It’s tough playing second fiddle, especially to someone half your age. Armagnac antedates cognac by 200 years, but the rustic French brandy has been taking a backseat to its younger cousin.
Because cognac knows how to sell itself. Both brandies are distilled from wine, but cognac, made up north in France from different grapes and terroir, is an elegant spirit that well-heeled gentlemen sip in chic lounges around the world. Armagnac, on the other hand, is the romantic old soul made in small batches — some producers only make 30 cases a year — in the rural area of Gascony in southwest France.
Armagnac could have been France’s well-kept secret. But the fiery, complex spirit is slowly making a name for itself thanks to estates like Darroze. The estate is known to do special bottling of vintage armagnac for fine-dining outfits such as Waku Ghin.
Currently helmed by fourth-generation owner Marc Darroze, the family business started as a restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan selling armagnac by the glass. It was only in the 1960s that Marc’s father, Francis Darroze, decided to work directly with artisanal producers to bottle this liquid amber.
Darroze does no distilling of their own. What makes them stand out is their ability to identify and age vintage armagnac. The estate partners some of the best farmers in Gascony, buying their barrels and ageing the brandy in their own chais (aboveground cellars) in local black oak barrels. The armagnac is only bottled upon order, with the producer’s name, date of bottling — an important detail that tells you how long the spirit stayed in the cask — and vintage year stamped on the label.
“Terroir and capacity of the soil to produce something complex and interesting is very important,” says Marc Darroze. Sandy soils and a south-facing orientation are key to yielding excellent grapes.
“We know where to find the best soil and terroir, so (Basque Armagnac) is where we choose our partners. To us, it’s about respect to these small farmers who make the armagnac,” says Darroze.
“We use their name, and we never blend their stuff with someone else’s.”
Depending on the maturity potential of the distilled spirit, Darroze will age it in new oak accordingly. Take the 2000 vintage. “When we tasted the distilled spirit at the start, it was complex and very, very soft. In this case, we imagined it had a long (ageing) potential,” shares Darroze. It was left in a new oak cask for three years.
The 2005 vintage, on the other hand, was less complex and not as sweet. “We knew it did not have enough potential to support (more oak flavours), so we only put it in the cask for less than six months.”
You’ll want to savour a vintage armagnac neat, with its luscious, warm notes of chocolate, honey and walnut. But Darroze also enjoys a good dash of the French brandy in desserts. His favourite: Tourtière, a tart formed from delicate pastry layers filled with apples or prunes, and sprinkled liberally with armagnac.
“You sprinkle a lot of armagnac, and you use butter. A lot of butter. This is very rich, but it’s very nice.”