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Cognac vs Armagnac

How do these iconic spirits differ?

Both these brandies have an illustrious past, yet arguably Armagnac has somehow managed to maintain a reputation as the more authentic, more individual product. In many quarters it is perceived as a truly artisan creation. Both are spirits derived from grape alcohol but is there really a difference between these two iconic French brandies – and how do you tell them apart? 

A little geography

The vineyards of Cognac and Armagnac are only around 300 km apart, both in the south west of France.  

The town of Cognac lies in the Charente, a little to the north of Bordeaux and slightly inland from La Rochelle. It straddles the river Charente in a pleasant setting, with historic buildings, ancient churches and cobbled streets linking fascinating Cognac houses where informative tours are a must. Names like Hennessy, Camus, Otard, Martell, Courvoisier and Remy Martin are prevalent. Take a boat trip on one of the gabares, follow the waymarked trails, enjoy the cultural offerings or get involved in one of the many festivals taking place over the summer.

Armagnac is not a town but a district within the historic county of Gascony, lying broadly between Bordeaux and Toulouse. It is part of the once mighty Aquitaine region over which French and English kings fought for many years. The likes of Edward The Black Prince, King Charles V of France and King Francis I have all been associated with the Armagnac. The Gascon countryside is idyllic and its sleepy folds are made up of vineyards that jostle for space with sunflowers, melons, maize and cattle. Unlike the Côte d’Or or Burgundy, this is no monotonous landscape of vines as far as the eye can see. 

So both spirits originate from rolling, bucolic countryside in picturesque, rural France. Where lies the difference…?

Terroir

One of the key natural factors determining a crop’s taste and habit is the terroir: a word which doesn’t quite exist in English. Terroir is the combination of soil, geology, climate and aspect which help create nuances of flavour and quality in the grapes.

Armagnac is a rough triangle, spread over Gers, Lot et Garonne and Landes with three key areas for recognised high quality crus or ‘growths’. The Bas-Armagnac has clay and limestone and creates the celebrated Armagnac Grande Champagne. The Haut-Armagnac is more limestone based, while the Ténarèze is the middle ground. 

The Armagnac vineyards once lay under the sea. Now, 300 million years on, the region still has quartz sand, silty sediments and relatively nutrient-rich soils. By contrast, Cognac soils are poorer, mostly calcareous. But, as many a winemaker will opine, the more the vine suffers, the better its wine.

Grapes

Both Armagnac and Cognac are made using thin, rather acid wine that certainly would not win awards on the world stage. In Cognac Ugni Blanc accounts for some 97% of production, while in Armagnac this grape makes some 55% of the output (the balance being mostly Folle Blanche, Colombard and Baco). The reliance on the sturdy, resistant Ugni Blanc is, in part, a consequence of the phylloxera disease that swept through vineyards of Europe in 1873, killing millions of vines.

Notably, there is no commercial production of white wine for drinking in Cognac – everything is geared to creating thin, acidic wine that is perfect for excellent Cognac. The wine is distilled to a raw spirit, or eau de vie, which should be an almost blank palette to which the brandy maker can impart flavour with expert maturation. Drinkable, pleasant enough, white wines are made in Armagnac (examples include Côtes de St Mont and Côtes de Gascogne) but they are still overshadowed by the illustrious spirit.

Climate

The Armagnac climate tends to be variable, ranging from the mild, damp Atlantic influences of the Landes to the drier, hotter temperatures around Toulouse. Winters can be harsh. The Cognac climate is usually milder with fewer extremes.  

Distillation techniques

Distillation is very much the dark art in the process, with subtle variations and techniques that can cause outrage and heated discussion in certain quarters. In Armagnac they generally use a single still, the alambic, which permits a continuous distillation. Latterly some houses (Janneau, Samalens and Delord) have revived the double distillation process, with its resulting smoother finish. For Cognac a double distillation is preferred with spirit being produced in a batch-by-batch manner. 

Experts will say that Cognac eaux de vie are stronger (being distilled twice) and so are finer as only the heart of the distillate is used. But this does not mean that a single distillation Armagnac is coarser – the skill of the distiller is vital, and a lower strength distillation retains delicate fragrance and fruit tones, along with smoother, more complex notes.

Did you know?

Each year, as barrels sit quietly maturing in the cellars of Cognac, a percentage evaporates. This is the ‘Angel’s share’ and can be as much as 20 million bottles annually.

1928 Crus du Cognac
1928 Crus du Cognac

Marketing

Armagnac may have been around for 700 years (it is France’s oldest spirit). But the producers of Cognac long ago stole a march on their southern cousins by shipping Cognac to England and the Netherlands and creating a market overseas. Success was dramatic, assisted by the conveniently located port of La Rochelle and accelerated by commercial treaties between France and England in 1860.

Latterly the Armagnac houses have shown imagination and willingness to innovate. Like Cognac, Armagnacs come in a range of classifications but while Cognacs are nearly always blended from different vintages, Armagnacs are often sold as a single year vintage – something which can be very special and certainly captures the imagination of prospective buyers. There is even a white Armagnac spirit – Blanche – aimed at the younger cocktail drinker and mixologists looking for something new.  

The taste test

Debate has been long and passionate about the differences. One leading light once proclaimed that Armagnac is like a rugby player: powerful, short, decisive, while Cognac is more like a golfer with finesse, precision and natural timing. Then again, some say Armagnac is the more feminine with a lighter fragrance than its northern counterpart.

Of course, when it comes to comparing Armagnac and Cognac, neither is inherently ‘better’ than the other. Each has its own heritage, nuances, production techniques and levels of finesse. Both are to be enjoyed and celebrated, whatever the occasion. 

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