Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Arms of Armagnac

Yet another reason to love the French is the custom of the digestive, the strong, distilled beverage consumed at the end of a satisfying meal to aid in digestion. This can be almost anything distilled, in theory: eau de vie, grappa, brandy, Cognac, even whisky. For years I insisted on Calvados as my personal favorite, and I confess there were times when I wanted to rush through dessert and coffee to get to this delicious apple brandy from Normandy... but that's another post.
 Photo courtesy of the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac
     On one trip to Paris we found ourselves lunching at Restaurant Helene Darroze as a splurge and treat to ourselves. I won't go into detail on the lunch – which was lovely – but at the end of the meal my eye caught sight of the trolley that often holds the treasured digestives. In this case the bottles were not the random assortment of shapes and colors I had expected, but rather were all nearly identical in shape and even labeling. Except ... each bottle bore a different year and the contents of the bottles were subtle variations of a golden caramel color. We hailed the waiter and had him steer the cart our way, and as it got closer I could see the name Darroze on the bottle. The waiter explained that the Chef and owner's family were  renowned Bas Armagnac négociants, and these were bottles from the family's collection. We hmmm'd and oooo'd for a bit before crazily buying a 1960 and a 1933 glass for our digestive. 1933! Words simply cannot describe the pleasure of that silky, complex, sweet and spicy nectar. I was utterly and completely smitten, and remain so – though I still enjoy a tasty Calvados on occasion.
     Armagnac is made in the southwest part of France known as Gascony and is often made in a column still, rather than the pot still commonly used for making Cognac (in fact, it is specifically illegal to make Cognac using a column still). It is then aged in oak barrels, which impart the color, the tannic structure, and some vanillins to the final product. The grapes used to produce Armagnac include Columbard and Ugni Blanc, and almost all of the production of Armagnac comes from a number of small estates and houses – hence the value of the clever and hard-working négociant. Armagnac is also still considerably less known (and therefore less expensive) than its Cognac cousins.
   Armagnac is thought to be the oldest of all the brandies and eau-de-vies, given its location in the part of France that first saw the import of wine cultivation and the making of "brandy wine." The distilled spirit is also thought to impart considerable health benefits, though maybe not quite as broadly as the 14th century Cardinal who credited Armagnac with being a treatment or cure for hepatitis, gout, cankers, paralyzed joints, senility, memory loss, and lack of wit. A recent study by the University of Bordeaux did seem to indicate that Armagnac in moderation may have a positive effect on heart disease and obesity, and it's worth observing that Gascony has some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world.
      I'm still in the bloom of my love of Armagnac and confess that though there are other négociants I am predominately familiar with the Darroze family's labors. A recent visit to Paris brought me face-to-face with a blended 16-year-old Darroze label titled "Les Pièces Oubliées," or, 'The Forgotten Rooms."  It's not a king's ransom, or a house payment, to purchase this treasure yet the delight the contents of a bottle will bring you could persuade you that it's worth that.  All that I said above – silky, spicy, sweet, with toasted pecans and caramel, a faint hint of nutmeg, and a very smooth but welcome warming on the finish. A blend can be built rather than trusting to aging and initial composition for all of the results, and this is a very well built blend.
     There a lots of ways to discover Armagnac, from your local French bistro to your favorite watering hole. (I am working up the nerve to try an Armagnac Sazerac one of these days - far from being a waste of good Armagnac, there is a strong chance that originally Sazeracs were made with Cognac and Armagnac, until phylloxera cut production and it was replaced by rye.)  There's even a great little shop in San Francisco that will let you join an "Armagnac Inner Circle" and receive one Armagnac per month, though you should get clearance from your accounts manager before committing.
     I cannot recommend the practice of taking a digestive at the end of a special meal highly enough, and while you have many choices of what that digestive should be, I encourage you to at least sample a delicious Armagnac – you owe it to yourself.

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