that the Armagnac alambic uses considerably less gas than the pot stills of Cognac.  He prefers gas to wood as it enables a more reliable regulation of the temperature.   The “tails” were draining off into the wooden vat beneath.  By law they must be redistilled.  The “heads” were draining into a tank above, which may or may not be used, depending on their character and the character desired for the Armagnac.

img_1771After a tour of the cellar, and of the “paradise” containing shiny bonbonnes full of the chateau’s most ancient Armagnacs (the precise components of some of them being shrouded in the mists of time), we adjourned to the tasting room – which was, to my amazement, inside the family home! Denis showed us into a lavishly decorated drawing room which added a sense of heritage to our tasting experience.

A recent addition to the range is a VS, the “Signature”, created because Armagnac is now in demand for cocktails.  Fruity and floral with little oak influence, the youngest spirit is 4 years old.

But today I tasted the VSOP, made from spirits aged for 6-10 years.  Using a system Denis likened to sherry’s solera blending system, 33% – 50% of the previous batch is kept and married with the new blend to maintain the Laubade VSOP style consistently.  The pale amber colour is natural, and the adjustment is simply reduction to bottle strength from 48% to 40% abv with petites eaux.  There is approximately 20% Folle Blanche in this blend, contributing to its fruity floral notes.  This is rather higher than the proportion of Folle Blanche in Laubade’s vineyard.  Approachable and rounded, combining delicious apricot tarte tatin and toasted almond flavours, with a finish which over-delivers for VSOP Armagnac, this is very good.

img_1785.jpgThe XO is a more intense and exotic creature, using Ugni Blanc, Baco and a little Plant de Graisse.  The youngest spirit is at least 15 years old – the next XO batch will use the 2004 vintage.  So smooth and satisfying….there are intense incense notes (sawn sandalwood and smoke), and plenty of fruit and nut moreishness (orange, prunes, butterscotch and pecans).  The bold richness is more than a match for the alcohol.  Sip and nibble with top notch dark chocolate after an autumn Sunday afternoon walk perhaps…?

We were then introduced to the innovative finishes range, only available in France for now – but watch this space….. Denis explained that in Cognac, finishing in barrels used by other spirits is only possible by forgoing the Cognac name. Although they can use oak from anywhere, e.g. USA, they cannot use barrels which have previously contained anything other than wine, or wine eau de vie (thank you Phil Duffy from Amathus Drinks for the relevant legislation!).  For Armagnac, only French oak can be used, but the barrels can previously have been used for any spirit, not just Armagnac.  Chateau de Laubade therefore collaborated with the Clément family, producers of rhum agricole on the former French colonial island of Martinique, which must be matured in French oak casks.  6 Armagnac barrels were sent to Martinique.  Rum was then aged in them before being emptied and returned so that a 6 year old Armagnac from 2012 could be finished for 8 months in the rum casks.  Tasting every 10 days was necessary to ensure that the character of Armagnac was retained and balanced with the rum elements.  There was a distinct cachaça twang to the nose, but the palate was definitely the prunes and pastry of Armagnac, but with a herbaceous and straw bite from the rum.  For those who are not rum aficionados, rhum agricole, including rum from Martinique, is made using sugar cane juice, not molasses, as is cachaça from Brazil.  It’s character in youth is therefore very different to other rums in that it has a funky grassy herbaceous twang.

This range, labelled Les Curiosities, is exactly that – a curiosity for the adventurous.  There is a whisky finish as well.  These finishing innovations are controversial, but if you think about it, Armagnac lovers are by their nature adventurous taste explorers who seek out interest, depth of flavour and character; these experimental expressions are certain to intrigue them!

Another recent development has been the renaissance of lesser known Armagnac grape varieties, such as Plant de Graisse.  At Amanda’s request, Denis let us taste a 2006 100% Plant de Graisse, reduced a little for bottling to 46.3% after extensive trials of the best abv level for release.  Despite it fetching €55 for 50cl, it is selling fast.  The aromas are delicate and perfumed, with a hint of oiliness.  They are also focussed; dried orange, cinnamon stick and fig with very well integrated oak.  The palate has oily weight, intensity and an evolving finish of toasted walnuts, pastries, herbs, and a marmite edge, but somehow ending on a lovely floral note.  A fascinating and unique experience, sure to satisfy Armagnac maniacs everywhere.

