Cognac vs. Armagnac: It's all about the VS
One of the most common questions asked when discovering the world of brandy is – What is the difference between Cognac and Armagnac? Granted I myself had only sporadically heard mention of Armagnac brandy before I began this job. It is often the case that people associate this well known spirit with the major brands such as Hennessy and Hines of the Cognac family, however it is both Armagnac and Cognac together that make up over 90% of the global market. So what is it about these two styles of French brandy that make them so popular and, more importantly, what are the characteristics that separate them?
Cognac is the classic breed of brandy, with commonplace production beginning around the 17th Century in the Cognac region of France just north of Bordeaux. A frequent misconception of Cognac brandy is because it is now more widely recognised, that it has more history than its Armagnac counterpart, which has roots in distillation of eau de vie all the way back to the 12th Century. It was due to its location, just south-east of Bordeaux, that gave Armagnac difficulties in finding a method of mass distribution, whereas Cognac, located on the banks of the river Charente and with access to the Atlantic coastline, had numerous trade routes and readily available markets in Britain, Holland and Belgium. These markets became established when, in the 18th Century, Cognac's now famous households of; the Martells from Jersey, the Hennessys from Ireland, the Hines from Dorset and the Otards from Scotland, settled in the region.
There are two major features of production that separate the brandy from the Cognac and Armagnac regions. The first is the process of distillation, the second being the aging and use of materials regulated by Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) law and it is these processes that influence the subtle differences later found in taste, texture and appearance. Cognac brandy is made by distilling wine using a basic pot still which, although is labour-intensive and heat-inefficient will produce a spirit with much more character and distinction. The outcome of a first distillation is a brouillis of strength around 30% abv so a second distillation is necessary to reach a spirit of up to 72% abv that is suitable for aging. This contrasts with Armagnac customs which use a patented Armagnac still (based on a continuous still) and therefore only requires one distillation. This will give a brandy that retains a larger range of flavours and is 60% abv after just the one distillation.
After the initial wine has been distilled into the spirit it is then aged in a cask for varying lengths of time depending on the region. Brandy of Cognac must be aged a minimum of 2 years (compte 2) represented by *** or VS, followed by VSOP at 4 years old (compte 4) up to a maximum age of 6 years (compte 6) XO, at which point the brandy is perceived to have gained all the benefits it can from the cask and is transferred to glass carboys for further aging. For Armagnac the aging requirements are lower, beginning at 1 year old (compte 1) through 4 years (compte 4) up to 5 years (compte 5) represented again by VS for 1 year, VSOP for 4 years and XO for 5 years.
The different flavours and colours the brandy will take on are heavily dependent on the materials used for the cask it's aged in. Armagnac
, under AOC laws, will use a locally sourced black wood from the Monlezun oak which will impart a rich colour and will react with the brandy to form flavours of vanilla and burnt toffee over notes of plums, apricots and dried fruit. Armagnacs will often reach their peak of aging between 20 and 30 years. These tastes contrast greatly with Cognac, which are aged in casks made from Tronçais or Limousin oak that will soften and mellow the brandy and cause almond and walnut aromas to surface over it's original floral and grapey fragrances, which will age best between 30 and 40 years. Due to it's primitive form of distillation, Armagnacs will often be described as a more rustic spirit, having a fuller, slightly more viscous texture than Cognacs which tend to be lighter and more aromatic.
Hopefully this article has helped to differentiate between some of the aspects of these two fine spirits and in determining which would be more gratifying to your palate. As we always like to promote here at Pierre Hourlier Wines, taste is personal to yourself and always open to interpretation. All we can do is help to push you in the direction of some delicious produce and let you experience it for yourself.