Cognac vs Armagnac – great test vol. 1
I would like to say that cognacs and armagnacs are often confused with each other. The truth, however, is somewhat painful to the disadvantage of the latter. Everyone has probably heard about cognac, but almost nobody has heard of armagnacs. I feel obliged to make a small comparison. What connects these two French brandies ? Or maybe more what divides them ? I promise to be as objective as possible.
Both cognac and armagnac are French brandies, distillates derived from white wine. The French alcohol market is characterized by the fact that the area where a given liquor can be produced is legally defined. Cognacs are made in the southwest of France, north of the city of Bordeaux, in the Cognac region. Armagnacs, arise south of Bordeaux, in Gascony, in the Armagnac region. The name “cognac” was first used in 1617, while “armagnac” appeared at the pages of history as early as 1461. Therefore armagnac shpuld be considered as a more traditional spirit, with a richer history, and wins this round by nearly 200 years.
Cognac vineyards covers more than 78,000 hectares. 98% of the grapes are ugni blanc. It can be assumed that currently sold cognacs are almost pure distillates of ugni blanc grapes. The use of grapes such as colombard, folle blanche, montils, semillon and folignan is legally allowed, however, producers do not use them very often.
Armagnac vineyards covers just over 4,000 hectares. With such plantation area they definitely lose to cognac (this obviously translates into production scale). Grown types of grapes are, in particular, ugni blanc, folle blanche, baco, colombard, and their use depends on the individual decisions of producers. In the case of armagnacs, most often none of these types of grapes constitute 100% of the distillate content.
Who wins this round? I prefer armagnac because the variety of grapes used extends the palette and creates more possibilities in creating flavor.
This stage of production probably distinguishes both drinks the most. In both cases, copper stills are used for the distillation. Armagnacs are distilled once and cognacs twice. Thus, armagnac goes to cask with a much lower ABV than cognac, however, both drinks are usually bottled with 40% alcohol content. A single distillation preserves more aromatic compounds in the distillate. Armagnac is therefore more intense, and the cognac is mild and balanced. An interesting fact is that not all armagnac producers have stationary distillation equipment. Popular in the Armagnac region is usage of portable wood-fired distillers that travels from producer to producer. Sounds nice, but I would not treat it as an advantage due to less control over the distillation process. After all, quite subjectively – a point for armagnacs ! I understand the advantages of double distillation, although more interesting and rarer in the world of “brown spirits” appears to be the single one.
Both cognacs and armagnacs are aged in oak barrels. For armagnacs, the minimum is one year, while cognacs must be matured for at least two years (a point for cognacs). The wood used for the production of barrels intended for maturing armagnacs comes from the forests of Gascony and Limousin. In the case of cognacs, these are also Limousin forests, and in addition Troncais forests. Generally, wood from Gascony gives more tannins, and wood from Limousin sweets and vanilla. Similarly, wood from Troncais gives more tannins, so we have a tie. Armagnacs are aged in 400-liter barrels, while cognacs … The standard does not specify the capacity of barrels used for aging cognacs. Usually capacity of casks stays in the range of 350-500 liters. As a rule, the larger the barrel, the slower the interaction of the distillate with wood (for me a point for armagnacs). Thus, in terms of aging we can rule a tie.
So much of the theory, time to practice. As part of my tests, I will go through different age categories of cognac and armagnacs. I will start from the lowest category – “V.S”. The editions and producers being compared are intentionally accidental. I don’t set samples by any key except the age declared on the label. I do not discuss production process, producer history, etc. The first battle is a three-star (V.S. in other words) Les Vignerons d’Armagnac versus Planat VS Select.
Nose: dusty books, a little musty basement (I have not sensed such aromas before), after that more classic, apricots, peaches, plum, not very volatile.
Mouth: plums, light floweriness, roses, smoked plums, dried apricots and something that reminds me of my wife’s sweet chokeberry wine.
Finish: medium long, peppery, bitter, burnt coffee.
Nose: fresh, apricots, a lot of citruses – lemons and oranges, perceptible alcohol, once again a hint of citruses, something like citrus varnish, more intense than armagnac.
Mouth: citruses, not as intense as on the nose, pleasant sweetness, flowers, soap, a bit too flat.
Finish: short, mild, a touch of tannins, a slight bitterness.
Battle of these two spirits ends up with a draw for me. Cognac had a richer nose, and a slightly more pleasant finish. Armagnac wins on the palette. The first fight is over – and the result is 1: 1.