Most people with even a basic knowledge of wine will know at least a little about the grape varieties from which it is made.
Many use those as the basis for their wine preferences. One person may, for example, have a particular liking for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot or Shiraz while another may have a strong aversion to one or more of them.
Ask them which grapes go into cognac or Armagnac, however, and only a small number of well-informed connoisseurs will have the slightest idea.
Getting the cépage right is crucial, as Arnaud Lesgourgues is keen to stress. Unlike whisky, which derives the great majority of its character from barrel maturation and the distillation process, the essential character of this grape spirit is profoundly influenced by the varieties from which it is made.
Lesgourgues belongs to the third generation of a family who owns Chateau de Laubade in the Bas Armagnac region of Gascony. He recently passed through Hong Kong on a mission to promote Armagnac and the Chateau’s complex and interesting spirits.
Prior to the current austerity campaign across Greater China, which has adversely affected the market for premium priced spirits, there was some optimism among the producers of Armagnac about its prospects here. Long a favourite of the French – but a niche product in most other markets – Armagnac has recently gained some international ground traditionally occupied by the Charentais. Yet the process has been a slow one.
“We are a niche product. We don’t have as much money to promote ourselves as cognac producers, so in Asia we have been followers. When cognac started to do well in Japan, a couple of years later so did we – not in the same quantities, but there was an improvement. The same in China,” says Lesgourgues.
The situation is different in France. Although much more cognac is made than Armagnac, almost all of the best cognac is exported.
“Cognac exports 98 percent of its production; for Armagnac 60 percent of the production goes into the domestic market. But because the production of Armagnac is much smaller than cognac, consumption is probably about equal. However, cognac is used a lot for cooking, while Armagnac is found more in premium liquor stores and fine hotels and restaurants. When they go out, French people definitely drink more Armagnac than cognac,” explains Lesgourgues.
Chateau de Laubade was established in 1870, and notable previous owners – the diplomat Joseph Noulens, France’s ambassador to Russia during the 1917 revolution, and his wife, fashion designer Jeanne Paquin – did much to boost Armagnac’s profile overseas through their international connections.
Under Noulens, Chateau de Laubade was recognised as one of the leading regional producers of fine eaux de vie, but between 1945 and 1974 the chateau fell into hard times. Ownership changed hands frequently and the brand’s value diminished markedly. Then an opportunity to acquire the estate – and its substantial reserves of aged brandies – came the way of Maurice Lesgourgues, Arnaud’s grandfather.
It was, says Arnaud, “love at first sight,” but the new owner only had four years to enjoy his acquisition. After Maurice’s death, his son, Jean-Jacques Lesgourgues, took over the business and made it his mission to rebuild it.
Jean-Jacques is still involved, but now the company is run by Arnaud and his brother Denis. Collectively, the family has restored the Chateau’s reputation, as well as its position among leading Armagnac producers.
Unusually for a brand of its stature, Chateau de Laubade relies entirely on its own resources for the grapes and wines from which it makes its spirit.
Its 260-acre vineyard is planted with all four of the varieties traditionally used for making Armagnac – Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard and Baco.
“Each one contributes something specific. Folle Blanche is going to give you floral and fruity perfumes. Colombard will give you fullness and spicy aromas. Ugni Blanc is the backbone, and Baco ages very well. We don’t sell young Armagnac. Baco is not very good at three, four or five years old, but when you age it 10 years or more it gives you wonderful fullness and the greatest length in the mouth. Blending is very important. You can make Armagnac from a single variety, but it lacks something,” Lesgourgues explains.
“People are now more interested in craft production of spirits – but it’s not new in Armagnac”
“We are the biggest producer of Baco,” he stresses. “It was a grape variety that was on the verge of disappearing a couple of years ago. Chateau de Laubade has more than one-third of the Baco grapes in the whole Armagnac region.”
The vineyards use organic manure produced by a herd of 600 ewes. Continuous distillation takes place in a custom-built column still, and all eaux de vie are matured – for at least twice as long as required by French law and in many cases for much longer – in barrels made from local Gascon oak.
“Cognac puts a lot of money into marketing and packaging. In Armagnac we put the money into the product. We age the eaux de vie for our VSOP and XO for much longer,” he says.
Chateau de Laubade’s investment in quality has won it some impressive accolades. In 2007 its Intemporel N°5 was judged to be the Best Brandy in the World at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Created by the Chateau’s Cellar Master, predominantly from casks dating back to the 1980s, Lesgourgues calls it a “super-premium blend” made with more than 45 percent Baco.
“We want to continue to promote Armagnac as an after dinner drink,” he says. “It is one of the top spirits to be enjoyed with coffee or a cigar. People are now more interested in craft production of spirits – but it’s not new in Armagnac. It is what we have done for a long time. Now I think we have an opportunity.”
Written by Robin Lynam