For about as long as people have been making wine, they’ve been distilling it, into brandy. There’s brandy from Spain, Mexico, Italy, and South America. But it’s French brandies, namely those from Cognac and Armagnac, that hold sway over the market. The United States broke the 50-million-bottle-per-year mark in 2005 (thanks largely to brands like Hennessy and Courvoisier), making it Cognac’s largest market.
Cognac and Armagnac are often lumped together—understandably, since they’re both appellations in France’s southwest, and they use virtually the same grape varieties. The distillate is aged in French oak with similar aging designations: VS (Very Special) for at least two years, VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) for at least four years (five years for Armagnac), and XO (Extra Old) for over six years. (Armagnac also has a designation of Hors d’Age for brandies over ten years old.) Yet there are also significant differences.
The character of each spirit, for one. While the basic flavors are often similar—caramel, toffee, dried figs, orange zest, and baking spices—it’s how they are arranged that differs. Armagnac is the brash, insolent one; Cognac is refined. You will find Armagnacs that are big and unruly; some fiery, some smooth, some disjointed. Cognac, however, rarely has a hair out of place: It’s elegant and predictable. “Cognac is a far more successful business than Armagnac,” says F. Paul Pacult, who has written extensively on the subject and is probably America’s foremost expert on distilled spirits. “Long ago, [the region of] Cognac organized into a coherent business, and [the producers] have used that cooperation to market themselves all over the world. ... On the other hand, Armagnac is a disorganized, chaotic place of fierce individualism where nobody gets along at all.”
Cognac, which is dominated by large houses, is made by blending across vintages and styles, resulting in a consistent product. Armagnac comprises thousands of tiny, individual producers, and therefore the brandies can seem ungoverned and unpredictable, the producers doing things that Cognac never does, such as bottling single-vineyard and single-vintage brandies. “Cognac frustrates me,” says Pacult, “because they’re so staid and conservative. They could use some of the excitement and audacity of Armagnac. On the other hand, Armagnac is so scattered that it’s almost impossible to keep track of and understand.”
There are physical differences, too. Many people believe that the two appellations abut each other, when in fact more than 100 miles lie between them, including the entire region of Bordeaux. Cognac’s best subregions, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne (a blend of the two can be called Fine Champagne, if it contains at least 50 percent of the former), have limestone soils, whereas Armagnac’s are silt and sand.
Cognac’s wines are turned into spirit through double distillation in an old-style pot still, while Armagnac is distilled only once in an unusual still that is a hybrid of a pot and a column still. As a result, Armagnac’s liquor has a lower level of alcohol by volume, as well as being a bit heavier and more flavorful (each distillation removes body and character). Armagnac has traditionally been aged in the black oak of its neighboring forests, a slightly coarser and more tannic wood, while Cognac goes into classic oak from the Limousin and Troçais forests, famous for their sweet, vanilla overtones.
In Armagnac, keep an eye out for bottles from Darroze, Château du Busca, and Tariquet, all prominent and quality producers whose brandies are not hard to find. In Cognac, the big houses are widely available. I prefer their products at the VSOP and XO levels, particularly Hennessy and Martell. For the midsize houses, do not miss the brandies of Hine, Delamain, and Tesseron—all are complex and irresistible.