Armagnac, Before It Becomes Unaffordable
My guide to Armagnac, with my top-10 bottle picks, and my annual plea to splurge on fine Armagnac. You'll wish you did when the bourbon bros drive up the price.
Tasting comes with an ego. Yet it comes just as often with the feeling of being an imposter, or at least the feeling that there is still a lot to learn. That was my cocktail of anxiety last year when I selected and eventually released my own barrel of Armagnac, a limited-release 23-year-old, L’Encantada 1997 Domaine Cutxan (Cask #20). Instead of only being a critic on the sideline, I put my own palate out into the world to be evaluated, judged, and hopefully enjoyed.
I wrote about this experience in January, how I’d chosen my cask after tasting around 50 barrels in the cellar of L’Encantada, the of-the-moment Armagnac negociant and unicorn barrel hunter. Tasting the 1997 Domaine Cutxan Cask #20 in L’Encantada’s cellar immediately blew me away, as it elegantly unraveled its flavors and aromas: plum, dried flower, dried herb, saffron, turmeric, spice bazaar, antique furniture, old library; classic, textbook rancio; a varnishy, nutty, peppercorny finish that goes on for miles. This was a shape-shifter that evolved with every sip. This was a brandy that whispered in a sultry voice instead of shouting. You can read more about it here:
Now, to start off the introduction to an annual best-of Armagnac list with my own barrel selection likely seems an act of hubris. But stick with me: This story has a blunt ending that I believe shows how fickle the Armagnac market can be, particularly in the U.S.
Long story short: There is no more L’Encantada 1997 Domaine Cutxan (Cask #20) available for anyone to buy. The word, as of the other day, from my retail partner who landed this cask selection stateside, is that he’s sold off whatever 1997 Cutxan Cask #20 was left, dozens of bottles at a discount. This came as a big surprise to me, and I’m not particularly happy about it. I would have liked to have known someone was swooping in to buy all of the remaining bottles of our special Armagnac. But apparently that’s not how it works in the current climate.
Perhaps in the near future some of these bottles will up on the secondary market. Perhaps a few select collectors are squirrelling them away for rainy day. Perhaps I will plead for a bottle with the private, exclusive brandy collectors Slack channel I follow. Who knows? If anyone has a bead on where I can find my own barrel pick, please drop a comment below!
The Disappearance of 1997 Domaine Cutxan Cask #20 illustrates what’s swiftly happening in the world of Armagnac. This is what the bourbon-ification of brandy looks like. As bourbon and Scotch prices have skyrocketed, a portion of the Whiskey Bros have stumbled into the tiny, nerdy realm of Armagnac. They’re driving up prices, demanding higher alcohol-by-volume, eschewing traditional blends, and grabbing more and more bespoke single-barrel selections. I can’t say it’s a surprise. I warned you about this here more than a year ago:
This influence is not only changing the type of Armagnac sold, it’s also changing the economics. I wrote my first Armagnac report for Vinous in 2018 (you can read it for free as an Armagnac primer, in fact). In the four years since, the entire market for the spirit has changed. The category is literally shifting. Prices have increased, for sure, but there is also less of a demand for what I would consider to be old-school, traditional Armagnac.
Among my friends who proselytize about Armagnac, we often joke that we feel like Artie Bucco, Tony’s restaurateur pal in The Sopranos, who infamously gets suckered into a bad business deal to import Armagnac, borrowing money from Tony on the pitch that it’s “the next vodka.” Things didn’t go so well for Artie Bucco.
So while it’s wonderful, on the one hand, that there’s finally some interest here in great brandy, it also has a flip side. Armagnac is a small, delicate ecosystem. I worry what its future will look like. I saw the dynamics of this playing out on my trip to Armagnac last fall.
We love the allure of drinking from decades-old barrels that a negociant—a treasure hunter—has discovered and procured from an elderly grower, or a widow. But those barrels often represent the end of a multi-generational wine-growing family. The numbers don’t lie: In 50 years, the total vineyard area of Armagnac has shrunk from 10,000 to 2,000 hectares. “This tradition is dying,” says Lili de Montal, at Château Arton, with around 40 hectares in Haut-Armagnac. “It’s not an overstatement to say it’s a disaster.” These days in Armagnac, there’s an uneasy relationship between grower-producers and producers or negociants who blend and bottle barrels that they acquire from others.
On that trip, I visited small producers like the Rozès family, who makes Domaine d’Aurensan and Château de Léberon. I likened our tasting in the Rozès’ cellar to a religious experience. But that wasn’t totally accurate. It’s also a business. When we were done tasting, we mustered together all the cash we had on hand to buy a few bottles.
Likewise, if you’ve ever been interested in trying top-end Armagnac, I would recommend spending the money now. I have no idea where the market is going, but I can guarantee it isn’t going to get any cheaper.
Below are my top 10 Armagnac picks. Followed by two unicorn bottling that are nearly impossible to find, but worth seeking out.
Letter of Recommendation: Splurge on Armagnac for the Holidays
If you’re already a fan of whiskey or rum, and you’ve ever considered trying Armagnac, this a great time to give it a go. Yes, Armagnac can get pricey…but it’s still much less than what a coveted bourbon or Scotch will cost you.
