Sunday 1 March 2015

Armagnac, Gascony's sleeping beauty

I was intrigued to be sent a pack of samples from an outfit called Rueverte, an online spirits retailer based in Germany but clearly aiming for a worldwide reach. As the name suggests, they began as an outlet for absinthe, and in fact the co-founder is the great absinthe guru David Nathan-Maister, but have now branched out, with sub-sites at, and The impression is that they prefer to handpick lesser-known gems rather than attempting to cover all the obvious bases—their Cognac section only has one brand, Tesseron, and none of the well-known names in this high-profile category.

My sample pack is one of their “Explore Sets”, containing three 50ml phials, in this case of three different blends from Armagnac house Goudoulin, enabling you to do your own comparative tasting. (Master of Malt do something similar here in the UK.) The bottles are square in shape and fit snugly in the dense foam insert of the presentation packaging, protecting them in transit.

The Armagnac section of is better represented than Cognac, with six brands to choose from, though only one (Darroze) of which I had previously been aware. Despite being less well known than Cognac, Armagnac is apparently the oldest type of brandy in France (700 years old in 2010). Its chief defining characteristic is that it is made in certain regions in Gascony, specifically Bas-Armagnac, Haut-Armagnac and Armagnac Tenareze, each with its own soil type that influences the white grapes that go into the spirit. Cognac is mostly Ugni Blanc grapes, plus Folle Blanche and Colombard while Armagnac typically adds Bacco too (and in fact the official Armagnac authorisation body allows some ten different varieties). Whereas Cognac is distilled twice in batches in a pot still, the traditional Armagnac still is a column design enabling continuous distillation.

I was under the impression that the invention of column distillation (where the vapour rises up a column containing metal plates that encourage the undesirable heavier components to condense out and fall back down) allowed for a purer spirit. But it seems the 19th-century Verdier design traditional in Armagnac is much less efficient that the Coffey still, producing a “rustic” distillate at the relatively low strength of 52%, compared to the Coffey’s 96%, meaning that Armagnac retains more, and more varied, flavours. Years in the barrel naturally erode this down to bottling strength, meaning that it is seldom diluted, again helping to retain a breadth of flavour. (Cognac, by contrast, emerges from its second distillation at 70%.)

The Armagnac column still (from the Goudoulin website)
In each case the spirits are then aged in oak barrels—in Cognac it is Limousin or Tronçais oak which softens the spirit, while in Armagnac it has to be black Monlezun oak which imparts more colour and vanilla/toffee notes. Both types of spirit are often blended. In a three-star or VS blend, the youngest spirit must be at least two years old; in a réserve three years old, in a VSOP four years old, a Napoléon or XO six years old and an Hors D’Age (optimistically “beyond age”) ten years old. Armagnacs are more likely to have specific vintages or age statements.

The house of J. Goudoulin was named after Madame Jeanne Ménal Goudoulin, who married into the business in 1908, but lost her husband in 1925 to injuries sustained during the First World War. She learned to manage the growing collection of spirits laid down by the house and from 1935 formed J. Goudoulin, running it for the next 30 years. Her nephew Christian Faure took over, selling it in 2009 to Michel Miclo of the family firm G. Miclo (who make some fine eaux de vie).

The emphasis here does seem to be on building up a stock of old spirits to sell and to blend. Goudoulin has an impressive portfolio of single vintages (Rueverte offer a 1938 and I’ve seen a 1914 for sale elsewhere) as well as blends where the youngest spirit is as old as 60 years. My sample set offers the eight-year-old blend, the Hors D’Age and the 20-year-old blend.

(Left to right) 8-year-old, Hors D'Age and 20-year-old

The eight-year-old immediately strikes you with notes of pear and marzipan on the nose, perhaps with a slight bitterness at the end. This is followed by plain chocolate, coffee and toffee. The palate is dry and spicy, but with a pronounced and wholly unexpected floral element, like rose and violet chocolate creams, or perhaps Turkish delight. There is pear tart too. I really am struck by the complexity here, combined with an absence of the fiery fumes that Cognac often seems to lead with. It evolves in the glass but even after half an hour or more it still has a striking combination of fruit, flowers and dry chocolate on the tongue. I realise it reminds me of the flavour of a cigar too, with something of tannic but aromatic cedar wood about it.

I try the Hors D’Age next, as I am assured it (or rather the youngest spirit in the blend) is ten years old. The pear, marzipan and chocolate elements are still clearly there, but now there is a strong aroma of apricots too. The palate is less obviously different, perhaps with those floral notes less pronounced and a bit more chocolate; maybe a bit less dry, though still not sweet. Toffee and caramel emerge and an underlying aromatic wood character.

Finally we come to the 20-year old. I notice less of a clear change from the Hors D’Age, though I think there is less of the apricot and a bit of cooked apple. The palate seems softer and maybe with a bit less fruit and a bit more of the chocolate.

I dig around for some Cognac to try it against and unearth a bottle of Courvoisier VSOP Exclusif, a blend intended for mixing. It immediately strikes me as having more tight, dry, high notes, with an emphasis on orange and orange blossom. The palate is immediately fiercer; it subsides quickly to a softer, chocolate balance but it is undoubtedly less complex. I also have a bottle of regular Courvoisier VSOP: here I get pears as well as chocolate, plus an element of tea, perhaps from wood tannins. But it is frankly rougher than any of the Goudoulin Armagnacs.

In fairness a VSOP need only be four years old, half the age of the youngest of the Goudoulin samples. But the best price for Courvoisier VSOP I can find is £32.50, while the 8-year-old Goudoulin is not much more at £38 (though with Rueverte you’ll have to spend £150 to get their free delivery, otherwise it is a hefty £9 for that one bottle).

I was highly impressed by these samples. I had previously dipped a toe into Armagnac waters on more than one occasion but hadn’t really thought about it much in recent years. That may well change now, not least because, for the age and complexity of the spirits involved, they do represent pretty good value.

The Goudoulin Explore Set is £20.50 plus delivery.


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