One question that I am asked quite often is “what are the differences between Cognac and Armagnac?” Most people are familiar with Cognac and more and more people are becoming aware of Armagnac. Both are French brandies, made from grapes, but they are quite different. Please find my take on the key differences below. First however what are the key similarities?
Both Cognac and Armagnac are made from the distillation of white wine from delimited geographical regions in south west France. The main grape varieties used are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard (with some Baco in Armagnac). Both regions have calcareous (chalky) soils which help produce a base wine with high acidity. Both spirits are aged in oak casks and, more often than not, are blended prior to sale.
Cognac is from a strictly controlled geographical region in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments of south western France.
Armagnac is from a strictly controlled region in the Gascony region in Gers, Lands and Lot-et-Garonne departments of south western France.
The terroir (the sense of place of a wine or spirit) plays a huge part in the character of both spirits. Both the Cognac and Armagnac producing regions have their own unique soils, climates etc.
Cognac is divided into six sub-regions – Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. Grand and Petite Champagne have the chalkiest soils and produce the most elegant brandies. Bon Bois and Borderies are characterised by clay soils and produce a heavier, fuller wine and spirit, Fine Bois soils are a mixture of clay and chalk and the Cognacs from here are more medium-bodied. Some producers will label their Cognacs as coming from a particular sub region e.g. Grande Champagne, but others may blend spirit from across the different regions to produce a consistent house style.
Armagnac is divided into three crus – Bas Armagnac, Tenareze and Haut-Armagnac – all have predominantly chalky soils but with large local stones, known locally as boulbenes, which help to retain heat in the vineyard thus aiding the ripening process and they also improve drainage.
One of of the principal differences between Armagnac and Cognac is in the method of production. Cognac is distilled in a basic Charentais still or pot still, a discontinuous method of distillation whereby batches of wine are distilled. Armagnac is distilled using a continuous still or single column still (although pot stills may be used, in practise they are not). The continuous method of distillation used in Armagnac is a more efficient process and ensures a richer, fruitier spirit than Cognac.
Both Cognac and Armagnac vary in their ageing regimes. Cognac is aged in oak barrels with a capacity of between 350 and 400 litres which are made from Limousin, Troncais or Alliers oak. Armagnac is aged in similar oak casks with some Limousin and Alsace oak but also a local black oak from the Monlezun forest. Monlezun oak is a very tannic oak which imparts a rich colour and gives a good structural base for ageing new spirit which marries well with the richer and fruitier Armagnac.
Both Cognac and Armagnac go through various stages as the spirit ages and interacts with the oak barrels. At the beginning of ageing the spirits tend to exhibit characteristics of fresh fruit such as apricot, plum , pear and quince. With age these fresh fruit characteristics evolve into preserved fruits such as jam or fruit confit before evolving into dried fruit, think pruned, dried figs and pot pourri. As the fruit is evolving so any toffee notes develop from hard to soft toffee, to creamy, buttery and even buttersctotch type notes. The process of oxidation in the cask with age also sees nutty almond, walnut and rancio notes develop.
In general Cognac tends to be show lighter fruit (pear, orange) and floral notes whilst Armagnacs shows more orange, plum, quince and apricot fruit notes with vanilla, toffee notes and developing earthy and smokey characteristics. Armagnac is often described as a more rustic spirit due to its fuller, more viscous nature. Cognac tends to be lighter and more aromatic.
Although you will find single vintage Cognac and Armagnac, the principal methods of classification of Armagnac and Cognac are based on the number of years the spirit is aged in barrel.
In Cognac three star or VS must be aged for a minimum of 2 years in barrel, VSOP for 4 years and XO for a minimum of 6 years. After this you can get age statement and single vintage Cognacs.
Armagnac threes star has to be aged for a minimum of 2 years barrel, VSOP for 5 years, XO (or Napoleon) for 6 years and Hors d’Age for a minimum of 10 years. There are also single vintage and age statement Armagnac, single vintage Armagnacs are more common than vintage Cognacs.
These are minimum ages and it is important to note that many houses, though not all, choose to age their products for much longer. Thus, it is possible for the VSOP of one house to be older and superior to an XO from another.
The legislation, ageing and classification of Armagnac is overseen by the BNIA, the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac and Cognac by the BNIC, Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.