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What's the Difference Between Cognac and Armagnac?

Introduction to Armagnac: History and Production

Armagnac is a French grape brandy most similar to cognac, but ultimately very different in production and flavor profile. 

In this post I'll cover the basics of armagnac. In the next post, I'll discuss the main differences between cognac and armagnac

Armagnac History

  • Vines were introduced by the Romans circa 50 BC
  • The oldest document of armagnac production is from 1310, making armagnac over 700 years old and 150 years older than cognac. 
  • In 1879, phylloxera hit the region and destroyed half the vineyards. It wasn't worse because the Bas Armagnac region has sandy soils and the phylloxera mites didn't thrive in it.
  • 1936 the AOC was created and in 1941 the BNIA, the Armagnac Bureau, was created. 
  • In 2005, armagnac laws changed to allow blanche de armagnac - unaged armagnac

Armagnac Region

Armagnac is produced in the Gascony region of France, south of Cognac and more inland. They produce a lot of wonderful delicacies in the region and also foie gras that is the product of animal torture. In addition to grapes, they grow a lot of corn, which is used to force feed ducks. 

The region has its own microclimate with the Pyranees mountains on one side and pine forests on the other to block winds.

Arm

There are three terroirs/appellations in the region. These are often found on the bottle labels. Hardly any armagnac is produced in the Haut Armagnac - only 1%. 

  • Bas-Armagnac
  • Tenareze
  • Haut-Armagnac

CARTE ARMAGNAC 2014_2

Ten grape varietals are allowed to be used in armagnac, but in reality people only use the first four:

  • Ugni Blanc 55%
  • Baco (aka Baco 22A) 35%
  • Folle Blanche 5%
  • Colombard 5%
  • Plant de Graisse
  • Meslier St François
  • Clairette de Gascogne
  • Jurançon blanc
  • Mauzac Blanc 
  • Mauzac Rosé 

Baco is a hybrid grape and was going to be disallowed in armagnac (I believe this was due to an EU law), but they decided it would be allowed only for distillation, not table wine so it remains. 

Folle Blanche was the main pre-phylloxera grape.

Armagnac Fields of Vines2

Distillation and Aging

Grapes are harvested in the fall and the wine is distilled throughout the winter. All distillation must be finished by March 31. 

As with cognac, the ideal grapes are low in alcohol and high in acid so that their flavors will compound through distillation and the wine is less likely to spoil in the weeks or months between harvest and distillation. (No sulfur is added to preserve the wine.)

The wine is distilled on the lees, but only on the fine lees so it doesn't gunk up the stills.

95% of armagnac is distilled in an Alambic Armagnacais, a small, sometimes mobile, continuous column still. The mobile stills have names, and producers will request the same stills each year. 25% of stills are wood-fired; the rest are gas. 

The rest is distilled in pot stills, usually the typical cognac stills. Only 3 producers use pot stills. 

Arm still

 This video does a good job at showing how armagnac flows through the continuous still. The good stuff begins at 1:30. 

 

The plates inside the stills have what the bourbon distillers call "bubble caps" in different shapes - spiders, mushrooms, centipedes, or little houses.

 

  • Mushroom still plates Armagnac Delord
  • House shaped plates Armagnac Delord
  • Centipede plates at Armagnac Gelas
Centipede plates at Armagnac Gelas

 

In the continuous still, the vapor and wine are in contact with each other. This isn't the case in pot stills. There are no heads and tails cuts in continuous stills. 

The maximum number of plates allowed by law is 15. Some distillers use as few as 3 plates, but the average is probably 5-8 plates. 

Aging Armagnac 

Armagnac is aged in large 400 liter French oak barrels. Many barrels are made from the local Gascon oak aka Black Oak. This wood has wide grains and most of it is given a medium-heavy toast.

Limousin and other French oak barrels with narrow grains are also used. I'm not sure of the ratio of local to non-local barrels. 

Barrel tight and toast M Gilles Bartholomo Cooperage Armagnac

As with cognac, armagnac typically goes into new barrels for 6 months to 2 years of its life, then is transferred to used/older barrels so that the wood won't dominate the flavor. 

Armagnac producers make a point of aerating their brandy while it ages, typically when mixing a bunch of barrels together and redistributing it. Typically when they move the brandy around in the aging warehouses they don't roll barrels - they pump out the brandy and pump it into other barrels. 

Different grape varietals are often aged separately. 

