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Spirits Feature

Gascon Vignettes

by Rachel DelRocco Terrazas
March 19, 2019

Florence Castarède at Château Maniban

It’s a late afternoon in Éauze, the artisan market has finished up, and Le Bar du Marché is jamming. Behind the long bar, some of the staff is mixing cocktails as fast as the plates come out of the kitchen, while others are pulling bottles from a wall stacked with natural and biodynamic wines. I find a stool and order some bites—hard cheeses, cured meat, razor clams sautéed in oil and herbs, and pan con tomate—and the bartender sets down a spritzy Mojito tinged gold: Like many cocktails here, it’s made with Armagnac, the local spirit.

I’d never really considered Armagnac as a mixer before; back when I was tending bar in Texas, we’d thought of it as an after-dinner drink for older guests. Sensing my intrigue, the bartender starts mixing more cocktails for me to taste, pulling bottles from the diverse selection of Armagnac on her back bar. Each one is a revelation, especially a Brandy Smash, where the spirit shines through the berries and herbs. Armagnac’s history might trace back to the 1300s but, clearly, there’s still more to learn.

THE CLASSICIST

Armagnac Delord Armagnac Delord
An hour and a half northwest of Toulouse, Armagnac is a sleepy countryside of foggy rolling hills lined with vines and dotted with farms. One morning, at her family’s distillery, sixth-generation Armagnac maker Florence Castarède fills me in with some of the history, both of Armagnac Castarède and the region as a whole. Heading out from her 16th-century château, we walk into the vineyards, where the wet, sandy soil cakes my boots.

The sand, she explains, combined with vine varieties that were planted post-phylloxera, is what allowed the subregion of Bas-Armagnac to flourish after the plant louse hit in the later 19th century. Phylloxera doesn’t thrive in sand, but it did in the clay soil of Ténarèze and the limestone of the Haut-Armagnac, two subregions to the east. Historically, the entire Armagnac region relied heavily on folle blanche and colombard—the same varieties that were prominent in Cognac—until phylloxera hit. As Castarède explains, both proved challenging to grow on American rootstocks in the sandy soils of Bas-Armagnac. Instead, growers turned to ugni blanc and baco (also known as baco 22A), a hybrid of folle blanche and noah, a grape from the northeastern United States. Sturdy and resistant to frost and rot—two common issues in the region’s continental climate—baco quickly became a mainstay in Bas-Armagnac, which in turn became the heart of the Armagnac region.

Jérôme Delord Jérôme Delord
Baco was successful, but controversial. Hybrid grapes are not allowed in France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) zones and, in 1990, the INAO—the governing body for France’s AOCs—decreed that it would have to be uprooted by 2010. “Growers in the region fought for it to be included, as it resists rot, requires minimal treatment and gives structure and bass notes to the spirit,” Castarède explains. By 2005, the growers won the right to include baco in the region’s distilled wines—the only AOC in France to allow a hybrid.

Castarède points out another distinction unique to Armagnac as we enter through a side door of the stone château. Inside is a copper alambic Armagnaçais—a continuous single-column still sitting on four large wheels. “Our distiller, who we’ve used for a long time, owns this roving still and brings it with him. He finished up a few days ago and still has yet to pick it up.” This type of still, brought to the region in 1818, distinguishes Armagnac’s production from Cognac’s tradition of double-distillation in a potstill. The difference is such a point of local pride that, for a time, Armagnac outlawed Cognac-style distillation; it is allowed again, but most producers use the alambic Armagnaçais. Since it’s less precise than a potstill when it comes to cutting the heads and tails—the initial and final stages of distillation, which contain some undesirable compounds—it’s one of the factors that contributes to Armagnac’s rustic individuality.

