Last night, over a glass of Armagnac (Dartigalongue XO, if you must know—a sturdy, commercial Armagnac that represents real value) about my high school Latin. It was the famous first words of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars--GALLIA est omnis divisa in partes tres—All Gaul is divided into three parts.
The line came back to me because Armagnac is divided into three parts. There’s Bas Armagnac, to the west, Tenareze, in the center and Haut Armagnac to the east. Two out of three of those regions wind up on the labels of a lot of bottles of brandy, of course. Bas Armagnac is probably considered the sexiest sub-region, because of its high concentration of sables fauves, or iron rich sand. This seems to produce the best grapes for distilling, although the boulbenes, sand with pieces of clay, is also good for long-lived spirits; Tenareze is blessed with a fair amount of that kind of soil. Haut Armagnac produces grapes for brandy, but they mostly go into blends offered by negociants.
Most of the vines that produce Armagnac come from the rolling hills where the Bas Armagnac meets Tenareze. This is picturesque country, dotted with bastides, walled villages dating back to the wars with the English in the Middle Ages. It’s pretty country, and good for agriculture, great for brandy; however, the industry seems to be dying. As we drove through the villages, you could see abandoned vineyards everywhere—gnarled, venerable vines suffering from neglect, just waiting to collapse back into the soil. Many of the healthiest looking vineyards, we were told, are not producing Armagnac, but wines from Gascony, which can be sold every year, without waiting for the long aging process that makes a profound spirit.
Maybe that’s why my rudimentary Latin came back to me over the glass. That language is long dead, but there are remnants still with us. It seems that Armagnac itself may be going that way. Certainly there’s enough to last a while, we saw chais holding row after row of barrels containing aging spirit, but it seems like it is fading fast. Maybe the Slow Food folk can put this stuff on their ark and save it. Meanwhile, I’ll sip mine slowly and ponder the lessons I learned long ago.