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Armagnac is historically the oldest style of French brandy. Some historians allege that Arnaud de Villeneuve created armagnac in the mid-1300s. What is documented is that the spirit went into full-scale production throughout the Armagnac region by 1411 and was registered as a commercial product three years later in Saint-Sever. It was a popular therapeutic remedy, particularly to calm the nerves.
Produced in the Pays de Gascogne in southwestern France, armagnac is distilled in three regions:
Bas armagnac produces the most prestigious armagnacs with a distinctive plum bouquet. These are the highest quality, most refined and complex of the category.
Ténarèze is the largest producer of armagnac, creating highly aromatic spirits which sometimes possess a coarse palate lovingly referred to as the dancing fire.
Haut armagnac has the largest territory but the smallest vineyard area and smallest production output. It is the least significant in terms of quality and quantity.
These regions were delimited by decree in 1909 by President Fallières.
Armagnac is generally distilled by small-scale rural growers. Some producers share mobile stills that are driven around the countryside at production time, similar to those used for making eaux-de-vie in fruit-growing regions.
Locals used to joke that when crows travelled over the Armagnac region they flew upside down so they couldn't see how poor the area was. A loyalty to old traditions surrounding the Armagnac industry is one of many reasons the spirit continues to embrace respect.
Isolated from efficient transport links, armagnac was very much a locally consumed product until the md-1700s. Production contrasts significantly with the much more industrial methods employed in Cognac.
The key difference between armagnac and cognac is the grape selection.
Armagnac is made from traditionally-produced, unfiltered, natural white wines from Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Bacozza, and Colombard grapes. Distilled in a traditional two-column continuous still (alambic armagnaçais) or a pot-still (alambic charentais), armagnac is distilled only once to 54-60% ABV which produces more intense fruit character and a rustic palate. The collection is lower than that of cognac, which is 72% ABV.
Distillation takes place in the winter following the harvest and by law must be completed by early March after the harvest.
The spirit is aged for long periods in oak from the Monlezun forest in Bas Armagnac which impart a subtle hue and complex palate.
Vintage dated Armaganc (a single harvest's unblended produce) is a long-standing mark of the region's individuality. In terms of ageing, an "XXX" or "VS" armagnac blends several armagnacs matured at least two years in wood. For the VSOP, the minimum is at least five years, and for XO, at least six. Older and more complex armagnacs from a single year are dated "vintages".