A recent post on Floc de Gascogne and Armagnac prompted some enquiries about the difference between Armagnac and Cognac – and indeed French Brandy.
First and foremost, both Armagnac and Cognac are “Appellation Controllee” which means that any product carrying the name has to come from a defined geographic area, and be made according to strict rules to ensure conformity and quality. For Armagnac this is an area on the Southwest of France mainly in the Gers and Gascony, between Bordeaux and the Landes forests and the Pyrenees. Cognac is made further north of Bordeaux around the Charentes river. The grape varieties used tend to be different, but the other distinguising feature of Armagnac is that it is produced using a continuous still process. This tends to yield a spirit which is richer in aroma-containing impurities – it is after all the impurities which give a brandy character. Hence Armagnac tends to be more “fragrant” than Cognac, although Cognac will tend to be more elegant and cleaner in taste.
In truth it is difficult to claim that one is better than the other – they are different in style and I have favourites in both styles.
There is also a difference in the history. Cognac was largely developed by entrepreneurs – Hennessy (Irish), Courvoisier, Remy Martin, Martell for example – names which are big brands in themselves. In Armagnac however, production was and is a more rural artisan affair – small producers spread over quite a large geographical area – so there are few big brands of Armagnac.
French brandy however can be produced anywhere in France, and is applied to any grape-based spirit distilled from wine. These tend to be less refined, but cheaper and depending on the need (e.g. for cooking or cocktails) they can be great value for money.
For Armagnac I would recommend Domaine de Lauroux at Manciet (32 Gers, Midi-Pyrenees) or see our earlier article on Floc de Gascogne & Armagnac
For Cognac, I would recommend Maison Deau at St Andre de Lidon (17 Charente-Maritime, Poitou-Charentes) – they also have a small museum and a wonderful botanic garden and glasshouse.