While you can still find the occasional value buy, it’s becoming more difficult. At this stage of the game, to really experience Armagnac, you’re now probably going to have to shell out over $100.
Between $100 and $200, though, there are many wonderful Armagnac expressions. Is that pricey? Well, yes. But just as I said about Calvados last week: Do the math. There are 25 one-ounce pours in a 750ml bottle. How much do you regularly pay for one or two ounces of middling swill at your local bar?
L’Encantada XO 4.0, $115
Fourth edition of this collaboration between negociant L’Encantada and importer PM Spirits (3,000 bottles produced) and it is the finest version to date. Blended from eight single casks dating from 1986 to 2006 from small estates that L’Encantada sources from. Pretty nose, with aromas of iris, pear blossom, and pastry dough, turns spicy in the mouth, with flashes of cardamom, cinnamon, and peppercorn, balanced by creamy chocolate and mellow gingerbread, and a seamless glide into a long finish. Amazing value. (48.3% abv)
I’ve been awaiting the arrival of this bottling for some time, and am so happy it’s now available in the U.S. Bright nose of dried cherry and pastry, and layers of pepper and spice on the palate: nutmeg, Sichaun peppercorn, green tobacco. Mellow, but packs a sneaky punch, and has a crazy long finish. Pour this for a rye whiskey fan and watch them convert to Armagnac before your eyes. (48%)
Delord l'Authentique, $100
Muscular and woody, but balanced by creamy, complex notes of almond paste, Nutella, and dried flower, dried plum, and espresso. This is the bottle to convert the bourbon drinker in your life. Though, averaging 30 years of age, it’s about two or three times as as old as most bourbon. Solid value. (45.9% abv)
One of the Bas-Armagnac’s classic blends, aged a minimum of 25 years. It’s always been one of my favorites, and it remains an excellent value. Complex, swirling aromas of winter spices, pine forest, fruit pastry, and leather. Subtle at first on the palate, maple and dried apricot, but then introduces darker notes of pepper and grilled walnut at the midpalate and then an extraordinary finish full of licorice and tobacco. (40% abv)
A 32-year-old blend of five vintages: 1979, 1983, 1986, 1992, and 1994. But there’s lots of fresh, youthful energy, floral and honeyed aromas, with lots candied citrus, maple, licorice, and subtle rancio on the palate, and an underlying core of tobacco and chalk. A grand, complex old-school style. (42% abv).
Château de Lacquy used to label this as XO, but now uses an age statement. A mature, hard-to-find, 17-year-old that whispers instead of shouts. Gentle but precise throughout, with flavors of candied orange, prune, and chocolate at first, then finishing with tobacco and a hint of rancio normally found in longer-aged Armagnac. Excellent value here. (43.5% abv)
A 21-year-old blend of baco and ugni blanc, it’s surprisingly soft and supple for being such high cask strengh. Rich, nutty, with pretty notes of orange blossom and honeysuckle, tropical fruit, dried plum, with spice and tobacco on the long finish. Beautiful spirit. (52.4%)
Racy, spicy, nutty, fruity, minty, a swirl of rambunctious energy, with notes of , with notes of dried figs, black tea, and pine forest. Good structure, bold and expressive. Ten years old and everything you want in a young Armagnac. (43% abv)
A benchmark Ténarèze bottling, 100% ugni blanc, with fruit aromas and flavors taking a step back and allowing the deeper mineral elements to assert themselves. Rich, layered with exotic spice, tobacco, and dark coffee, with gingerbread and dried plum at the core, and a finish showing the attractive beginnings of rancio. (43.3% abv)
Tons of complexity here, as one might imagine of a spirit with four decades of aging. Big patisserie flavors: brioche, chocolate-covered banana, holiday cookies. Balanced by a brightness of the nose, notes of mint and cinnamon, and enough freshness on the palate to balance the deep wood and leather notes. Amazing, lengthy finishing of anise and cigar box. Castarède has many fine vintages but this is a favorite. (40% abv)
Two Unicorns Worth Seeking Out
It’s no secret that I love Château de Léberon, and I’ve some of my highest ratings to the Rozes family’s vintages, including the 1987 and 1964. This 1994 is slightly younger, at 27 years old, but has similar intensity. Aromas of evergreen forest, winter spices, marmalade, licorice. On the palate, it’s fresh and bright, with notes of cardamom and gingerbread, then grows dark from midpalate to finish with deep, burnt sugar, burnt orange peel, with rich tobacco and a spice market on the long finish. (46% abv)
My tasting companion says he “almost wept” upon his first sip of this, and upon the second sip, “I began to contemplate my life choices.” That’s the sort of response one gets from the older Léberon expressions. The 1988, a blend of ugni blanc and colombard, is unbelievably complex, with aromas of gorgeous evergreen forest, soy sauce, fresh marjoram and sage, and some deeper. On the palate, it’s precise and sleek, first with layers of tobacco, spice, white pepper, pink peppercorn, then rich dried fruit at the midpalate, with an underlying, attractive clay texture that carries on and on for miles on the finish. (44.9% abv)