Dumping barrels Armagnac Janneau

Minimum Aging Laws for Armagnac

  • VS: 1 year
  • VSOP: 4 years  
  • NAPOLEON: 6 years 
  • XO: 6 years 
  • 20 years  20 years  
  • Vintage:  Single Harvest from the year on the label (minimum 10 years old)

Blanche de armagnac is unaged armagnac, but it is rested a minimum of three months in non-reactive containers, typically stainless steel. Once a batch has been declared that it will be blanche de armagnac, if it sits in tanks but doesn't sell they're not allowed to then age it in wood. 

In fact this is the same with all armagnac: for each season the growers must declare which parcels will be for wine, blanche de armagnac, and armagnac. 

Additives in Armagnac

Typical additives in armagnac include coloring caramel (8-10 g/l is typical), sugar, and boise. The latter is wood flavoring to immitate age. The BNIA says it's not commonly used in armagnac, but they would.

Those three additives combine to form the "obscuration rate." A company can measure the "gross" ABV, which is the number that goes on the bottle as measured by a hydrometer. The "real" ABV is measured in a laboratory, usually by redistillation. The difference between the "real" and "gross" ABV must be less than 4%. So rather than having a legal limit on sugar or caramel or boise, they have a limit on the total additives using the obscuration rate measurement. The BNIA representatives says it's rare that the obscuration rate is more than 2%.  

Paradis Armagnac Dartigalongue (2)
 

Learn more about armagnac from the BNIA's website.

In the next post, we'll cover the difference between cognac and armagnac

 

Comments

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Lynn

Hi there,

Love your page. Quick question....typically in a continuous still the heads are vaporized as the still starts removing the methanol component but where are they released in an Armagnac still ? Do they allow them to just vaporize off as the distillation begins (are they condensed but not used like in Cognac)- I've watched the video clip online a few times and still have always wondered.

Thanks for any clarity on this !

Camper English

HI - I don't know the answer to this but I've asked someone smarter than me and we'll see if he comments....

Camper English

Hi Lynn - Here is a response from Stephen Shellenberger of the amazingly nerdy http://bostonapothecary.com. He says:

Hopefully this is coherent.

First we’d have to investigate what you mean by vaporize in the context you are using it. When liquids in the still turn into a gas, we often say they evaporate but we could also say vaporize, though it comes with more connotations like something is destroyed, but that isn’t the case here. Luckily there isn’t much methanol to worry about in the first place, but I’ll get to that.

Memory had failed me and I didn’t realize the stills of Armagnac were continuous. I thought they were just short batch column stills. When I revisited Hannum and Blumberg’s Brandies and Liqueurs of the World (1976), which has the best chapter on Armagnac, they had great descriptions of the stills. Something unique about these stills is they are noted for producing a spirit heavier than if a pot still was used. That is the opposite of every rule of thumb you’ll hear about every other spirits category. But these aren’t three story tall continuous vodka stills, they are very short and are not run to strip congeners as thoroughly as a vodka still. One reason they don’t have a traditional heads and tails cut is because as congeners are stacking up in the column in order of their volatility, the spirit is drawn off below the line of where the most volatile nasty stuff is accumulating. There is probably even a secondary vent to blow off some of this nasty stuff as it continues to accumulate. A healthy percentage of less volatile stuff makes it out before it starts to sink lower into the column. So concentration of each congener will be different in each part of the column and zones will start to form. How fast the spirit is drawn off, will shape how relatively at equilibrium congeners in the column are at and how many congeners are making it out. The relative equilibrium is implied by the distillation proof. The lower the proof the further from approaching equilibrium the column is, and the heavier the spirit will taste. The point on the column where spirit is drawn off also determines its character (above or below certain zones). The quickness of the continuous system means the spirit is probably less transformed in the still than other spirits and more transformed in post distillation aging.

Now as far as methanol goes, it is far harder to separate by fractioning that many people think because methanol’s volatility is very similar to ethanol unlike other congeners where the volatilities are distinctly more different. In the Armagnac still, methanol would not exactly collect in any specific zone in the column. So with methanol, producers just do their best to avoid producing it in the first place. They only use sound fruit with no rot. They don’t use enzymes that would break down pectin producing methanol, and they are sensitive to how the fruit is juiced to limit pectin which is the source of methanol.

