The “Bas Armagnac”( Lower-Armagnac) also called Armagnac noir (Black Armagnac) encompasses the Douze and the Midour valleys, with Eauzan region, (with its capital city Eauze), and further north, the Gabardan des Petites Landes (Gabarret) on the West side.
The “Bas Armagnac” has a clay and sand-based soil, often with high iron content (called sables fauves, which means tawny sands), with small pieces of clay in it (called boulbène or terrebouc). This soil tends to yield a very round and rich aromatic eau-de-vie, offering some prune nuances as well as under wood, tobacco…
In Ténarèze the soil contains mainly clay and limestone, with boulbène, rendering to eau-de vie its ability to age nicely, developing a finer and more floral aroma, with a characteristic hint of violette petal.
The Haut Armagnac or Armagnac blanc (White Armagnac, in the Auch region), contains limestone based soil which is famous for its red wines. Today only a handful of producers still exist. Their produce can however rival those of the other lands after careful aging.
Climate is also very important or the armagnac aging; air moisture permits to lower the alcohol degree quickly that a dry climate. When a climate evolves from the oceanic humid west to the continental est, it is under the “Autant” Wind.
Baco blanc, Colombard, Folle Blanche, Ugni blanc, clairette of Gascony, plant de graisse, jurançon blanc, mauzac blanc, mauzac rose, meslier Saint François blanc are the ten grapes varieties authorized for the armagnac appellation.
The four first are présents on 80% of the surface area.
The appellation imposes a plant density of at least 3000 plants per hectare with an intervall of 3 meters between two rows. Yearly pruning of the vine is mandatory; it is trained according to a single or double Guyot system or to the rod and spur system (also called the cordon system). The number of fruit-carrying buds is limited to 80 000. Rate of missing and dead plants must not exceed 35 %.
Armagnac is a spirit made from the distillation of white wines produced on the appellation area; they must come from one of the 10 grapes permitted by the appellation decree. It has to be aged in wood casks, with the exception of the Blanche d’Armagnac appellation (a recently established clear white brandy that is unaged). The making of armagnac has always remained artisan craft. It follows 3 equally important steps: vinification (wine making), distillation and aging.
The wine used for distillation is made by traditional way. The vinification has a particularity: sulfiting, enrichment (adding sugar prior to fermentation, a technique called chaptalization), acidification or desacidification are legally not permitted.
Only the wines which have been done in the traditional local way and which still contain some amount of the fine lees are allowed to be used the production of Armagnac, Bas Armagnac, Armagnac-Ténarèze and Haut Armagnac AOC spirit. This wine must be acid, with a low alcohol level, and strongly aromatic.
Distillation has done in winter as soon as fermentations have ended. January 31st of the year following the harvest as deadline.
The essential part of the Armagnac spirit is made from distillation in a specific still: the Armagnac alembic. It is always made from hammered or laminated pure copper. It was consecrated after patenting as early as 1818 by Sir Tuillière under the reign of King Louis XVIII. The main feature of this still is that it work continuously. Distillation is an essential time in the life of an armagnac.
Distilling takes place in winter as soon as fermentations have ended, with January 31st of the year following the harvest as deadline.
It could be conducted:
- On the estate, often using travelling alambics which are taken from place to place around the country
- In a distillery: a certified alcohol maker’s (called bouilleur de cru) place or in a cooperage cellar.
Elle est menée :
– soit à la propriété, souvent grâce aux alambics ambulants qui parcourent la campagne.
– soit dans un atelier de distillation : bouilleur de profession ou cave coopérative.
Encantada armagnacs come from wood fire-driven ambulatory alambics. They are produced at the heart of the estate, imbued with the prevailing climate and the surrounding terroir.
As soon as distilled, the armagnac is put in 400 liters oak barrels (called “pièces”) for long aging. These pièces are stored in chais (wine cellars) where temperature and humidity are naturally controlled.
During the aging phase, three major phenomenons appear:
- Extraction of the tannin elements from the oak.
- Evaporation of part of the eau-de-vie and lowering of the alcohol level (approximately by ½ degree a year). It is called the “angel’s share”.
- Evolution of the aromas coming from both wood and wine, as the armagnac slowly oxidizes due to air contact through the cask.
The spirit stays in new barrels until the optimal rate of dissolution of the wood substances. They are then transferred to older barrels, to avoid excessive extraction from the wood. They slowly continue to evolve: time for wood (boisées) substances to get more fineness, and vanilla and prune aromas to develop. The “rancio” notes (oxidized aromas) appears, and the alcohol level decreases very slowly by evaporation. The eau-de-vie picks up nice color, and turns to amber or even Mahoney hues.
The cuts or blends: when the cellar master thinks aging is finished, he proceeds to cuts, meaning he combines several spirit, all different in age and origin, for a harmonious blending.
The reduction in alcohol to consumption degree (minimum of 40% alcohol of the total volume) can be obtained by dilution, that is the gradual addition of “petites eaux” (“little waters”), a blend of distilled water and armagnac.
However, some of the old, and often vintage, armagnacs are released at cask natural strength, generally comprised between 40 and 48 percent alcohol.
When the alcohol naturally reaches 40% or more, the spirit is transferred to large glass flasks (called Dame Marie Jeanne) to get optimum preservation. After this step, armagnac stops to age and to develop.