The cold weather and its great remedies: Cognac or Armagnac?
This time of the year has finally taken over completely. For the residents of the province of Quebec that do not flee to the southern regions to escape this rigorous winter weather, there exists a large selection of activities that are suitable to fully embrace and, ultimately, enjoy all that this cold season has to offer. What is better than, after a long spent outside, sipping a glass of eau-de-vie in front of the fireplace? In the category of eau-de-vie made from grapes, the cognac and the armagnac, two beverages made in France, stand out. Here are a few tips on how to differentiate them and how to find your way through the various domains, legislations and aging indicators.
To start it off, a little bit of history to distinguish these two alcoholic beverages. The cognac is probably the most known of these two, but the armagnac was confirmed as the predecessor in terms of its production in France. A simple fact explains this phenomenon: the geographical location. Indeed, the cognac is produced north of Bordeaux, close to the sea, which allowed for easier commercialization with England and Ireland and, ultimately, gave it its popularity during the 18thcentury. Its popularity was reaching an all-time high at the end of the 19thcentury, when the phylloxera (a disease that completely destroyed the vines) struck in France. It is only around 20 years later that a solution to this crisis was found and, during this time, the Scotch whisky became the most known and sought after spirit around the world. Since then, the cognac has not regained its ancient glory and popularity, but the same four domains that were at the forefront in the production back then are the same that dominate the market today: Rémy Martin, Hennessy, Martell and Courvoisier. For the armagnac, it has evolved in the shadows of the cognac by being located further into the lands, which has mostly led to a consumption that was essentially local. When the commercialization started up again after the Second World war, some lesser quality armagnac eaux-de-vie were introduced to the market which affected the reputation of this beverage. In comparison to cognac, there are much less renowned domains of armagnac. Indeed, it is mostly in the hands of small and artisanal producers to fulfill the worldwide needs.
Concerning the legislation, the production of cognac encompasses six crus: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, Bois Ordinaires, Borderies and Fine Champagne (a blend of crus of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne). The most renowned crus are Fine Champagne and Borderies. The cognac must go through the distillation process two times, with a direct heating up in Charentais copper stills. It is also allowed to add, in very small quantities, cognac-infused wood chips, caramel and sugary solutions. The eau-de-vie has to be aged for a minimum of two years in oak casks of 350 liters (the most common casks used). During the distillation process, domains such as Rémy Martin elect to keep the lees (the sediment that is found within the wine after the fermentation process, essentially composed of dead yeast) for the full length of the distillation. Others, such as the Martell domain, elect to completely remove the lees before distillation. Keeping the lees for the process brings intensity, complexity and a rich sensation in the palate for the eau-de-vie. On the contrary, removing the lees produces an alcohol that is pure and delicate. During the winemaking process, the usage of screw caps, chaptalisation and SO2 are prohibited. The VS and VSOP are the most popular categories. The VS cognacs represent the youngest generation of the eaux-de-vie, while the VSOP cognacs are the result of an elaboration process lasting four years.
The legislation for armagnac is relatively different. First off, up to ten varieties of grapes are allowed on the appellation. The distillation can be done two times, just like the cognac, or in a still specifically designed for armagnac. Three main denominations are to remember: Bas-Armagnac (the most present on the market, aromatic and fruity), Armagnac-Ténarèze (the strongest variety with a good aging potential) and Haut-Armagnac (the smallest production). The commercialization of aged products is more common than for the cognacs; in fact, various XO or vintage products are available for purchase. Compared to cognac, it is not uncommon to find armagnac with vintages (all of the grapes must originated from this same vintage, but the wines must be of at least ten years of age). In the end, it is a decision mostly based on taste and on the occasion. Here is one of my favorite products, originating from a family domain dating back four generations. The Delord domain exclusively offers vintage armagnacs, from the 1900s to today.