So fruit based spirits have a permissible amount of methanol in them and they are tested for it. Grappa probably has the highest quantity because it is made from pectin heavy pomace and its probably up against the methanol limit. Some people wonder why we don’t have cider grappa and the reason is apple pomace has more pectin than grapes and the product of distilling it is over the permissible limit. Because the methanol can’t be practically separated, the apple pomace is simply discarded.

Florin

Hi, great article, thank you!
A couple points regarding additives, a topic that interests me very much:
- The 4° obscuration rate limit is correct, see decree 2009-1285, annex D-11
- To clarify how the obscuration rate is measured, the apparent ("gross") ABV is the one in fact measured with the hydrometer. The presence of sugar and additives reduces the measured ABV compared to the real alcohol content. The real ABV is what goes on the label, it reflects the alcohol content, and could potentially be measured by redistillation.
- 4° obscuration translates to 15-17 g/L of sugar (or, I suppose, a combination of caramel and sugar). That's a lot, and would be very evident to the taste. In a wine this would qualify as medium sweet.
- Sugar testing using the hydrometer method is of great and recent interest among rum lovers, where sugar use is rampant.

Camper English

Thanks!

Steven Clark

For your information both continuous and pot stills are used in the production of Armagnac.
Continuous stills produce a lower alcohol percentage and a sweeter spirit, this is mainly used in younger VS and VSOP.
The single still process is more labour intensive and produces a higher alcohol and more aromatic spirit which is more suited to the older XO and Hors d'age brandies where the aging process can soften the spirit.

Steven Clark

A very nice article but I think you have made a mistake in the ageing nomenclature (I think your list is for Cognac)
Armagnac is sold youngest first as:
VS
VSOP
XO (I think this is in the rules but rarely sold)
Hors D'age

My question was when did Armagnac (and likely Cognac also) first start being aged in oak?
I understand from a friend that it was originally sold as an white eau de vie (like Blanche) then at some period the Dutch glassmakers stopped producing the "Jean Dammes" which were used to store and transport it. This forced producers to ship their Armagnac in barrels which obviously coloured and flavoured the spirit. However this new spirit was well received by the consumers and was therefore continued.
I don't remember what period this change took place.

Steven Clark

Just found the answer on a French site: it was around 1730 that they started using oak barrels.

Joshua

Thanks for the awesome video! Do you know of any other good ones on the spirit production process? I'm looking for processing/fermentation, pot distillation, and maturation/softening methods.

Camper English

Hmm well offhand some of the other industry bureaus like the cognac bureaus have them. And then the big brands.

Matija Kralj

Hi!
Please help me!
I have a plan to fill up one oak barrel (50-60 litres) with double destilled brandy and keep it 18 years. Untill my child turns 18 :-)
And now I have some questions:
I dont have a barrel so i will buy one. But the problem is that i can buy only new barrel, all the used ones are in bad conditions or unknown history.
I red that the new barrels release much more flavour and color than the used ones, so they are not so good in aging spirits for a long time.
Is their a way that i can put my brandy in a new oak barrel and after 18 years the contetn will be drinkable?
Thank you in advance!
Best regards from Croatia!
Matija

Camper

Hi - Aging spirits is really complicated, but yes it's true that French brandy producers typically age spirits first in a new cask for a short time them move them to used barrels for long aging - otherwise the tannins will be overwhelming. I don't think I can be much help other than showing you two posts I did that include more information:
https://www.alcademics.com/2015/02/the-complicated-aging-process-for-cognac-as-seen-at-cognac-hardy.html
https://www.alcademics.com/2020/01/aging-conditions-for-cognac-hine-series-part-4.html
Good luck with this!

Hélène fischer

Lorsque j’étais jeune dans les années 60 il y avait une bouteille spéciale très enfoncée je ne la trouve pas dans la photo des différentes bouteilles
Est ce que vous la produisez encore au grand public

Mickey Birnbaum

Hi
I have a question about the aging of the spirits: after using the new barrels for the first few months the spirit is transferred to older barrels / used barrels. Are these used barrels old wine barrels? If so, is there a difference if the barrels contained red or white wine? How does the wine flavor affect the spirit?
Thanks.

Camper English

@Mickey - The used barrels are not old wine barrels, they're just used Armagnac barrels. First a barrel is used a few times for new wine, until it's less aggressive. Then it is reclassified as an older (rather than used) barrel. If I remember correctly, both for armagnac and cognac you cannot put it into a finishing barrel and still be in the legal category. You can have a "cognac finished in a bourbon cask" but legally at that point it is no longer cognac. It's similar with "bourbon finished in a cognac cask."

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