The French, always up for a good argument, vigorously debate over which is their preferred after-dinner drop – cognac or Armagnac.
Both are, of course, French, and both are named for the region in which they are made. The difference in how they are produced, though, is vast.
Cognac is made mainly from the ugni blanc grape. More diverse, Armagnac, in addition to ugni blanc, also contains folle blanche (a rare variety, most of the vines having been lost to the phylloxera blight of the late 1800s), colombard and baco (also spelled bacco). The latter grape is a hybrid of American noah and folle blanche, and some innovative vignerons are experimenting with it in an attempt to revitalise the remaining folle blanche vines.
Armagnac is aged in wood – Monlezun black oak, which is found only in the forests of Gascony – and is distilled just once, to about 52 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV). It is not diluted with water prior to bottling, as is cognac, which is twice-distilled and about 70 per cent ABV in the bottle.
Produced by small growers and distillers, Armagnac is quirkier than cognac, which is dominated by big brands. It is also reputed to be Europe’s oldest spirit, with records of its production dating from the 1500s. Because less is made, Armagnac is not so well known as cognac outside France and you get more bang for your buck – there are some terrific bargains to be found.
Vintage Armagnacs are tipples with which to commemorate milestone birthdays or anniversaries and a special bottle can be savoured over time. A bottle of vintage Armagnac is a time capsule – the contents will not change, even once the bottle is opened, since oxygen does not affect it. Unlike with wine, it is recommended that bottles of Armagnac are stored upright to keep the contents from coming into contact with the cork stopper, which may cause its deterioration.
The best way to savour the aromas of Armagnac is to do as a woman does when she samples a perfume – take a drop from the glass, dab it on the wrist and, once its dried, take a sniff. It is reminiscent of an old-style gentleman’s cologne: a hint of sandalwood, nougat, dried vanilla, warm butterscotch, a touch of licorice bark and dried fruits, such as fig and apricot.
And the best glass to use for Armagnac? Certainly not a snifter, which is too big and within which the tantalising aromas are easily lost. Instead, try a simple white wine glass with a moderate bowl. Some sommeliers recommend a champagne flute, which, they say, better directs the aromas to the nose.
Armagnacs available in Hong Kong include those by Larressingle and Château de Laubade, as well as Comte de Lafitte.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers