Despite both being French brandies, Cognac often takes center stage. But Armagnac offers unique flavors you're going to want to try.
Although Cognac gets all the headlines, its rustic cousin, Armagnac, deserves attention, too. Both are French brandies, made with many of the same grape varieties. But Gascony’s Armagnac offers robust richness that’s not often seen in the lighter Cognac style. Think gorgeous butterscotch, dried apricot and salted caramel; or in older bottlings, flavors of roasted nuts, leather and plum skin.
“Armagnac is a more agricultural spirit than Cognac,” writes artisanal spirits champion Thad Vogler in his book By the Smoke and the Smell. Despite the region’s long history, he notes, many producers are “at a crossroads, torn between the traditions of agricultural spirits and a desire for greater commercial success.”
Domaine d’Esperance is an excellent example of a house that artfully navigates these crossroads. The same distiller that produced this month’s top-scoring bottling also recently introduced a sassy, provocative approach to Blanche Armagnac.
A white spirit, minimally aged and intended to compete with vodka as a cocktail mixer, Blanche Armagnac hasn’t caught on the way producers had hoped when introduced in 2015. However, Esperance teamed up with Brooklyn-based importer PM Spirits to debut Cobrafire. It’s labeled as grape eau de vie, not Blanche Armagnac; stay tuned to see if this emerging style lands with bartenders.
Speaking of Armagnac designations, one notable recent change to the XO category aims to match Cognac: As of April 2018, the minimum age requirement for XO Armagnac was increased from six to 10 years. Other categories remain the same: VS and Trois Etoiles (three stars) are aged between one and three years; VSOP four to nine years; Napoleon six to nine years; and now XO, Hors d’ Age and single-vintage bottlings all start at 10 years of age.
Despite these and other changes, Armagnac remains a spirit category that holds fast to its traditional roots.
Domaine d’Espérance XO Bas-Armagnac (France; PM Spirits, Brooklyn, NY); $94, 98 points. The wonderful aroma suggests juicy orchard fruit brushed with vanilla and cocoa. On the supersoft palate, a concentrated cocoa note leads to peach nectar, gingery spice and a delicate curl of orange peel on the finish. Made with a blend of four vintages, the youngest of which was aged 10 years. abv: 40.7%
Domaine d’Aurensan 20 Year Armagnac (France; PM Spirits, Brooklyn, NY); $202, 95 points. Think cinnamon, butter, thick maple syrup and warm, concentrated toffee on nose and palate. Drying oak, walnut and cinnamon tones accent the long finish. abv: 42.5%
Cobrafire Eau de Vie de Raisin (France; PM Spirits, Brooklyn, NY); $52, 90 points. Technically, this is classified as “eau de vie de raisin,” not Armagnac Blanche. It’s still a dynamic sip: a fleeting peach note subsides into green apple and plum skin, finishing with white pepper, honeysuckle and plenty of cobra-like bite. abv: 51.37%