Today both produce brandy of outstanding quality, and while many toss them into the same Brandy category, there's a wide range of differences between the two spirits produced from the distillation of wine.
Generally, it can be said that:
Armagnac: can be more intensely aromatic, fuller bodied, and have a larger diversity of styles.
Below is a detailed look at the intricate differences between the two, from grape varieties allowed, distillation, labeling to flavor profiles.
Cognac: 6 varieties permitted, of which
Ugni Blanc is approximately 98% of total plantings. Ugni Blanc is also known as "Saint Emilion," and the white"Trebbiano"grape of Italy. Good rot resistance, and low in sugar, high in acid. This is important because when wine that is low in alcohol and high in acid is distilled, flavors must be more concentrated. Wines from Ugni Blanc are generally not very flavorful, but upon distillation are usually grapey and floral in character.
Armagnac: 10 varieties are permitted
Ugni Blanc: is still the most planted, but makes up 55% of total plantings, giving producers of this Brandy a wider range of flavor profiles to work with. The three other most important varietals for Armagnac are as follows:
Baco: The second most planted grape in Armagnac (32% of plantings) is unique to this region, as it is not permitted for Cognac production. Yielding earth, full bodied spirits reminiscent of prunes and raisins.
Folle Blanche: creates wines of floral character. The Armagnac producer, Tariquet creates a 100% Folle Blanche Armagnac, in the most planted cru: Bas Armagnac.
Colombard: contributes a spicy, peppery element to Armagnac blends.
THE CRUS: The wine growing areas in each region
Cognac: 6 crus
- Grande Champagne
- Petite Champagne
- Fins Bois
- Bons Bois
- Bois Ordinaires
- Bas Armagnac
- Haut Armagnac
DISTILLATION: While all Cognac is legally required to use pot stills, most Armagnac is produced in column still, though pot still is legally allowed, and usually the highest quality Armagnac's are produced using them.
Cognac: "Charentais Stills" is the term most widely used to describe these copper pot stills legally required to use direct heating and worm tube condensers.
Armagnac: "Alambic Armagnacais" unique column stills which are perfect for making a low strength spirit. This single column still is able to be run continuously, unlike the still used for Cognac. Usually grape varieties are fermented, then distilled separately, allowing a wider variety of options for the final blend.
Above is a sketch of an Armagnac Still I did studying for the
WSET Intermediate Spirits Certification
AGING: Except Blanche Armagnac, which is unaged, Armagnac is legally required to spend one year in oak. Cognac, on the other hand, doesn't have an un-aged category, and is legally required to spend two years in oak.
Cognac: Usually aged in 350 L barrels from two types of oak.
- Limousin (Q. robur) this forrest is located the closest to Armagnac, and usually is the dominant oak used for aging here. This type of french oak is more open grained, thus adding more tannin when used for aging.
- Tronçais forrest: (Q. sessiliflora) this type of french oak is more tightly grained and contributes less tannin, and more aromatics when used for aging.
- Monlezun - the local forrest where this oak is called 'black oak,' provides unique aromatic characteristics.
- Tronçais & Limousin- These forests are larger then the above local oak forrest, and are more commercially available, so are also used.
- Demijohns - glass containers used to hold very old Armagnacs. As these are inert and prevent evaporation, unlike wood aging vessels, they are generally used to hold spirits closer to 40% abv, the legal minimum alcohol content required for Armagnac, which after years in oak barrels lose approximately 2% abv/year.
LABELS AND LAWS:
Both Cognac and Armagnac legally do not allow sulfur additions to the wine prior to distillation. While sulfur is commonly added to wine for a variety of antioxidant and antimicrobial reasons, if it was added to a wine destined for distillation would create a spirit with unacceptable sulfur levels post concentrating. Both also prohibit must enrichment prior to fermentation, which would create a wine out of sync with the desire for a brandy base wine to is low in alcohol and high in acid, as must enrichment enables a higher abv% after fermentation.
Terms: * Ages are based on the youngest component of the blend.
- Blanche - un-aged brandy found only in Armagnac. Labeling term introduced in 2005, with a minimum three months in inert stainless steel vessels, so it can be reduced to bottling strength.
- *** or VS (Very Special): This term has a different meaning in Cognac, than in Armagnac. In Cognac minimum is 2 years while in Armagnac, only 1 year minimum aging. (Cognac producers of VS are permitted to use oak chips, which generally are unacceptable for premium products.)
- VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale): 4 year minimum in both Cognac and Armagnac. In Cognac, this term is interchangeable with "Réserve,"a term not used in Armagnac.
- Réserve: Term unique to Cognac, interchangeable with "VSOP," indicating minimum 4 years.
- Napoléon:In both regions this indicates a minimum of 6 years. Note: In Cognac this term is set to rise to a minimum 10 year, and will be legally defined after April 1st, 2018)
- XO (Extra Old): Used in both regions with different meanings. Cognac is 6 year minimum, Armagnac 10 year minimum. Note: In Cognac this term is set to rise to a minimum 10 year, and will be legally defined after April 1st, 2018)
- Hors d'âge: Both regions, different meanings (currently) Cognac - 6 year minimum, Armagnac - 10 year minimum. This term means 'beyond age,' and usually is at the top range of a producers brandies.
Cognac: The following four Cognac houses dominate trade: Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier.
- Courvoisier: established in 1809, this production house only uses grapes from Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, and Fins Bois. They have two distilleries of their own, and contract with more than 1,000 winemakers and distillers who sell their eau-de-vie to Courvoisier, who creates blends. After harvest grapes are fermented in small batches for seven days. To distill, Courvoisier uses small 25 hL Charentais pot stills for the first distillation, and extremely small 6hL stills for the second distillation. Courvoisier's belief is that smaller stills give better aromas and better contact with copper. The second distillation occurs on the lees, adding depth and complexity. 60% approximately of barrels used are from Tronçais and Jupilles wood, while Limousin makes up the remaining 40%. New barrels are used for only 6 months of the aging process to reduce oak influence.
- Rémy Martin: established in 1724, this producer only uses Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche, from only two crus: Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. Fermentation lasts generally between 5-7 days, and the resulting base wine is around 7-9% abc. Distillation occurs on the lees, and aging occurs in open grained Limousine oak.
- Martell: est. in 1715, Martell has plantings in Borderies, Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne, and the wine they create themselves accounts for about 70% of that which they distill, the rest supplied by third party sources. Fermentation lasts around a week, and racking lasts three weeks post fermentation, so distillation may occur without any lees. Unique to Martell, no chauffe-vin is used to preheat wine before fermentation. Martell believes much of the character of their Cognac is from lightly toasted Tronçais oak barrels which are used for aging, before being moved to demijohns for the remainder of the aging period.
- Hennessy: est. in 1765 by irishman Richard Hennessy. It is believed that VSOP was created when King George IV himself asked Hennessy to create a "very superior old pale Cognac." Using grapes from four crus; both Champagnes, Fins Bois and Borderies. Hennessy's style revolves around the division of head and tails between both brouillis and wine before they are distilled again. Their very best Cognacs are aged more than 100 years. Hennessy is said to have one of the largest reserves of aged Cognac in the world. In 2011, Hennessy produced over a million cases, or more than 12 million bottles of Cognac.
- Delord: est. in 1893 by a travelling distiller whose grandsons stil run the company today. They only use Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc and Colombard. They are centered in the Tenarèze cru.
- Castarède: This family owned Armagnac is able to boast being the oldest business in Armagnac, est. in 1832. They don't distill themselves, buying their brandy exclusively from the Bas Armagnac cru. Most of their Armagnac was distilled between 1900 and 2000, and is kept until wood until it reaches about the legal minimum for Armagnac - 40% abv, where upon it is transferred to glass.
Sidecar: This recipe is similar to one found in Jerry Thomas's 1862 book, How to mix drinks, and is also said to have originated at the famed Harry's New York Bar of Paris, after a US. Miliatary Captain arrived at the bar in a sidecar of a motorcycle. Serve in an old fashioned glass.
1 oz Brandy
1 oz Cointreau
3/4 oz lemon juice
flamed orange peel garnish
Brandy Alexander: Supposedly John Lennon's favorite drink, give this cocktail a whirl at your next booze get together! Shake brandy, créme de cacao, and heavy cream with ice, and strain into a small cocktail glass, before garnishing with a pinch of nutmeg.
1 oz creme de cacao - (dark)
2 oz heavy cream
pinch of nutmeg to garnish.
Champagne Cocktail: Similar to a drink that evolved in the 1700's, this is a Cognac cockgtail is a refreshing alternative to your next glass of bubbly. Pour bitters over a sugar cube placed in the bottom of a Champagne flute, then cover with Cognac. Pour Champagne over the mix, and if you really want to get sassy - try rubbing the sugar cube on the skin of an orange for an added kick
1 oz Cognac