Cognac & Armagnac Masterclass
with Neil Mathieson, Managing Director of Eaux de Vie Ltd.

Cognac and Armagnac have much in common: they are both produced in South West France, they are both grape brandies with their own Appellation Contrôlée, they are both aged in oak in well-charred barrels, they can both be aged for considerable periods, they are both normally reduced in strength before bottling, in contrast to whisky, both are drunk straight (as there is no need to release the flavours) and they share many of the same quality descriptors.

But there are many differences.  For me the most important distinction is that cognac production is industrial and on a large scale, with lots of money behind it, while Armagnac is made on much more artisinal scale.  That one distinction drives much of the difference you find in the bottle and in the glass.  Cognac is dominated by the big names, while Armagnac has no major producer: there are some famous names, but they could not be counted as major producers.  Cognac, for example, can maintain large stocks to enable blending, while Armagnac producers are unable to do so, hence the more rustic, characterful nature of much Armagnac, compared to the finesse and dominance of the house style in Cognac.

Cognac is about 100km north of Bordeaux and some of the vineyards have a maritime influence, while the Armagnac vineyards are about 100km south of Bordeaux in a predominantly wooded and agricultural area, with little influence from the sea.

Cognac is typically 90% ugni blanc and 10% folle blanche, together with small amounts of colombard and semillon, while in Armagnac the main varieties are ugni blanc, colombard, folle blanche and baco 22A, in almost equal proportions.  Distillation is also different: Cognac is double pot distilled to about 70% alcohol, while most Armagnac is made by continuous distillation, to 53%-60% alcohol. 

Before moving on to finished cognacs and armagnacs.  We started with a sample of new cognac distillate: crystal clear and with a nice fresh, almost plummy nose.  As it was around 70% alcohol, I didn’t taste it.

We nosed (remembering to sniff gently!) and tasted the following in the following pairs:

Chateau de la Raillerie, Sélection du Chateau, Cognac
This has a slightly floral fresh nose, with quite a pruney feel and a hint of vanilla.  It has a grapey, apricot feel.

Marquis de Puységur, VS Armagnac
The nose is much mustier and a lot more rustic than the Ch. de la Raillerie cognac.  On the palate, it’s more raisiny and grapey with much less violent spirit.

Maxime Trijol, VSOP Grande Champagne Cognac
This has a smooth nose with some apricot and tropical fruit and is actually quite buttery.  On the palate, it’s a pretty straightforward cognac: fairly light and elegant, with a blast of spirit.

Baron de Sigognac, 10 ans Armagnac
A sweet vanilla nose with some orange notes.  Quite big on the palate and fairly sweet.  I find that, curiously, has something of a commonality with Ch. de la Raillerie cognac.

Edgard Leyrat, XO Vieille Réserve Cognac
This has a sweetish, caramelly nose with lots of aromatics, though it’s not especially fruity.  Initially very slightly floral on the palate, it’s quickly overtaken by spice, and especially spirit, which gives it a bit of a rough feel to my taste.

Baron de Lustrac, 1986 Courros, Armagnac
This is a single cask, single vintage, single variety armagnac.  It has a rather volatile nose with separate apricot and peach aromas.  Very mouthfilling with much more fruit character evident on the palate than the Leyrat Cognac.

Ragnaud Sabourin, Fontvieille, Cognac
This is a 35-year old Grand Champagne Cognac.  It is unusual for a cognac in that it is unblended and has just undergone single, continuous ageing.  Ragnaud Sabourin is a small company, and this would retail at about £100.  Much nuttier on the nose with more torrefaction, though there are also some slight floral notes.  This has a lovely delicate flavour.  Interesting.

Baron de Sigognac, Très Vieille Réserve Armagnac
As the Ragnaud Sabourin cognac is unusual in being unblended, so this 50-year old armagnac is unusual in that it is a blend of old armagnacs.  Apparently, as armagnac ages in cack, it becomes duller and it makes more sense to blend ones that are 75 years old or more with something younger.  The nose is not dissimilar to the Puységur VS Armagnac, but with some toffee notes.  Quite sweet on the palate, even with a hint of grape fudge.  Very smooth and pleasing: notably smoother than the Sabourin cognac.

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Last updated: 09 July 2007