The south west of France has always been a land of passage and trade: the Romans introduced the vine (la vigne), the Arabs the still (l’alembic armagnacais) and the Celts the barrel (la barrique). This is how the oldest recorded distilled wine in France came about. There are even documents citing the Armagnac as early as the beginning of the 14th century.
This weekend, la Fête de l’Armagnac celebrates the continuous distillation process in a wood-fired copper alembic that reduces and transforms the generally acidic white wine, generally low in alcohol, into a clear liquor of high alcohol degree, that will then be long aged in oak barrels, developing aromas, changing color and reducing the alcohol concentration.
The Armagnac region covers three landlocked departments of the South West of France known as Gascony: the Gers, the Landes and Lot et Garonne. The vines grow with a certain degree of continental weather, in fine quartz sands, riverbed sediments and siliceous clay
Armagnac still falls under smaller, family-sized production and it is mainly consumed within France: historically, the producers of more famous Cognac enjoyed an easier access to international trade, being in Charente, at the very end of the estuary of the Gironde. While here, the commerce started only in the 15th century, but remained largely limited to nearby trade centers, as the markets of Saint-Sever, Mont-de-Marsan, and Aire-sur-l’Adour.
It was thanks to Dutch merchants of the 18th century, familiar with the region, that trading started internationally: the law said that the only wine that could be transported over the Garonne and the estuary of the Gironde was the wine of Bordeaux. The Dutch traders found in the distilled Armagnac a way to contour the law. Moreover, the reduced volumes made storage and transportation in barrels easier, and they could sell in the rich northern European countries low quality wines that were enriched with more tasty Armagnac.
The commerce flourished through the second half of the 19th century, when the pest phylloxéra started attacking grape vines throughout Europe. At first this was a period of great success for Armagnac as demand grew while the Cognac region suffered from phylloxera first, until it eventually arrived south. The crisis followed with a loss of ¾ of the 100,000 hectares of Armagnac vines. The eve of the 20th century marked the rebirth of production with the introduction of a new American-hybrid root stock, consolidated first by the creation of the appellation (1909) and then, less than 30 years later, of the AOC status (1936).
This weekend is an opportunity to travel to the charming village of Labastide d’Armagnac for the Armagnac en fete just an hour and half from Bordeaux. Come to discover a less known region, with a varied landscapes, small villages, rich gastronomy, and friendly people.
By Simona PALENGA – guide and travel planner at Aquitaine Travel Guide firstname.lastname@example.org