Cognac and Armagnac⁠—Tracing the Origins of France’s Great Brandies

In southwest France, above and below Bordeaux, the cabernet sauvignon and merlot vines for those renowned red wines give way to less-noble white varieties: ugni blanc, folle blanche, colombard. The Cognac and Armagnac AOC regions are less than 300 kilometres apart, and both make world-class brandy, but Cognac has vast vineyards, multinational brands, and worldwide recognition. Armagnac doesn’t.

It has nothing to do with quality. Like all brandy, cognac and armagnac are distilled from wine. (Brandy can be a distillation of any fruit wine, but for these two styles, the wine must be made from grapes.) The differences are subtle: the former fruitier, the latter woodier and more savoury, although both can show beautiful layers of orange peel, nut, spice, or chocolate. Armagnac tends to use more grape varieties (the three above, plus baco), while over 95 per cent of Cognac’s vast vineyards are planted to ugni blanc. Cognac is double distilled, the evaporated fumes returned to liquid form, then reheated: it takes nine litres of wine to make one litre of eau-de-vie. In an armagnac alembic, the wine flows continuously, cooling the condenser containing the warmed spirit, which heats that wine in turn. The 5,500 hectares under vine here are mostly sandy. Cognac, cooled by Atlantic breezes, has over 15 times the vineyard area. The best have clay and limestone soil.

By the 17th century, the wealthy Dutch, thirsty for spirits, had created brandewijn, meaning burnt (distilled) wine, which lasted longer and travelled better by river. The 65 kilometres from Cognac to the Atlantic, along the pretty Charente river, was by far the easier journey—one reason, surely, that cognac is better known, although it may be testament to armagnac’s quality that the Dutch considered the effort of transporting it 250 kilometres worthwhile. The black mould that blooms on the walls and roofs of both regions’ chais (cellars, which for brandy are above ground), feeding on the evaporated fumes known, poetically, as the angels’ share, is like a dark signature from those long-dead creators of “burnt wine,” the first brandy connoisseurs.

Last year, in a heat wave, I visited the Armagnac AOC growing region, staying just outside the main town, at Les Bruhasses, a charming guesthouse where Hélène Royer bakes treats each day for breakfast and serves superb dinners at a single long table. Over a soup of courgette and mint from Royer’s garden, I chatted with her sister Laurence Dèche, who oversees the family’s estate, Château de Millet.

Armagnac farmers have been making their spirit far longer than their Cognac cousins: in the 15th century, they’d fill a barrel to pour at a daughter’s wedding.

Dèche turned out to be just the first of many female armagnac producers I met, including Florence Castarède, the sixth generation to produce the fabulous brandies that bear her surname, and Caroline Rozès of Domaine d’Aurensan. Rozès has painstakingly gathered and replanted the “phantoms”—six now-rare grape varieties—to make Le Carré des Fantômes, which tastes of honey, apricot, and licorice, with a curious viscosity typical, she said, of one of those grapes, plant de graisse.

Armagnac farmers have been making their spirit far longer than their Cognac cousins: in the 15th century, they’d fill a barrel to pour at a daughter’s wedding. The scale stayed small. “In the 17th century, they’d have raised pigs as well as making brandy here,” said Claire de Montesquiou of Domaine d’Espérance as she showed me around her chais and lovely farmhouse, where an engraving on the wall commemorates her husband’s ancestor, who was fictionalized as D’Artagnan by Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers.

Even Francis Darroze, a larger enterprise that buys and bottles others’ armagnacs, is a family affair. And it’s quite a family: Darroze, who died in 2021 at 85, helmed a restaurant with two Michelin stars, while his daughter Hélène now has four restaurants, three of which have Michelin stars.

Both regions regulate the age of the youngest eau-de-vie in the bottle, but only armagnac frequently puts an actual year on the label (Frapin, a midsized cognac house that prides itself on its selection of vintages, is a rarity). Even Louis XIII, the most expensive and prestigious cognac, refuses any age statement. It is a fragrant, nutty liquid made in tiny quantities under the umbrella of Rémy Martin and sold in a crystal decanter.

This year, in another heat wave, I visited the attractive riverside town of Cognac, home to three of the biggest companies: Hennessy (owned by LVMH), Martell (Pernod Ricard), and Rémy Martin (Rémy Cointreau). But medium-sized producers do exist: I went to see Delamain in Jarnac, a pretty town down river, and bumped into the Frapin team showcasing their products at the expansive open-air bar atop Hôtel Chais Monnet & Spa. They were playing an absorbing game of rooftop pétanque and drinking old-fashioneds, but cellar master Patrice Piveteau wrenched himself away to talk me through his excellent cognacs.

“If the ingredients are good, the process is easy and the end result will be delicious.”

Frapin has 240 hectares of vines and six stills but sells fewer than half a million bottles a year. Or as a representative from Delamain put it, “We probably produce less in a year than a couple of the biggest houses do in a week.” This is still more than Christophe Fillioux of Cognac Jean Fillioux will ever manage, which is fine by him. With 25 hectares, Christophe has a setup that seems more like an Armagnac estate, even though he’s an offshoot of a family that has been providing cellar masters to Hennessy for eight generations. His wife, Virginie Viarouge, tends to the vines, while he deals with aging and blending. “It’s like cooking,” Christophe said. “If the ingredients are good, the process is easy and the end result will be delicious.”

In Cognac, Rémy Martin offered luxury tours (with lunch) of the estate where Louis XIII is made. Martell’s rooftop bar was even higher than Chais Monnet’s. In sprawling buildings both old and new on the riverfront, Hennessy has begun supplementing its tour—displays, a tasting, a walk around the chais where the patiently aging liquids range from a year old to over 200—with a virtual reality experience. Designed by artist duo Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas, this fantastical journey through a land of giant, bouncing barrel men and across the seas in a sailing ship was no less exciting for being imaginary.

Still, the opening of La Nauve Hotel & Jardin last summer seems timely. Until then Chais Monnet, in a former chai beside the Charente river, was the town’s only five-star hotel. (It still has the sole Michelin-starred restaurant, Les Foudres.) Together, these two—one larger, central, with a spa, the other an elegant 12-bedroom property in a former distillery, constructed from oak and creamy local stone, with an exceptional fine-dining restaurant, brasserie, and bar—feel like the kind of accommodation cognac fans might reasonably expect.

In Armagnac, we spent our last night at La Bastide en Gascogne, a hotel in an 18th-century monastery owned by the Guérard family (Michel Guérard, who also owns triple-Michelin-starred Les Prés d’Eugénie, is famous for creating cuisine minceur, weight-conscious gourmet cuisine). On the quiet terrace, we ate slow-roasted milk-fed lamb with peas and bright-yellow tomatoes, and ended our meal with a 1974 armagnac from Château de Sandemagnan, also owned by Guérard.

On our final evening in Cognac, we downed plump oysters and guinea fowl in the Chais Monnet brasserie, then hung out in that rooftop bar, testing Patrice Piveteau’s claim that the old-fashioned is the best brandy cocktail “because it is generally well balanced and you still have the taste of the cognac—not masked with too many other ingredients.” Was one evening better than the other? No. Just different.

Read more from our Autumn 2023 issue.

Post Date:

November 15, 2023