Even among spirits amateurs, the difference between cognac and Armagnac is far from obvious. The weak market shares of these spirits in France, their cradle, appears to be an important factor of this ignorance. In 2018, the armagnac sector exported more than 50% of its production abroad (ArmagnacNews, in French) whereas the cognac sector exported almost 98% of its production (BNIC)! With such figures, the lack of exposure of these spirits in France is not surprising. However, these statistics also indicate a clear lack of interest from the consumers that regard these alcohols as outdated. Although they are still referred to as “digestifs” beverages, they have, like all alcoholic beverages, no positive impact on digestion. Thus, considering these misrepresentations, we ought to attempt to modernize and dust off the reputation of these secular spirits.
Cognac and armagnac are both spirits (beverages containing a large quantity of alcohol) made from distilled white wine. Both spirits are subject to a “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” (a protected designation of origin that guarantees a certain level of quality and style). There are 3 main criteria that set armagnac apart from cognac : terroir, grapes and distillation.
Terroir is a French term often used when discussing regional products. The National Center for Textual and Lexical Resources gives the following definition: “A piece of land presenting a certain physical or original homogeneity, or a homogeneity due to cultivation techniques (draining, irrigation, terraces), able to provide certain agricultural products” (CNRTL, definition n°3, in French). In our opinion, other factors such as climate and human skills must also be included in the definition.
Armagnac is produced in Gascogne in 3 departments (Gers, Landes and Lot-et-Garonne) whereas cognac is produced in 4 departments (Charente, Charente-Maritime, Dordogne, Deux-Sèvres). There are two different climate influences: temperate oceanic (despite more sunlight on costal areas) for Cognac and the west part of Gascogne and temperate continental for the eastern part of Gascogne.
Let us now study the impact of soil characteristics on the production of the white wines used as a base for both spirits.
Armagnac is divided into 3 complementary geographical denominations (from west to east):
- Bas Armagnac: the tawny sands of Bas Armagnac, made of loamy sands and clayey parts (boulbènes) give acidic grapes, perfect for distillation. Bas Armagnac makes high quality spirits that are rich and very fruity.
- Ténarèze: a transition zone where the western tawny sands turn into eastern clay-limestone soils. Armagnacs produced on this terroir are more “rustic” and powerful and will need time to be tamed.
- Haut Armagnac: a bit higher in altitude with more pronounced summer droughts, this terroir has hard limestone soils (peyrusquets) and deep clayey soils (terreforts) enabling better water retention. Spirits produced on this terroir are usually sharper.
The Cognac vineyard is divided into 6 additional geographical denominations:
- Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne: the chalky limestone soils from Cretaceous are similar to the soils of the Champagne region, hence the names Grande and Petite Champagne. There, the finest (especially in Grande Champagne), suitable for aging, well structured spirits, can be found. The appellation Fine de Champagne describes a spirit containing both parts with at least 50% Grande Champagne.
- Borderies: siliceous-clay soils with limestone subsoils produces floral spirits (violet, iris).
- Fins Bois: here, the “groies” (pronounce “groa”) composed of superficial red soils and gravels from the Jurassic period give round, scented and fruity spirits.
- Bons Bois: the soils (Cretaceous and Jurassic) like the climates are more heterogeneous on this terroir. The spirits made on this terroir are generally fruity and age more quickly.
- Bois Ordinaires: the sandy soils (due to the coastal location) usually give simpler spirits.
Unlike what you might think, you need an acidic wine with a low ABV to produce a quality spirit. 10 grapes are allowed to produce armagnac (baco, blanc dame, colombard, folle blanche, plant de graisse, jurançon, mauzac, mauzac rose, meslier saint-françois, ugni blanc) against 6 for cognac (colombard, folle blanche, montils, Semillon, ugni blanc, folignan). We should note that jurançon and meslier saint-françois will not be used after 2020.
In fact, ugni blanc, derived from the Italian grape “trebbiano Toscano” has become the dominant grape on both vineyards thanks to high yields and a good resistance after the phylloxera crisis. Let us detail the main grapes:
- Ugni blanc: constituting up to 98% of the Cognac vineyard and prevailing in Armagnac as well, ugni blanc is a relatively neutral, balanced grape. It gives refined spirits that are suitable for a long aging.
- Folle blanche: a very fragile grape, folle blanche produces aromatic, elegant and floral spirits.
- Colombard: gives aromatic, fruity and spicy spirits.
- Baco: the king grape in Armagnac, baco produces full-bodied and round spirits with ripe fruit aromas (prune).
- Folignan: new-born from crossbreeding folle blanche and ugni blanc, folignan is a grape that is exclusive to Cognac and produces floral spirits (rose and lilac aromas). This grape cannot exceed 10% of the grape varieties.
It may very well be the most fundamental difference between cognac and armagnac. We will not cover all the technical processes of distillation which will be the topic of a future post but let us outline some of the key points that differentiate double distillation from continuous distillation.
Until the dawn of the 19th century, both spirits were made using double distillation. The invention of the column stills is generally attributed between 1801 and 1818, either to Jean-Edouard Adam or Mr. Tulière. Anyhow, this is the period when continuous distillation was adopted in Gascogne setting armagnac apart from his cousin from Charente.
Distillation acts as a magnifying glass, concentrating the aromas of the wine (which is then between 7,5 and 12% ABV).
Double distillation or “distillation charentaise”
In Charente, a pot still is used to distillate the wine a first time, giving a “brouillis” of around 30% abv. This brouillis will then be distilled again to get cognac. During this second distillation, also called “bonne chauffe”, the heads (the most volatile parts) and the tails (the heavier parts) are discarded to keep the “coeur de chauffe” (heart of the spirit). It is possible to keep some of the heads and tails depending on the desired style of the spirit. Cognac is usually between 65% and 73,7% ABV at that point.
Continuous distillation used in Armagnac is more complex. As its name suggests, this distillation in “loop” is conducted in one time in a column containing up to 15 plates. During distillation, the rising vapors pass through the descending wine before being condensed until there is no more wine to distill. Although armagnac can reach 72,4% like cognac, it usually leaves the stills between 52 and 60%. Legally, double distillation is accessorily allowed but is seldom used.
Usually, the spirits made from double distillation are quite refined whereas those made from continuous distillation are more characterful, giving this “rustic” style to armagnac (this is not negative!).
- Unlike their counterparts from Cognac, armagnac producers can sell non-aged spirits (which have only spent 3 months in stainless steels vats) under the name of Blanche d’Armagnac.
- The minimum age to sell an armagnac is 1 year whereas it is 2 years for cognac.
- The cognac sector has many trade houses led by an oligopoly of four houses: Henessy, Martell, Courvoisier, Rémy Martin. Although there are some trading houses in Armagnac too (Darroze, Castarède…), the sector is mainly constituted of various small producers.
- The art of blending has made the reputation of cognac (more than 1000 spirits for the most prestigious bottles), maintaining a house’s style year-on-year. On the other hand, there are more vintage armagnacs reflecting the terroir effect year-on-year.
And what about brandy? Brandy is an English word which comes from the dutch word “brandewijn” which means “burnt wine”. This term refers to spirits made from distilled wine including cognac and armagnac among others.
In a nutshell
Armagnac and cognac are two spirits made from distilled white wine. There are 3 geographic denominations in Armagnac and 6 in Cognac. Out of the 16 grapes used, 3 of them are common to both spirits: ugni blanc (dominant), folle blanche and colombard. Baco is exclusively grown in Armagnac whereas folignan is exclusively grown in Cognac. The double distillation used in Cognac produces more refined spirits whereas continuous distillation used in Armagnac delivers characterful spirits.