Cognac is probably the best example of French brandy available, especially due to the brands involved and given the volumes produced annually. However it is also worth considering Armagnac which has plenty of similarities and some important differences against Cognac.
First of all, the region of appellation (or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée as seen on the label of the product) is different for both Cognac and Armagnac as the map above highlights. Cognac can only be made in the Cognac region and Armagnac can only be made in the Armagnac region. Cognac region has chalky soil and mild temperatures whilst in the Armagnac region the soil is sandy and weather warm.
Another difference is the grape varieties used – Cognac typically only uses Ugnis Blanc grape whilst Armagnac will use Ugnis Blanc but also Baco, Colombard and Folle Branch (all four types pictured below in the order which they were mentioned on the text).
The winemaking process is fairly basic and similar for both Cognac and Armagnac: using natural yeasts to eschew sulphur dioxide, sugar and other additives. It is designed to produce a neutral raw material for distillation. However there is one crucial difference. The Armagnaçais are allowed to use the continuous presses (forbidden for use in Cognac) which often include the pips, skins and other impurities that further increase the potential richness of the spirit.
Distillation of the wine from its respective grape(s) takes place for both types of French brandy. Cognac goes through two rounds of distillation in traditional pot stills (to 70% abv) whilst Armagnac goes through a continuous still (to 52% abv) – as pictured below.
This definitely impacts on the flavour of the spirit being produced with Cognac’s fruits tending to be lighter and more nuanced in taste and Armagnac tasting more of the primary fruit, which for some this may come across as stronger or more complex in flavour. Cognac typically is matured in Limousin and Tronçais oak barrels, while Armagnac can be also be aged in local forest wood (Gascon) oak barrels.
Cognac is reduced to 40% abv before bottling whilst Armagnac usually is not reduced and has a higher abv strength.
Another difference is that Cognac is typically a blend of several vintages (rarely a single vintage) whilst Armagnac is commonly given a vintage date, sometimes blended.
Cognac aged up to two years is listed as VS or ‘very special’, aged up to four years it’s called VSOP or ‘very superior old pale’, and aged up to eight years it can be called either XO for ‘extra old’ or Napoléon. In 2018, the XO minimum age rule goes up to 10 years, though typically XO cognacs are considerably older than this.
Armagnac also uses the VS/VSOP/XO designations for age as Cognac, but the ages does not match up perfectly; the youngest eau-de-vie in a XO Armagnac only has to be aged six years instead of eight.
What many people may not realise is that Armagnac is France’s oldest brandy – more than 700 years old!
“Very useful book for conserving one’s health and staying on top form […]” by Maître Vital DuFour, Prior of Eauze in Gascony, dated 1310 and printed in 1531.
In his medical opus dated 1310 and preserved since its edition in 1531 in the Archives of the Vatican library (pictured below), Domini Vitalis de Furno, or Maître Vital Dufour, vaunted the 40 virtues of Aygue Ardente, eau-de-vie produced locally that took its name from the land of its birth: Armagnac.
Armagnac and Cognac also vary greatly based on the vineyards and production of bottles per year.
- Armagnac has vineyards covering 5,100 hectares
- Cognac has vineyards covering 75,000 hectares
- Armagnac produces 6.8 Million bottles/ year
- Cognac produces 165 Million bottles/ year
The brands involved in Cognac are very well known – such as Hennessy, Courvoisier, Remy Martin and Martell amongst others.
For Armagnac, the number one and best known brand is Chabot although the category as a whole does not have the same presence – at least not yet – compared to that of Cognac brands.