An alambic Armagnaçais at Castarède An alambic Armagnaçais at Castarède
Castarède leads me into her homey dining room and pours a lineup of Armagnacs. All of them show ranges of stone fruit and subtle sweet oak spice that are hallmarks of Armagnac, especially her flagship Réserve de la Famille, based on ugni blanc and baco and aged 20 to 30 years: It’s rich with flavors of apricots and brown butter. Even her vintage-dated Armagnacs—all based on baco and some ugni blanc—show similar characteristics; the 1986 is especially evocative, with a brothy salinity, earthy forest-floor note and a touch of rancio. The scent and taste are reminiscent of the rural landscape of southwest France.

THE MODERNIST

Bright graffiti colors the outer walls of Armagnac Delord’s warehouses, a striking contrast to the dark cobblestone streets in the small village of Lannepax. I meet young Jérôme Delord outside: He and his brother Sylvain are the third generation to run the company. We head inside, where the distillery looks like any other, filled with tanks of wine, until we enter the distillation room. The space is filled by an enormous pot still, with its swan neck and multiple copper domes.

Delord explains that the family installed the still in 1971, as, at the time, they found the youngest Cognacs were better than the young Armagnacs. “With a double pot-still, we are able to cut out the unwanted esters in the heads and tails and keep a purer spirit with the hearts.” By law, vintage-dated Armagnac must be aged for at least ten years, an expensive proposition. Delord set out to market younger blends—labelled VS, VSOP or XO—in larger quantities than the family’s vintage bottlings, with a purer and more consistent spirit.

Yet even in these young spirits, Delord maintains a portion that’s been distilled in the traditional alambic Armagnaçais. Back in his industrial-chic tasting room, he pours Marie Duffau Napoléon, a blend with an average age of six
years; one-third of it is double distilled. The spirit is soft in texture, with aromas of white chocolate and sweet spice punctuated by high tones of florals. While Delord still puts out a range of vintage bottlings, this one is designed to be easy and consistent, ready to be mixed into a Sidecar.

THE BRIDGE BUILDER

Vintage armagnac at Darroze Vintage armagnac at Darroze
There are no stills at Darroze. Instead, Marc Darroze has filled the cellar of a small, thatched-roof building with casks of vintage Armagnacs from single vintages. He’s following in the footsteps of his grandfather, he explains, who would purchase bottles from farmers throughout the region to pour at his family’s restaurant. By highlighting the vintage, grape and place it was grown, his grandfather set out to show the full spectrum of flavor available in Armagnac.

Prior to 1955, all Armagnac was vintage-dated, Darroze says. Selling vintage Armagnac today, however, is a bit complex. “Unlike wine, the vintage doesn’t tell you much about what you might get in the bottle,” he says. “There aren’t ‘good’ vintages in Armagnac. Good vintages are plentiful vintages, and they vary among barrels and producer.” One producer’s 1945 may be completely different from the next.

To illustrate, he pours a range of brandies from his “Unique Collection,” each labeled by grape variety, producer and vintage. Each of the spirits tastes like Armagnac, with its toasty stone-fruit notes, but they offer distinct personalities. The 1980 Domaine de la Poste, made entirely of ugni blanc, tastes of peaches and cream and crusty bread; the 2004 Couzard Lasalle is 100 percent folle blanche and smells of white flowers and broth, with a fleshy white-plum character. Made for thoughtful sipping and savoring, they’d make a fine exclamation point after a meal of the local pâté, potato gratin and duck confit.

Darroze pulls out a surprise—his Grands Assemblages. Even though he believes in the individuality of the expressions available in Armagnac’s vintage category, he believes, like Delord, that producers must deliver Armagnacs that bartenders can rely on for consistency and a more accessible price. His Grands Assemblages are blends of Armagnacs of different ages. The 20 Ans d’Age doesn’t skimp on the region’s signature flavors of toasted nuts and apricots while adding zesty highlights of lemon and orange, along with a touch a salinity. The bartender in me immediately thinks of how perfect it would be in a spin on the Sazerac, or even in a Mojito, to savor with razor clams in the style of Le Bar du Marché, sautéed in fresh herbs and butter—or duck fat if you’d like.

photos of Florence Castarède at Château Maniban, Armagnac Delord and Jérôme Delord by Rachel DelRocco Terrazas

This feature appears in the print edition of April 2019.
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