To conclude, we were honoured and privileged to taste the first vintage of Armagnac made by Denis’s family exclusively from Chateau de Laubade grapes, in 1974.  Aside from this being a family milestone, Denis told me it was also a classic vintage in Armagnac.  This was incredibly potent and perfumed.  I savoured deep orange, nutmeg, cinnamon and prune aromas, and a palate which was the epitome of “rancio” ageing with deep walnuts and smoke, while at the same time fresh, light and elegant, with citrus flavours still evident, and a long ethereal finish.

img_1834I had to rush away before tasting the Intemporel No.5, so Denis very kindly provided me with a sample to take home (declaration of interest please note!).  He explained that this is a 20-30 year old small batch premium blend, which they first made in 2007 – when it was awarded World’s Best Brandy in the highly respected San Francisco World Spirits Competition.  3 batches a year are made, and it is intended to be the quintessence of the art of assemblage.  This batch contains 48% Baco.

Back in Blighty, I am able to savour all the nuances of my gift, which is brilliant copper in colour, with an intense focused and perfumed nose of incense, vanilla, prunes, raisins, coffee and apricot jam.  There were some corn notes as well, suggestive of a high quality Bourbon.  The palate is quite something else.  There is an intense herbal and smokey bite which evolves into very rounded and rich luxuriance of incredible complexity.  Think freshly roasted coffee, toffee, chocolate, intense dried orange, toasted baklava, dried cherries…OK I’ll stop now.  I will leave you to check out the price of this thing of beauty for yourselves.  It really is of outstanding quality.  I can’t believe I have a bottle of it!

img_1827The transformation of this estate in under 50 years is remarkable.  As a wine lover, I suspect this has a great deal to do with the family’s recognition from the outset of the excellent terroir they have, and their continuing drive to make the highest quality wine which then feeds into the quality of the Armagnac.  Armagnacs are incredibly long-lived, so it has taken perseverance and patience to realise Maurice’s vision from when he bought the estate over 40 years ago.  It will be fascinating to see how this driven and aspirational family develop and grow their increasingly acclaimed Armagnac domaine in the future.   It would be marvellous to return in a few years to see what they have been up to.  In the meantime, many thanks to Denis for an amazing tour and tasting – and for my amazing Armagnac treat!  You can find Chateau de Laubade Armagnacs in The Wine Shop Winscombe (see photo!).

Armagnac Adventures: Marquis de Montesquiou

It is easy to be dismissive of the éleveur business model of creating Armagnac by ageing and blending eau de vie made by others, when elsewhere, houses aim to control every aspect of the process, from the vineyard to the bottle.

But in Armagnac, as in Champagne, some of the most awesome (and I use that word in its truest sense) skills of all are needed to find, age and blend the best Armagnacs from artisan producers throughout the region to produce a marriage of Armagnacs better together than they are apart.

As with whisky, there are spendy Armagnac blends as revered as vintage or varietal bottlings, but at the same time, blends at all levels are vital to the success of Armagnac as a spirit.  This is because they perform an invaluable function, giving newcomers a benchmark they can expect for both consistency, and quality.  High quality levels are incredibly important.  If quality is lacking, consumers look to alternative spirits, and the whole industry suffers.

img_1625Blends are also a “must have” in any back bar.  (The miniature cask shown is for barrel-aged cocktails – huge in the USA!).  Bartenders need a flavour profile they can rely on to deliver the perfect serve time after time.  They also crave unique expressions to build their reputations for unique high quality cocktails.  A blend needs enough character to match up with other ingredients, and to deliver a perfect balance of the cocktail elements.  

Armagnac blends are ideal for cocktails.  The low distillation temperature results in a very characterful spirit right from its emergence from the alambic, let alone once it has aged, and the infinite style permutations available due to the range of grapes, soils, alambics and producer styles gives plenty of scope to create reliable blends of individuality and distinction.

Huge effort goes into making even the least aged blends as good as they can be at an affordable price point.  While Armagnac producers revel in their uniqueness, every single house I have visited has been extremely proud and protective of the quality of their products.

