Spirited effort by armagnac to take on cognac in China
"If you drink cognac there is no reason why you shouldn't drink armagnac. We have very similar products. We have our differences, but let's talk about the similarities first," says Olivier Dusautoir, commercial director of the house of Janneau.
Fair enough. Both are region-specific French grape brandies. Both fall under the appellation d'origine contrôlée certification system which stipulates which grapes may be grown and where, and also determines the minimum for which the eaux de vie must be oak barrel matured.
In both regions the better quality producers generally age the spirits longer than legally required. The youngest eau de vie in Janneau's VSOP, for example, is seven and the blend could legally be sold as an XO.
But armagnac, probably first produced in the 12th century, has a longer history, produces lower volumes, is usually single rather than double distilled and, like single malt whisky, is generally sold on character rather than smoothness.
Until recently another difference was that while the vast majority of cognac was exported, most armagnac was consumed in France.
"You have cognac connoisseurs in France, too," says Dusautoir, "but if you look at the figures, cognac exports 97 per cent, while the armagnac market in France today represents 43 per cent of sales, with 57 per cent exported. But the trend is changing."
Hong Kong and China have much to do with that.
According to the Bureau National Interprofessionel de l'Armagnac, between 2010 and 2011 armagnac imports to Hong Kong almost doubled, and China overtook Britain as armagnac's biggest export market. Britain remains the second biggest armagnac market, but is expected to be overtaken by Russia soon.
Another difference is that while exports of cognac are dominated by big companies - Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin et al - most armagnac houses are relatively small.
The most visible internationally are Marquis de Montesquiou, part of the large Pernod Ricard group; Chabot, which is owned by the Camus Cognac house; and Janneau, which, according to Dusautoir, is the number one seller in Russia and in travel retail in Europe.
Janneau is new to China, however, and has just this year returned to the Hong Kong and Macau markets.
"It is a high priority to properly launch Janneau in China," says Dusautoir. "We have a lot of work to do. All the brands are working together to promote the appellation."
They are all competing for a share of a growing market. Janneau's strategy involves presenting its armagnacs to cognac drinkers as an interesting alternative, which nevertheless occupies reassuringly familiar territory.
Like the cognac producers, Janneau now double distills its eaux de vie, although older blends, such as its XO, also contain single distilled spirits.
"Historically, armagnac had a double distillation, until 1936, when, for some reason they decided that it should have a single continuous distillation," says Dusautoir.
"To make an armagnac you have to blend younger and older eaux de vie, and the single distillation is fine, so long as you use older spirits. If you want to use younger brandies aged for seven to nine years, which bring better aromas, they need to be double distilled."
Most Janneau armagnacs are blends of different years, as are the great majority of cognacs, but one of the attractions of the smaller region is the possibility of buying spirits from specific years. Janneau's Vintage collection extends only from 1964 to 1996, but it also has a limited edition series of "Dragon" bottlings from the Wood, Fire and Earth Dragon years of 1964, 1976 and 1988.
It will be interesting to see the effect the growth of armagnac exports has in France.
Many of the higher end bottlings are already being reserved for Asia, and there is a limited amount of armagnac to go round.
There is a theory that it was Cognac's neglect of its own market that possibly turned the French into whisky drinkers. France is the world's second-biggest export market for Scotch, but cognac doesn't make the top 10. Will armagnac go the same way? Dusautoir is sanguine about its chances.