Marc Darroze – master outlook on armagnac
Each industry has its visionaries, inspiring individuals, charismatic leaders pushing to action both those who are in doubt and those who experience moments of weakness. The world of rum is inspired by people such as Luca Gargano, Richard Seale and Joy Spence. When it comes to whiskey, I bet on Billy Walker. For armagnac this person is undoubtedly Marc Darroze, who agreed to give me a short, yet concise interview.
Barmaniac (B): In addition to being an armagnac messiah, how would you describe yourself, a producer / trader / businessman / explorer ?
Marc (M): Above all I am a craftsman of Armagnac.
Nature is generous and gives us all the conditions to produce great spirits. The very ancient history of Armagnac (first distillations over 700 years ago), the diversity of soils, grape varieties, very specific traditional distillation (continuous and single distillation), Gascon forests which offer very particular oaks allow us to produce a UNIQUE spirit.
My role is to organize many different operations (like a music orchestra conductor) respecting everything that nature gives us and bringing a personal touch to it.
B: Please describe the production process of armagnac. Which moment is the most important from the technological point of view ? Which process has the biggest influence on the taste of armagnac ?
M: Like all products made from grapes, production conditions are very important. The best Armagnacs are produced from a healthy harvest, rather acid wines and low in alcohol (10%). We don’t make good Armagnacs without respecting that. The diversity of white grape varieties also proposes a palet of different styles. Fermentation is fast and natural without adding sulfites. Personally I prefer to distill the wines quickly after the end of fermentation (2 to 3 weeks after) in order to distill fine lees still in suspension in the wine. The traditional Armagnac method remains continuous distillation. In a single heating, we obtain brandies of unique character, thanks in particular to physical contact in the distillation column between the wine and the distilled alcohol vapors. This distillation process helps to propose a very dstinctive style. Then begins a more or less long period (from 2 to 65 years) of aging in oak barrels. It is in contact with the wood that the Armagnac becomes rich, gains in aromatic complexity, refines its tannins …
Patience is the key word.
B: Does armagnacs have better and worse years like wines ?
M: There are many vintage Armagnac. It is an old tradition. Each year will of course give a special character to the brandy. However, the more the brandy matures in casks, the more the aging process will take place over the character of the year. Each vintage is different and each vintage will develop differently during maturation. We must therefore adapt our aging methods to the potential of each year and always try to keep the initial character of Armagnac and the year.
When choosing a vintage Armagnac, it is very important to know the date of bottling. Remember that Armagnac stops aging when it comes out of the wood and is put under the glass.
B: I am particularly interested in casks used during the production of armagnacs. As I understand, the fresh distillate usually goes to a new cask for a relatively short time, after which it is poured into already used casks to mature longer. How often the individual casks are used ? Is it possible to finish armagnac in casks used to mature other spirits or is it not legally allowed ?
M: The use of the cask will depend on the aging potential of each Armagnac.
An Armagnac intended for very long aging (20 years and more) will be kept longer in the new casks (36 months). Indeed, the following years will allow refining the tannins of the new wood and rounding it all up.
Conversely, the use of new wood for shorter aging must be prohibited because the brandy does not have enough time to collect the young tannins.
Wood is both the friend and the enemy of brandy. It is all the work and the experience of the craftsman that I am that allows me to play with different casks.
B: One of the Scotch whisky producers stated in an interview that cognac and armagnac casks are very expensive and that is why Scots don’t use them to mature their distillates. On the other hand rums are often matured in cognac casks and it does not significantly affect the final price of o bottle. How can you comment on this ?
M: As you know there is a cask market in Spain which is geared towards the sale of used casks to Scotland. The production of barrels is as important as that of wine. In Armagnac we produce Armagnac for the product and not to sell casks to Scotland. We need all of our casks and that is certainly the reason why the price of used ones is higher. I don’t see any other explanation.
B: We’ve all been hit by a pandemic and we’re really just beginning to feel the social and economic consequences. How the current epidemiological situation impacts your business ?
M: Maison Darroze has always worked a lot with restaurants. The presence in restaurants has allowed the brand to grow, gain notoriety and develop our sales. So we share with our restorer friends the worries, the frustrations of not being able to work. This therefore has a strong impact on our sales. 65% of our sales are made today for export. Each country experience a different situation, but the pendulum affects the whole world. We therefore impatiently await the continuation and the reopening of the markets. We will certainly have to find new working methods in the future taking into account this incredible period. In our cellars, the work of assembly, ventilation … continues, but of course, the activity is slowing down.
B: Returning to the production process and its secrets, I would also like to raise a bit uncomfortable topics. For many consumers in Poland the transparency of the label strengthens the relationship with producers. In case of armaniacs (as well as cognacs I think) this transparency for the Polish consumer is not sufficient. The VS / VSOP / XO markings require at least a minimum of knowledge. Producers within these categories use distillates of different age depending on their own preferences. Is it possible to develop a concept of giving more informationby the armaniac producers about the minimum age of blend ? As I suppose you develop such concept and it is called “Les Grands Assemblages” but what about the others ?
M: When I imagined the range “Les Grands Assembalges” more than 10 years ago, I wanted to bring the maximum of transparency and information to my customers. So I naturally preferred to indicate the minimum age in the assembly rather than using the traditional VS / VSOP / XO mentions.
Indeed, the consumer cannot know the real age of the assembly with these mentions, unless being a great specialist.
This tradition is very present in Cognac and Armagnac but is not applied in our company.
B: Another aspect that I struggle with as an armagnac enthusiast is the lack of information about individual manufacturers and their products. Few producers run their websites and often it is impossible to find detailed information about the produced spirits. I honestly admit that I tried to make contact with many producers without success. Your site is unique on this background. Is France hiding its treasures ?
M: I personally regret this lack of information.
Most producers do not realize the richness of their product and the need to share this wealth with customers. It is certainly one of the reasons why Armagnac remains more discreet and confidential than Cognac.
B: Finally, what is your favorite vintage armagnac (year), which cocktail with armagnac is most fascinating and what are your recommendations when it comes to foodpairing armagnac ?
M: I really like the 2000, 1995, 1981, 1979 and 1973 vintages.
Armagnac & cheese, Armagnac & chocolate, Armagnac & foie gras.
The range of Armagnacs you find on the market is so wide (from the white of Armagnac to an old vintage) that you can imagine all the possible cocktails.
We’re done here. Now the Armagnac seems to be much closer to me. I dream of going to Gascony… Santé !