Marquis de Montesquiou is one such house.  With the benefit of the resources available from its parent business Pernod Ricard, they create Armagnacs at all levels, volumes and budgets which are made from eau de vie sourced from their trusted partner producers, and aged in their “cathedral” cellar under the watchful eye of Eric Durand, their respected cellarmaster.  I visited one of their partners and saw first hand the craftsmanship and attention to every detail they put into their Armagnacs, so Marquis de Montesquiou seem to have have chosen their sources very well.

img_1627Ghislain Dumas guided Amanda Garnham of BNIA and I through a tour and tasting on my recent visit to the Armagnac region.  The “cathedral” cellar was impressive.  As is usual in Armagnac, there is a short maturation in new oak followed by a longer maturation in older oak barrels (sometimes called “double maturation”), and then for blends, a gradual reduction in strength by adding demineralised water blended with armagnac (“petites eaux”) until bottling strength of 40% is reached.  The cellar is dry (as opposed to humid), which is relatively unusual.

img_1629The blending vessels can be huge, the largest used for quality supermarket bottlings. These vessels are rarely empty; a proportion of the blend is kept inside so that when the new spirit is added, it can be “married” not only with the blend ingredients, but also with the previous blend, so that the end result is as near as possible in character to the previous bottling.

Both Marquis de Montesquiou and Comte de Lauvia (made by Marquis de Montesquiou) blends are popular in The Wine Shop Winscombe, so what are they all about?

img_1638We compared the Marquis de Montesquiou XO with the Lauvia Hors d’Age. The former has spirit aged 10-25 years old from grape varieties Ugni Blanc, Baco and a small proportion from Folle Blanche.  The latter is a blend of Armagnacs made between 1975 and 2000, again mostly from Ugni Blanc and Baco.

The house styles are very different from each other.  The Marquis de Montesquiou is likened to a full orchestra with a full and satisfying range of flavours, i.e. fruitiness, spiciness, and oak flavours, at an affordable price point with a correspondingly shorter finish.  If necessary it is adjusted.   The curious bottle shape is inspired by the flasks used by the Musketeers.  The XO is a glossy coppery mahogany colour with enticing aromas and flavours of raisins, dates, walnuts, coffee, cinnamon, clove and well integrated sandalwood.  It is a pleasingly complex rounded mouthful of characterful flavours in balance with its structure.  A satisfying all rounder.

The Comte de Lauvia is so different.  Ghislain explained that it is more like a jazz band than an orchestra with a specific range of high tone and vanilla notes, and a long finish. It is not chill filtered so as to preserve its character, so it isn’t as shiny bright as a finely filtered Armagnac.  UK drinks importer Emporia were very much instrumental in the creation of this range.  The Hors d’Age is deep amber. The aromas are elegant and floral, with notes of orange blossom, toasted almond, vanilla, marzipan and pastry, fruity notes reminiscent of a good rum, and ageing flavours of fig and nuts.  The finish is long.  All colour is natural.  Adjustment is only gradual reduction to bottling strength.  Elegant, unique to its house style.

It is easy to see why bartenders gravitate towards these ranges – and there are plenty of inspiring recipes for budding mixologists to try out on the Marquis de Montesquiou website.  You could even use both ranges in one cocktail to flesh out the flavour profile!

In the Wine Shop Winscombe we have the Lauvia Fine (which is equivalent to VS with a minimum ageing of 1 year) and the Reserve (equivalent to VSOP, minimum ageing of 4 years).  The Fine is relatively simple in profile, with the same house style of fruity floral aromas, prunes and pastry but with a surprisingly long finish.  The Reserve is my favourite of the Lauvia range.  Expect a range of flavours including prune, fig, coffee and honey, a smooth texture, and a lovely lingering finish.  Sip from a small tulip shaped glass with quality chocolate nearby to nibble in between – dark chocolate ginger thins perhaps?

img_1640Ghislain also showed us a trio of vintages with standout flavour profiles which they use in blending masterclasses.  The 1973, with oaky character, was very herbaceous, with a robust tannic structure, cooling peppermint aromatics and length.  The 1976 was more spicy, with sandalwood, prune juice, clove, cinnamon, tobacco and a fiery bite of black pepper.  The 1989 was the floral element.  It was highly perfumed with acacia and herbal aromas, and deep prune and tarte tatin flavours.  The finish was shorter.

