Awash in an­cient Ar­magnac

In the South of France, a su­pe­rior brandy is painstak­ingly crafted. Nick Ham­mond vis­its the land of mus­ke­teers, bull­fight­ing, foie gras and ca­nard

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Nick Ham­mond vis­its the land of mus­ke­teers, foie gras and a su­pe­rior brandy that’s painstak­ingly crafted

Sleepy Blonde d’aquitaine cows, beefy in ev­ery re­spect, chew the cud. A bull stands sen­tinel among them, his great mus­cled flanks shiv­er­ing at the oc­ca­sional tickle of a fly. In the farm­yard be­hind, scur­ry­ing sor­ties of souris pour like mer­cury along the calv­ing-shed drains and the air purrs with the so­porific mur­mur of tur­tle­doves.

I’m in Ar­magnac—both a re­gion and a drink—and feast­ing on foie gras, farm­land and se­cret stores of an an­cient brandy, lov­ingly crafted across the rolling dé­part­ment of the Gers. It’s made as it was 700 years ago; dis­tilled in fan­tas­ti­cal cop­per alem­bic stills on wheels, which ar­rive in a trav­el­ling cir­cus at the end of each har­vest to steam and thun­der in the oak-beamed and cob­webbed barns of 1,000 Gas­con farms.

Farm­house Ar­magnac is still very much alive and kick­ing, but there are also large pro­duc­ers with hori­zons of man­i­cured vine­yards and space-age pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties. That’s the beauty of the re­gion and its amber gold—there is a life­time of per­son­al­i­ties here to ex­plore.

‘Each Ar­magnac is spe­cific to its time and place. There is noth­ing quite like it

‘each is unique,’ prom­ises Amanda Garn­ham, an ex­pa­tri­ate ‘gone na­tive’, who lives in a ram­bling Gas­con farm­house of her own, along with her fam­ily, as­sorted guests and a meadow menagerie of beasts. She’s the At­tachée de presse for the Bureau Na­tional In­ter­pro­fes­sion­nel de l’ar­magnac and runs Glam­our and Gum­boots (www. glam­ourandgum­boots.com), of­fer­ing be­spoke tours of the area’s rich food, drink cul­ture and coun­try­side.

‘From the cho­sen types of grape, through the ter­roir, to the dis­til­la­tion meth­ods and age­ing, each Ar­magnac is spe­cific to its time and place,’ she ex­plains. ‘There is noth­ing quite like it.’

In the sty­gian gloom of the dusty par­adis at Delord, gi­ant glass bon­bonnes of an­cient liq­uid sit im­pas­sively through the years. They are the last ves­tiges of Ar­magnac from gen­er­a­tions past. It’s a mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to step rev­er­ently among these ghosts, with their crudely at­tached wooden date la­bels dis­play­ing the liq­uid sum­ma­tion of a life­time’s work. I blow the dust from a half-filled jar of 1942. What hu­man en­deav­our did it take to cre­ate this pre­cious liq­uid in a time of such tu­mult? Delord Ar­magnac rings with sig­na­ture sweet fruit notes of ba­nanas and can­died orange, nuts and plump prunes.

Gas­con prunes, figs, pump­kins, wal­nuts and ki­wis grow in abun­dance. Mag­no­lia trees line the drive to Château de Bor­deneuve, where I wait in the sigh of the blos­som­ing aca­cias for the ar­rival of Thomas Guasch. It’s an­nounced by the bounce of his dis­con­cert­ingly large Al­sa­tians, but, thank­fully, they’re in­tent on chas­ing sticks and not vine­yard vis­i­tors. Some of the Baco grapes here have been

‘Great bot­tles are avail­able at a frac­tion of the ex­pense of their Cognac brethren’

nipped this week by a late-sea­son frost. Thomas gives a Gal­lic shrug—c’est la vie.

Later, he proudly dis­plays his per­ma­nent 1920s alem­bic, which rum­bles 24 hours a day dur­ing an in­ten­sive dis­till­ing pe­riod that might run from Oc­to­ber to March. A 1966 vin­tage—too pop­u­lar in Eng­land, where it’s drunk to toast the sport­ing suc­cess of that year—spills creamy salted caramel across the palate. There’s an ice cream-like 20 year old and an ethe­real bot­tle from 1924; rich, deep, truffly and darkly al­lur­ing.

