Although the famous French brandy is several centuries older than cognac, it is somewhat overshadowed by its "big brother". Its home is Gascony, a hilly landscape in the centre of south-west France. It includes the Département Gers as well as parts of Landes and Lot-et-Garonne. The Gasconians learned the art of distillation from the Moors as early as the 12th century. The first written account of the armagnac (aqua ardens = burning water) dates from 1411, and a document from 1461 states that "the distilled spirit of wine relieves pain, keeps memory fresh and people young, and brings joy and well-being". In 1909, the "Armagnac" designation of origin was decreed for the first time. The BNIA (Bureau National Interprofessionel de l'Armagnac) monitors the strict regulations. If the test is passed, the golden yellow seal is awarded.
There are three zones, each with characteristic features of different soil types. To the west is Bas-Armagnac (clay and sand), the middle zone is Ténarèze (calcareous clay soil) and to the east is Haut-Armagnac (limestone). Bas-Armagnac (Armagnac Noir), with 55% of production, produces the best distillates with specific aromas. These armagnacs are subject to particularly strict regulations. The elite is distilled in the small area called "Terre de Bouc" (goat's land), these products may be called "Grand Bas-Armagnac". The "Haut-Armagnac" area (Blanche Armagnac) accounts for only 5% of production. Mainly sparkling base wines are produced there, a good part goes to Germany.
Until the appearance of phylloxera around 1878, the white variety Piquepoul Blanc was mainly cultivated. Today, 80% of the approximately 12,000 hectares of vineyards are planted with Ugni Blanc(Trebbiano Toscano), the clearly dominant Armagnac vine. A total of eleven white varieties are approved for Armagnac, but apart from Ugni Blanc only the three varieties Baco Blanc, Colombard and Clairette are of noteworthy importance. All these varieties produce low-alcohol and acidic tasting wines, which are ideal for distillation. The natural spontaneous fermentation takes place without the addition of yeast, sulphur or sugar. After about ten to 17 days, an acidic wine with an alcohol content of 8 to 9.5% vol. is produced. Herbs, nuts and plums (bouquetieres) may be added before distillation.
The big difference to Cognac is the method of distillation and subsequent ageing. Until before the phylloxera catastrophe, the fractionated process (Pot Still) was used (as with Cognac), then the continuous process became established. This process was perfected as early as 1830 by the master distiller Coffey and in 1936 it became the only permitted distillation method for the Armagnac. In this mainly used "Méthode Armagnac" or the system "Alambic Armagnacais", raw distillation and fine distillation are combined in a single distillation process. A rectification column, an apparatus for separating the vaporizable components, is used for this purpose. This is located between the still and the condenser. The Armagnac is heated twice, but is only distilled once (as opposed to twice for Cognac).
The wine is strongly preheated and meets the alcohol vapours in the still. An ingenious system of perforated plates and tubes ensures that the armagnac is free of harmful substances, but contains a lot of the wine's scents and flavours (more vinousness). After distillation, Armagnac contains less alcohol (52 to 63% is prescribed) than Cognac (70%). Such distillates also require a longer maturing period. The freshly distilled Armagnac has a water-clear colour and tastes hot. In contrast to Cognac, it is not immediately filled into barrels, but is usually blended first. The armagnac matures in dark moor-oak barrels (400 to 420 liters) from the region, but due to lack of wood, material from other regions (e.g. Limousin) must increasingly be used. During the ageing period, faible (distilled water with a little alcohol) is added up to the drinking strength of 40% vol.
The finished product is a "blend" from different areas and years of origin, the youngest distillate determines the quality. The quality designations are similar to Cognac (see there under account). The age indicated on the label says nothing about the maturing time. For the most part, Armagnac is bottled in Bocksbeutel similar, bulbous bottles called Basquaise (Pot Gascon), only the rare vintage Armagnacs are marketed in the slim Charentais bottle. About nine million bottles of armagnac are produced annually, which is about 10% of the cognac volume. IGP wines are also produced under the appellations Côtes de Gascogne and Gers, and the sweet liqueur wine Floc de Gascogne.
To the best known Armagnac producers or Armadis (brands Chabot, Duc d'Ejas, Gerland and Marquis de Puysegur), Berger (Prince de Conde), Castarède, Château du Tariquet, Château-Paulet (Baron de Casterac), Darroze, Domaine d'Ognoas, Domaines Laberdolive, Gelas, Goudoulin, La Compagnie des Produits de Gascogne (de Montal), Janneau, Larrose (Comtal and Château de Hontambène), Marnier-Lapostolle (Lapostolle), Marquis de Montesquiou, Marquis de Sauval, Maxim's de Paris, Ryst-Dupeyron and Samalens. Some of these producers also produce wines and cognacs.
Complete lists of the numerous vinification measures or cellar techniques, as well as the various types of wine, sparkling wine and distillate regulated by wine law are included under the keyword vinification. Comprehensive information on wine law can be found under the keyword wine law.