Had time permitted it would have been fun to make our own blend, and we could see how a blend of these three elements could create a quality Armagnac greater than the sum of its parts.

img_1635Although alas we didn’t taste any of them, Ghislain also showed us recent bottlings of a range of premium blends of various spirits in the La Distillerie Générale range, including Armagnacs from Marquis de Montesquiou’s cellar, with luxurious fabric labels which fetch high prices. These are limited bottlings of 35cls each – the Armagnac “Réserve Cathédrale Single Cask”, is of 830 bottles.  There is also a Folle Blanche Single Cask.  Sadly they are not available in the UK as far as I know.

So it’s not all about scale.  The team here, despite the larger scale of their cellar, is aspirational in terms of quality.  Expect more limited release bottlings from this house.

My overall impression of Marquis de Montesquiou is that it neatly exemplifies the rise and rise of quality in Armagnac as a whole, and the role played by everyone in the region, at whatever scale their business may be, in driving up quality levels.  Houses like Marquis de Montesquiou are a vital part of the future of Armagnac.  Long may they be there to look after their artisan partners.

Marquis de Montesquiou Fine Armagnac, and Comte de Lauvia Fine and Reserve Armagnacs are available from The Wine Shop Winscombe (01934 708312).

A Year at Sutton Ridge: Visit 5 – Harvest

On 29th October 2019 I returned to Luke’s vineyard to harvest Pinot Noir grapes from the vines I had pruned back on 1st March, 8 months ago.  On both days it was rather chilly!

img_1551The Fords are one of Somerset’s farming families, so harvest time is very much a family affair.  To fit in with the family theme, and it being half term week, my daughter Eva and our lovely but wayward black labrador Arthur came along too.

It was lovely to catch up with Luke after the Somerset Wine Fair on 25th October 2019, which proved very successful with a record number of bottles ordered.

Here is some harvest data for 2019:

  • 10th October – Bacchus (630kg) & Seyval Blanc (1,060kg)
  • 17th October – Regent (290kg) & Phoenix (670kg)
  • 29th October – Pinot Noir (420kg)

Total 3,070kg – i.e. 1.8 kg per vine – just over 1 bottle of wine per vine.  Luke is pleased with this, since it had been a challenging year.

1d2cd51e-8a73-4f49-b2b5-6862b725b440Luke waited until the last moment to harvest the Pinot Noir.  This autumn was damp and cool so ripening was slow.  It was worth the wait.  Pinot Noir can ripen too quickly becoming rather “overcooked” in flavour without the complexity for which it is prized.  But this year the wine should be very complex because ripening was so gradual.  Acid levels dropped sufficiently, while sugar levels rose gently.  As the weather was about to turn wet again, Luke decided that there was no benefit to waiting any longer, so we were summoned to the vineyard on what proved to be the last dry day for some time.  Pinot Noir bunches are tightly packed like pine cones, hence its name, with thin skins – perfect for mould to set in – so it was best not to leave it any longer.

e34f01a6-ce1d-4f57-b1b3-ebefa41e4320Despite the weather, the grapes were remarkably rot free, which no doubt reflects what is a good site on a sunny slope.  Luke says the quality of the Pinot Noir grapes this year was “fantastic”  (must be the expert pruning…..!?).  Luke advised us that the grapes would be de-stemmed at the winery, so we simply needed to snip the bunches without trimming too much off.  But as there are no luxuries such as optical sorting tables in this vineyard, we did need to be vigilant and snip off any mouldy and/or unripe grapes.  Luckily there was little of either, since I rather doubt Eva would have had patience for too much snipping.  I also had to contend with Arthur taking himself off to every corner of the vineyard sniffing out pheasants.

Luke’s young nephew, also called Arthur, was also helping.  He was a little puzzled by me shouting his name repeatedly as if he had misbehaved.

This was my first time harvesting with Eva, who appeared to be quite content, and who to my astonishment didn’t cut herself with the secateurs.

img_1557.jpgHarvesting is done rapidly at Sutton Ridge.  All of us knew we needed to crack on in order to get our hearty lunch, served with a refreshing drop of rosé. As you can see, Arthur particularly appreciated the lunch offerings.

So my lovely Pinot Noir is safely gathered in, and the vines can now have a well earned rest over the winter until Luke and his father return in late winter to prune.

