For 2022 we will be welcoming back Calvados and Armagnac as our guest spirits.
Calvados is made almost exclusively in Normandy, France or its outskirts, and is distilled from cider made with apples or pears. Typically, a combination of sweet and bitter apples will be used to make the initial cider, but the type of soil and the way the fruit is pressed will also affect the quality.
Calvados has three main production zones, each with its typical flavour profile: Calvados Pays d’Auge (rich, round, complex); Calvados (fresh, fruity, pungent); and Calvados Domfrontais (floral, with a pleasant sourness).
In terms of ageing, calvados uses the following definitions; Trois Etoiles or Trois Pommes - A minimum of two to three years old, VSOP or VO - Four years, Hors d’Age - More than six years old.
Young calvados, especially those from Domfrontais, can be enjoyed as an aperitif (on ice or with soda water). They also match beautifully with Normandy cheeses such as a creamy Camembert. Older calvados, from Pays d’Auge, will be served with Pont-l’Evêque cheese or an apple pudding, or as an after-dinner dram.
Armagnac is a grape brandy produced primarily from four grape varieties (Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Baco 22A and Colombard), although 10 are permitted. Made in the Gascony region of France to the south of Bordeaux (split into three areas: Bas Armagnac, Tenareze and Haut Armagnac), it is distilled only once and often aged for many decades.
Believed to be the oldest brandy in France, the first written record of Armagnac dates from 1411, meaning it predates Cognac by at least 200 years. Due to the location of the region (away from the coast), it remained a local product until the River Baise was canalised in the 19th century and exportation became easier. Originally produced in large alembic stills, a local peasant created the Verdier still, patented in 1818. This new type of still allowed more of the flavour to be retained from the original wine, thus increasing complexity and setting it apart from Cognac. The resulting spirit is then aged in oak, normally 400-litre Limousin casks, for at least two years before it can be called Armagnac.
Armagnac can be divided into two main categories: vintage and non-vintage. Vintage Armagnacs are distilled from grapes grown in a single year, with the date displayed on the bottle. Non-vintage Armagnacs can either be labelled by age, where the number of years quoted relates to the youngest component of the blend or by category: VS (minimum two years in wood), VSOP (at least four years), XO (more than six years) or Hors d’Age (10 years plus).
ARMAGNAC VS COGNAC
Armagnac and Cognac are both grape brandies, but are produced in different regions of France. Cognac must be made in the Charente and Charente-Maritime départements to the north of Bordeaux, whereas Armagnac comes from the Gascony region south of the city. Armagnac is almost always distilled only once, rather than the double distillation of its northern counterpart. This leads to Armagnac having a more robust flavour profile and body, and is one of the reasons why it is usually aged for longer before release than Cognac, as more time is needed to allow the flavours to integrate and to remove the impurities that remain from the distillation process. Armagnac production today remains largely in the hands of small producers, rather than the big brands prevalent in Cognac.