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A Bottle full of History

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

This was a summer of traveling, so now I must catch up on my writing. I have been on sabbatical from The American University of Rome, and because my next book is about modernist travel literature, a lot of my wandering was research (really!), but, admittedly, not all of it.

I spent some time in France this summer, exploring corners of that country that I had never been to. During a stay in the Périgord region of France, I made a detour to Gascony to learn more about its fabled Armagnac. Last year, I took a course at the Fondazione Italiana Sommelier on distilled spirits, so I was curious to learn first hand more about the differences between Armagnac and its more famous cousin Cognac.

Armagnac is said to be France’s first brandy, dating back more than 700 years. If this is true, it makes Armagnac one of the oldest distilled spirits produced in Europe. Its production is certainly rooted in history: the Romans introduced the vines, but a little later, the Vascons invaded, bearing the name that would transform the region in 670 into the first Duchy of Gascony. Some historians think that the name Armagnac is the legacy of knight named Hermann, a companion of the warrior king Clovis, who was rewarded for his bravery in battle with a large grant of land in Gascony. With Clovis’s conversion to Christianity, Hermann was latinized to Arminius, which in turn became Armagnac in the local language. By the 10th century, there was a small comté bearing the name Armagnac. The eau-de-vie of the region is first written about in the early 14th century when the Maître Vital Dufour, prior of Eauze and Saint Mont, praised the 40 virtues of eau-de-vie in his work, “To keep your health and stay on top form,” which I must say sounds less silly in Latin.

From about 1461, Armagnac was an everyday product found at the Saint Sever market in the Landes. It was called the “water of immortality” or “aqua ardens”--the water that burns. Therapeutic virtues were attributed to it, but it was not consumed that much. It took the Dutch, desirous of a beaker full of the warm south, to make it a commercial hit.

Both Cognac and Armagnac are distilled from wine, but unlike cognac, the grapes used in Armagnac also makes a pleasant wine before distilling, though the best grapes for distilling should not be too aromatic. This is interesting because the drinkability of the wine is one of the reasons Armagnac became popular. In the 17th century, the Dutch bought most of the French Atlantic wines, except Bordeaux, which was exclusively for the English market. Because the Bordelais were worried about competition, they intercepted all the wine convoys on their way down the Garonne, claiming that only Bordeaux wines could be transported on the river. If the wine from Gascony was forbidden to travel this way, spirits were not, so the wines from Gascony started to be distilled.

I visited two family owned distilleries of Armagnac, Dartigalongue and the Château de Castex d’Armagnac, as well as Darroze, a larger producer, but still small enough to be artisanal.

I was smitten with Dartigalongue immediately. Family owned since 1838, it is still run out of the original building in the middle of Place du Four in the small town of Nogaro. The Director is Benoit Hillion, the son-in-law of Françoise Dartigalongue, a warm and charming man with a fierce intelligence and a wry smile. He married into the family, but his love of history is palpable, and he is passionate about tradition. Navigating the dark stairways, cobwebs, and oak barrels was clearly as pleasurable for him as it was for me.

The Dartigalongue family uses a traditional still, a gleaming copper contraption that looks like a Rube Goldberg machine, though its function seems more like alchemy than science. From the still the eau-de-vie is put in oak barrels from Gascony and aged in a hot, elevated dry cellar to calm down the alcohol and then moved to a humid earth floor cellar that imparts roundness and finesse. After 40-50 years the Armagnac can be moved to glass demi-johns where they won’t evolve much more.

The cellars are remarkable places. A pungent spicy smell hangs heavily in the air, and the dark open spaces with distant spots of light that illuminate the golden barrels suggest something sacred. In fact, Benoit said he loved going into the cellars because they have the tranquility of a church. Indeed, there is something positively transcendent about the space. Some of millésimes go back to 1848, and the Armagnac in the barrels can be well over 50 years old. I found that aspect of Armagnac fascinating. When you buy a 50 year-old Armagnac, the youngest of the blend is 50 years old. That means you may be drinking something that has been nurtured, cared for, and aged for well over 100 years. It is almost hard to fathom all the history that has happened while the Armagnac evolved quietly and undisturbed in its barrel. Each sip is literally from another time.

This was even more evident at the Château de Castex d’Armagnac, where we stumbled upon the remarkable Baron de Saint Pastou during his afternoon swim. He is a descendent of the Come d’Abbadie de Barrau, and the family still live there.

The Château was not actually open for visitors that day, but the Baron happily jumped out of the pool, toweled off, and led us to the cellars. Hit immediately by the heady perfume, I had to take a minute to adjust to the dim light, but the Baron had already grabbed a little glass tube with a string and was lowering it through the top of a barrel of 1968 Armagnac. Filled with amber, the tube sparkled in the dim light, as it hypnotically swung around on the end of the string. The Baron took a swig and then offered it to me. My head had barely stopped spinning when he led me down a long row, dipping into history every few barrels. We sipped our way back to 1944, at which point I had to stop. He was still in his bathing suit and probably needed to fight off the chill of the cellars, but I was getting drunk and had to drive!

Passing through the magisterial gate, I felt a little sad to be returning to the 21st century. But I was immediately greeted a sea of sunflowers and vineyards, and the next stop was Château Hotel Bellevue near the quaint town of Cazaubon. The present isn’t all that bad.


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