Most Ar­mag­nacs are sin­gle-dis­tilled, some dou­ble. All are made in the col­umn stills of the alem­bic, un­like the pot stills of Cognac. Wines are dis­tilled and aged sep­a­rately in French-oak bar­rels and fi­nally com­bined in the bot­tling. In this part of the world, ev­ery few hun­dred yards, you’ll find a sign point­ing you to yet another Ar­magnac ad­ven­ture. A tee­to­tal driver is a must.

Three dis­tinct re­gions pro­duce Ar­magnac: Bas Ar­magnac, Ar­magnac-té­narèze and Haut-ar­magnac. They are all re­fresh­ingly af­ford­able. Great bot­tles are avail­able at a frac­tion of the ex­pense of their Cognac and Scotch brethren; a crack­ing vin­tage from the year of my birth­date—not that long ago, of course—can be found for less than €100. More re­cent pro­duc­tions, even of VSOP or XO ag­ing, can be picked up for about €30.

As she pre­pares freshly picked white as­para­gus in her sunny kitchen, the cul­tured sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian Claire de Mon­tesquiou af­fec­tion­ately teases her hus­band, Jean­louis. He just smiles and un­corks the

do­maine’s own Cu­vée Rosée, cre­ated since the cou­ple bought an over­grown hill­side in Bas-ar­magnac and be­gan both wine and Ar­magnac pro­duc­tion un­der the name Do­maine D’es­pérance. These Ar­mag­nacs— zesty, spicy and loaded with nuts and raisins—have won in­ter­na­tional ac­claim and Claire bot­tles for sev­eral well-known pri­vate la­bels.

There is an abun­dance of pro­duc­ers here, such as Château de Laubade, where quirky sculp­tures scat­ter the grounds, ori­en­tal gables abound and a glo­ri­ously gar­ish French li­brary of­fers a tast­ing of a com­plex 1985 vin­tage with notes of an Is­lay malt.

At Do­maine du Tari­quet, rows of sym­met­ri­cal vines, stretched across the hill­side, greet vis­i­tors, ev­ery inch pris­tine and well tended. The pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties are utilised to make both wine and Ar­magnac and, al­though they may be mod­ern, Tari­quet is no new­comer to Ar­magnac alchemy—the Grassa fam­ily has been mak­ing it for gen­er­a­tions and its VSOP and XO burst with cus­tard and burnt orange.

The sur­round­ings at Jan­neau are more pro­saic, but the Ar­magnac is any­thing but. From a range that runs from en­try level to se­ri­ous en­thu­si­ast, the VSOP has an ex­tra­or­di­nary cin­der-tof­fee note and the 25 year old has a sud­den and un­ex­pected pop of bub­blegum.

At Mar­quis de Mon­tesquiou, there is a pur­pose-built ‘cathe­dral’ to Ar­magnac, piled high with lo­cally made bar­rels and gi­ant casks for blend­ing.

Bees throng a nar­row stretch of grass­land at Ar­magnac Cas­tarède—or­ganic meth­ods are en­cour­aged here and these plants will be ploughed back in, ready for new vines, once flow­er­ing is over. The Ar­mag­nacs, served in the an­cient château, are ex­tra­or­di­nary.

Back with the Aquitaine bull, who’s led his ladies into the but­ter­cup-strewn pas­ture, I en­joy a con­ver­sa­tion-stop­ping Château de Pelle­haut vin­tage from 1973. This fam­ily busi­ness is half win­ery, half cat­tle farm, with the lucky bovines din­ing on grape mash and fresh sward.

It’s just another in a long line of ex­am­ples prov­ing there’s noth­ing quite like Ar­magnac. It’s au­then­tic, it’s very, very French and you need to taste it right here, in the heart­land where it’s made—the very essence of this time­less land in the shadow of the Pyre­nees.

Above: A vine­yard in Ar­magnac, ev­ery inch pris­tine and well tended, with its beau­ti­ful colours. Fac­ing page: In the cel­lars of the house of Delord, the old­est vin­tages are stored in bon­bonnes (glass jars), away from sun­light, in a spe­cial room called Par­adis

The Delord cel­lars con­tain 1,000 bar­rels and 12 oak tanks, which age and pro­tect the brandy

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.