So where did the grapes go?  To Steve Brooksbank’s winery in Shepton Mallet, where a substantial proportion of Somerset’s wine is made.  Luke isn’t yet planning a still red wine from his Pinot Noir, and even if he was, 2019 was not a year to attempt it.  So these beauties, along with the Seyval Blanc, will be making Luke’s elegant Dewdown sparkling white wine.  Pinot Noir is one of the grapes used to make not only champagne, but also other quality sparkling wines around the world – for which reason it is currently the Number 1 black skinned grape variety grown in the UK, which has a thriving sparkling wine industry.

It will be some while before I get to taste the wine made from these grapes, because the wine is made using the traditional bottle fermentation method which is the same as that used in champagne.  First a low alcohol high acidity still white wine is made.  This goes into a thick bottle with  more sugar and yeast, and the bottle is sealed.  A second fermentation happens in the bottle, creating a little more alcohol (about 1.5%), and carbon dioxide gas which is trapped and dissolved into the wine, being released as bubbles when the wine is opened.  The wine then rests on the lees (yeast cells which died after scoffing all the sugar!).  This gives the wine more complexity with delicate biscuit and bread dough aromas and flavours.  As we don’t want grotty dead yeast cells in our fizz, the wine has to be “riddled”, which gradually moves the lees to the neck of the bottle.  This is then frozen, and when the bottle cap is removed, a plug of lees pops out.  After topping up with more wine, the bottle is re-sealed with a very thick cork cylinder which turns into the familiar “mushroom” shape under pressure in the bottle.  This is called “disgorgement”.  After disgorgement, the wine needs to age further under cork before being released for sale.

The traditional method is a time consuming and labour intensive process, and the wines have to be stored carefully for at least 2 years before they can be sold.  This explains why traditional method sparkling wines are dearer than their still counterparts, and tank method sparkling wines like Prosecco which lack the complexity of traditional method wines.

So when will I get a sip?  The wine won’t be bottled until July 2020, and it will then be left on its lees for 18-24 months (the minimum period for champagne is 12 months, and for Crémant wines 9 months – but many are left on the lees for far longer).  There will then be further ageing after disgorgement of 4-6 months.  So maybe Christmas 2022??

I’m not sure I can wait until then, but happily the current release of Dewdown is available right now!  This is the 2014 2nd disgorgement which spent 40 months on its lees and 4 months ageing after disgorgement under cork.  It has a lowish abv of 11%, perfect for spring and summer weddings and picnics, and for those who don’t want a high alcohol wine.  The mouthfeel of the wine is soft and rounded, with fresh stone fruit and tangy citrus flavours to enjoy with hints of bread and biscuit due to its extended lees ageing.  A beautiful match with white fish (fish & chips even better!) and also light sheep’s milk cheeses like Manchego.  Or New Year’s Eve (I am thinking of one particular friend who could probably do with less abv in her celebratory fizz judging by previous New Year’s Day hangovers!).

08cc9fca-7c45-4c84-bb95-0111f634abaeIt has been an absolute pleasure to visit Luke and his lovely family at Sutton Ridge throughout 2019.  Although a small vineyard, quality is undoubtedly the watchword here, and this shows in the wines which are big favourites in our household, and which are gaining in recognition – see for example write ups appearing in Decanter magazine.  I had no hesitation in taking a bottle of Luke’s rosé to Armagnac as a gift for my host during my recent tour of the region; I am confident that she will enjoy it every bit as much as we do.

Sutton Ridge Bacchus, Rosé & Dewdown 2014 2nd disgorgement wines are available in various outlets in Somerset including The Wine Shop Winscombe (01934 708312).

Buying En Primeur: Is It Worth It?

Enjoyment of fine wine necessitates deep pockets.  Most of us therefore know relatively little about it.  But does buying wine “en primeur” spare some of your outlay?

“En primeur” is a wine trade term for buying wine as futures before bottling.  Usually, a price is paid for the wine when the en primeur offer is made.  Within two years after that, you have to pay the duty owing and shipping costs.  You then either store the wine yourself until it is mature enough to drink, or pay storage charges for someone else with suitable facilities to do so.

The reasoning is that by buying early, less money is spent on the wine in the long run.  However, there are various downsides to this approach which include:

  • falling wine prices
  • reliance upon the opinion of the person who tasted the wine sample in cask
  • interruption in the supply chain for whatever reason
  • having the means to store wine safely and in optimal conditions until ready to drink – or sell.  Provenance is important for value retention and includes proof of where and how the wine has been stored.
  • Insurance is also needed in case of loss or damage e.g. theft, fire, flood etc. if wine is kept for some time.

