Armagnac, the Drink of Southwest France
Armagnac Is the Drink & Ducks Are For Dinner
By Max Hartshorne
In Le Gers, near Toulouse in southwest France, there are two things that define this region of rolling hills and farmland: Armagnac, the region's famous brandy, and fois gras, from local ducks.
It's pretty hard to find a restaurant here that does not have duck on the menu, and as you travel the back roads, you'll see signs everywhere for small family producers of Armagnac.
On a May 2014 visit to Le Gers, we met many family producers and sampled much of the local product. We also learned about how they market their strong drink and where they think the market is going in the future. One of the region's largest producers, Jerome Delord, compared his fourth generation operation as 'haute couture' versus ready-to-wear in fashion.
They make just 200,000 bottles per year, and the total production of Armagnac across the entire region is just 6 million. This compared to 180 million bottles of Cognac, a similar product made in and around the city of Cognac in western France.
Delord drove us out to see some of the 40 hectares of land where his grapes grow, and he told us that the peak consumption of Armagnac
was in 1980, especially after World War II.
Back then, French consumers would enjoy three or four year old Armagnac, but today, most people are looking for older vintages. "The volume is down but the quality is up," Delord said, as we sampled some of his eight, 10 and 25 year-old Armagnacs.
There is no Hennessey or LVMH in the Armagnac business, here instead there are three and fourth generation family winemakers who now rely on sales to Russian and Chinese consumers for the bulk of their exports.
The industry got a blow two years ago, when China cracked down on gifts that local politicians were able to recieve from patrons. They used to give bottles of Armagnac but now are unable to do so.
Today, Russia has become a top market. That's partly because of one of Armagnac's long shelf life--all of the producers keep dame jeannes, or large glass bottles, of even their oldest vintages. So you can buy a little bottle of say, 1958 Armagnac, which works well for the Russians who enjoy commemorating certain milestone years with the equivalent bottle of celebratory booze.
There are also other products these Armagnac makers offer, one of them is Floc, a lower alcohol mix of white grape juice and Armagnac. So far, Floc is only sold in Southwest France, it's not a big seller and you probably won't be seeing it in US stores any time soon.
The Armagnac Flame
Delord and other producers told us about a very festive time around the last weekend of October known as the Armagnac Flame, when the distillation of Armagnac takes place. The vertical stills that produce the wine stay lit for about seven weeks, and big dinners are held right there in the sheds.
Locals and tourists gather at big tables to feast in the glow of the flames, and along with copious amounts of duck, you can bet some very old Armagnacs are brought out too. Delord said that this year's Flame will take place later due to the weather in 2014.
VeloRail of Armagnac
While we traveled the beautiful rolling hills of Le Ger, we were heading for a new attraction that has proven very popular in other parts of France. It's the Velorail de l'Armagnac, an abandoned set of railway tracks that has been outfitted with what some might call a hobo's train.
It's a platform with two sets of pedals that propels five people down a track. The nine kilometer track is located in Nogaro, and the only time you have to stop is when the tracks meet a road.After a quick jump off, you're back pedaling down the tracks again. What fun! The cost is 27 euros for a family, a perfect outing in a lovely part of France.
Auch is the capital of Le Gers, and its most important citizen was Charles de Batz-Castelmore, Comte d'Artagnan, not the New York City delicatessen, but the captain of the famous Musketeers who was born in the region in the 1600s.
The man is more famous from the fictionalized accounts written by Alexandre Dumas, but in this part of the world, he's a hero, as are the other Musketeers who can be found on a lifesized statue outside of the cathedral in Condom.
Though he was a fierce leader in battle, he was a terrible governor, and DÁrtagnan didn't spend much of his life here. Still, the monumental staircase in Auch is dominated by his bronze statue.
In Auch, there is a remarkable chapel inside the town's massive cathedral that's definitely worth a visit. Here we saw a complete hand carved set of chairs, each one decorated with incredibly detailed wooden carvings of Eve, Mary, Joseph, Sybil and various prophets.
It took more than 40 years to carve these realistic 113 choir chairs, and no lacquer or finish was used. I have always loved seeing carvings in these ancient buildings, and this chapel in Auch is over the top and quite a site to see.
Three distinct Armagnac Terroirs
As we sat down with Laurent Deche of Chateau de Millet, she told us about the 300 small producers and the three distinctly different terroirs of Armagnac in Gascony which is the name for the ancient kingdom that preceded France in the area.
In their tasting room, a glass container held soil from each, see photo above. Bas Armagnac, Haut Armagnac and the much smaller Armagnac-Tenareze.
Just like with the grand crus in Burgundy, the stoniest soils produce the highest quality Ugni blanc and Colombard grapes.
Bas Armagnac makes up 70 percent of the market, Deche said.
Condom's Culinary Superstar
I asked my friendly guide, Jeanne Moinet, 25, what she thought about Condom. She said it was a pretty boring town for a young person. But "the best thing in Condom is Bandas,"she said.
This is an international music competition and festival held every May that brings thousands of rowdy young people and dozens of brass bands to this sleepy village. People get very drunk and try to shimmy up a pole.
Everyone dresses in festive red and white clothes and parties till the wee hours. Bandas is definitely the wildest thing that ever happens in this burg of just over 7000 residents.
In Condom, Eric Sampietro is a mild-mannered chef who isn't looking for fame or glory. But he has a Michelin star that makes his restaurant, Table des Cordeliers, a serious destination for foodies. He's very happy cooking for locals and tourists and has no desire to move to Paris and become more famous. His food is low key but very, very good.
A Lively Dinner with Brits
Just outside of Condom is a marvelous Maison d'hotes called Les Bruhasses. These types of accommodations feature family style dinners, typically with the innkeeper family, and in this case, the family happens to own a spectacular large house with two towers on each end and sprawling grounds with gardens.
The proprietors are Helene and Jean Royer, who lived for twenty years in the US and are originally from Quebec. Helene makes her guests feel very welcome not only with her easy fluent English but by inviting them into her kitchen to watch her prepare the meals.
On the night we stayed there, there were three couples staying there, one American and two British.
The conversation flowed easily, as one couple was house-hunting in the region, and another was nearly convinced to do the same. We learned that many, many Brits have bought houses in this part of France and there is quite an expat community here.
Another unique place to bed down in Condom is in a converted watchtower that's now a luxurious two-story Gite, which in France is a place you rent in the country and do all of your own cooking. At Domaine de Mirane, not only do they make Armagnac, but we were lucky to enjoy a long, languid dinner with the friendly loquacious hosts, Marie and Jean-Francois Tetard, a retired couple who regaled us with tales of lives well lived.
There are few things as satisfying to me as a Saturday night at a big table with well-educated, well-traveled people discussing the state of the world, in a fabulous place like Les Bruhasses or Domaine de Mirane.
France, as usual, never lets me down.
Find out about everything France has to offer at France's official tourism website, Rendezvousenfrance. Thanks to Atout France for their assistance on this trip. Getting from Toulouse to Portugal was smooth and included the bonus of the unscheduled layover in San Sebastian. Find rail tickets, passes and great information on Rail Europe's website.
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Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.