Best new Cognacs and Armagnacs: Eight to try

Fourbottles against a white background
Best new Cognacs and Armagnacs

Any discussion of the relative merits of Cognac and Armagnac can all too easily descend into trite generalisations. Cognac is invariably described as ‘refined’ and ‘elegant’, Armagnac as ‘rustic’ and ‘earthy’. Luckily for us, the truth is altogether less reductive, and more interesting to explore.

There are obvious contrasts between these two great French spirits that transcend mere geography, encompassing history, culture, terroir, grape variety, distillation and maturation. But there are commonalities too and, within each region, subtle contrasts and nuances that defy lazy preconceptions.

Let’s start with the land. Cognac’s vineyards span a vast area from La Rochelle south almost to Bordeaux, and from the Atlantic east beyond Angoulême. Meanwhile Armagnac’s vines are more scattered throughout a varied rural Gascon landscape.

In both cases, the most celebrated zones have a distinctive character. Cognac’s Grande Champagne enclave is famed for its deep, crumbly chalk soils; while Bas-Armagnac combines sables fauves (tawny sands) and boulbènes – a mix of silt and sand. Two highly contrasting terroirs, but both equally capable of producing ageworthy brandies with great structure, concentration and elegance.

Another obvious difference lies in grape varieties. Cognac is dominated by Ugni Blanc (Italy’s Trebbiano), which covers about 98% of its 78,000ha of vines. Armagnac, however, offers a diverse mix of the hybrid grape Baco with not only Ugni Blanc, but also the delicate but fragile Folle Blanche, and Colombard.

Cognac ageing cellar with barrels

Cognac ageing cellar

Distillation and maturation

Then there’s distillation. Cognac is made using a small-batch, double distillation process in a Charentais copper pot still, with only the heart of the distillate taken for ageing, resulting in a relatively clean eau-de-vie coming off the still at about 70-72% abv. Most Armagnacs, though, are made via a single, continuous distillation in a distinctive column still – making for a more characterful spirit typically at about 55% abv when filled into cask.

While Cognac is matured in oak barrels sourced from the Tronçais and Limousin forests, Armagnacs often use wider-grained Gascon oak, especially early in their ageing process. This means more flavour contribution – often in the form of spice – from the wood.

So far, so straightforward. The contrasts between Cognac and Armagnac could hardly be more evident. The problem is that the truth – the whole truth, anyway – is nothing like as simple.

Cognac vineyards

Vineyards in the Cognac region

A varied taste of terroir

Sure, a fine-boned Grande Champagne is probably the classic expression of Cognac, but Grande Champagne is only one small part of a vast and sprawling region. Petite Champagne’s chalk is subtly different, while the tiny Borderies cru showcases an enticing, aromatic fruity character (Camus and Martell are big fans).

Fins Bois offers heterogenous clay/limestone soils and supple, immediate charm – but there’s chalk here too. Move further out to the coastal Bois à Terroirs cru and you’ll find light, saline Cognacs from spots such as the Île de Ré.

Armagnac’s terroir is, if anything, even more diverse. The uncompromising power of a Bas-Armagnac Baco may be its most distinctive incarnation, but move east into the Ténarèze area and you can find Ugni Blanc growing on chalk, as well as boulbène soils with more obvious echoes of Bas-Armagnac itself.

Adding complexity

While it’s true to say that most Armagnac is distilled once, double-distillation is also used here. This was the original method of Armagnac production, and was revived in the region in the early 1970s when local producer Janneau was owned by Martell. Good examples of double-distilled Armagnacs today come from the likes of Janneau and Samalens.

Double-distillation in Cognac is universal, but here too different flavour profiles and characters are created, depending on how the stills are…

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Best new Cognacs and Armagnacs: Eight to try Best new Cognacs and Armagnacs: Eight to try *Best new Cognacs and Armagnacs: Eight to try