The wine trade has bought en primeur for many years, but consumers also began to buy en primeur in the late 20th century as a result of rising demand and relative economic prosperity.  Bordeaux wines are particularly associated with this practice, but there are en primeur offers in other regions of France, and indeed, further afield.

The cost and risks involved would normally be enough to deter a risk averse lawyer like me.  But my status as a godmother led me to dip my toe into the en primeur market as a bit of fun.  I decided to buy my god daughter 6 bottles of something ageworthy and approachable in the hope that when she reached 18 she would enjoy it (and maybe share a bit with her godmother!?).  I sought to minimise risk by using The Wine Society to source and store my investment, but there are plenty of other reputable and knowledgeable wine merchants who sell wine to private consumers en primeur.

The choice of en primeur wines was bewildering but price, style and the drinking window helped narrow the options.  Claret didn’t seem right for an 18 year old girl, and the delicate nuances of Burgundian pinot noir are subtle and not to everyone’s taste.  Port was a possibility and its sweetness might appeal to her but I feared it might seem a bit old fashioned.  But Chateauneuf du Pape seemed ideal – a long drinking window, a fashionable full bodied spicy style, and relatively affordable.

img_1144So in 2007 I bought 6 bottles of Domaine Font-de-Michelle Cuvée Etienne Gonnet Chateauneuf du Pape AOC 2005.  I gave the details to my god daughter’s parents in case anything happened to me.  We then forgot about it while the Wine Society stored it.

I didn’t know much about it, to be honest.  I since see that Hugh Johnson names Font-de-Michelle as a top name, calling it stylish, and 2005 is still drinking well in general for Chateauneuf apparently.  The 2005 was described as a classic vintage for the cellar by The Wine Spectator when writing about it in 2007 (not that I read this at the time!)

Here is an extract about 2005 from The Wine Cellar Insider:
2005 – A beautiful growing season for the Rhone Valley and all of Europe. The vintage was shaped by warm, sunny dry days and cool to cold nights and a long growing season. This all helped to produce rich, ripe, concentrated, sweet, fresh berries. The wines combine great style, depth of flavor and the ability to age and evolve.

Jancis Robinson seemed happy with it when released, giving it 18 points.  But by 2014 she scored it 16.5 for enjoyment (“very ripe and vivacious”) but remarked that there was lots of very obvious alcohol in it – the Grenache was presumably very ripe as it has a heady 15% abv.  I won’t reproduce the notes in full as they come from Purple Pages, a subscription service.  But I hope they won’t mind if I tell you the blend is 65% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 15% Mourvèdre.

We all taste differently, so I looked forward to tasting a stylish, spicy, full on wine with lots of development flavours.

img_0973Enough about the wine, let’s talk money!  I paid £125.00 for the wine.  When it arrived in the UK I paid £31.29 duty and VAT.  Storage charges per annum vary but based on last year’s charges The Wine Society estimate that I paid around about £43.20 in total i.e. £4.32 per annum.  My total spend therefore comes to approximately £199.49.  The 2005 is no longer available via The Wine Society and I don’t have access to LivEx to value the wine.  I could ask a merchant to value it but I’m not selling so that would be naughty.  The Wine Society was selling the 2009 for £39 a bottle, i.e. £234 for 6.  Assuming the 2005 is worth the same,  total “profit” is therefore £34.51 i.e. 17.3% over 12 years – I might have made more had I called it off sooner! I therefore (almost) bought 5 bottles and got one free.  It doesn’t sound much but if you buy in any scale it starts to seem shrewd.  Though to be honest, I’m not sure it competes with buying wine in France and bringing it over duty free – or just moving there!

img_1145My god daughter turned 18 this year, so what does she think of it I hear you ask?  Sadly, for reasons I won’t go into, her health is such that she can’t partake of much of it.  She has kept a bottle to share with her family, and I have bought the rest from her – like any 18 year old she is content with cash!

The husband and I had a certain birthday this year so we enjoyed a bottle to ease the transition into our next half century.  It was silky, still fruity, and ethereal, with all the leathery smoky spice you would want but in impeccable balance – I didn’t notice the alcohol particularly.  A wine of poise and distinction.  It could keep longer, but it’s drinking beautifully now.  So it won’t last long.