Wednesday, August 6, 2008


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.

1 comment:

A taste of Gascony said...

I am not in the wine trade but live in Gascony and am passionate about all things gastronomic. 'Defending' my local,
and very much favorite tipple, promts me to point out that it seems pretty clear that the Armagnac production and market, though changing -less fragmented - is very much alive and kicking. It is likely that the 'dead vines' you refer to infact related to fields that 'only' have been producing armagnac for the owners own 'tax free' consumption. This is a tradition which is pretty much gone,as is most of the small mixed farms that had the historic right to carry on distilling for 'home use'.However,in terms of 'traded' armagnac, that which you would have access to in the States, wether mixed negociant blends or directly from small producers,the business is still very much alive. Sourcing suppliers and overcoming the difficulties of dealing wiht small purely French Speaking 'family' outfits may however restrict your 'easy market access' and help explain the limited range of 'brands' you see - and the at times exhaubitant prices for the 'conneseur' vintage armagnacs from favoured singe estates. Sadly for the Gascon producers they never got themselves organised like they did in the cognac region, and the very sophisticated armaganc brandys that are produced by numerous excellent domaines suffer from a lack of recognition by the wider market - everybody knows cognac, that you can buy a good one as well as a ordinarry cooking brand, but few know that the 'slave armagancs' they see commonly available is just one end of a spectrum that covers a very a wide range of highly sophisticated products of true international first class status. Anyhow,if you would like to be put in contact with some producers not normally exporting, but none the less making excellent armagnac ,pls feel free to contact us - we also have a couple of spaces left on our 'Armagnac in Focus' gourmet break first week of November. This select 4 day trip focuses on Armagnac, with several private tastings at small producers and visits to private establishm,ents and a michelain starred restaurant for gourmet dinners made from the regions delicious produce and
highlighting the role of amagnac in various traditional and contemoporary menus, (dinners wiht armagnac accents). th ssmall group will also be included at a traditional Gascon
'harvest cellebration lunch'
taking place at a small Bas Armaganc producer's chai, where this years eau de vie is distilled in an antique amberic and the previous years harvest is stocked in large barrels around the lunch table. Feel free to mail for more information,
'A tast of Gascony'