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Twenty-two Basque musicians drumming, tweeting and tooting, six Gascon culinary specialties for tasting, five wines for drinking, one golden Armagnac for savoring…
This was the Gasconized version of that popular Christmas carol that was playing silently in my mind as I took part in a centuries-old custom, the lighting of the alembic “still pot” used to distill Armagnac made in the historic Gascony region in France’s southwest. Armagnac, which celebrated its 700th anniversary in 2010, is France’s oldest brandy. Although less well known than Cognac, Armagnac is appreciated by brandy enthusiasts for its distinctive, rustic aromatic flavors. It’s more artisanal than Cognac, which often seems, in comparison to the complex uniqueness of an excellent vintage Armagnac, to be a one-dimensional, standardized spirit.
Armagnac reflects the Gers department where most of it is made. This is one of the least densely populated and rural areas in Western Europe—look for it south of Bordeaux. Many Armagnac producers are farmers who practice polyculture agriculture. In addition to cows and sheep, these small farms often raise chickens and the ducks that produce foie gras, another of the department’s well known delicacies. Their fields are filled with cereals and corn, and the yellow rapeseed flowers (colza), whose black seeds give us rapeseed, or canola, oil. These small-holding farmers would often have several 400-420-liter oak barrels, known as une pièce armagnacaise, in a chai (the above-ground buildings used to age wine or brandy). These Armagnac barrels, which were left to age for up to 40 years, were thought of as a sort of bank account. The Armagnac would be sold when the farmer needed funds for a wedding, for new farm equipment or a car, or for an extension on the family house.
On the other end of the Armagnac producer spectrum are centuries-old châteaux, many of which have been producing Armagnac for generations. The alembic-lighting ceremony that I attended at the Château de Laubade in mid-November was at such a place. Founded in 1870 in the heart of Gascony’s finest Armagnac-producing area—the Bas Armagnac, Château de Laubade is part of the Lesgourgues family of wine properties that also includes prestigious estates in Bordeaux, Graves, Madiran and Uruguay. Maurice Lesgourgues purchased the 120-hectare (almost 300-acre) Bas Armagnac property in 1974. At that time, the property only had 40 hectares of vines (around 100 acres). His son, Jean–Jacques Lesgourgues, deciding to orient the property totally towards Armagnac, planted the Ugni Blanc, Baco, Colombard and Folle Blanche vines that are used to produce the wine that is distilled into Àrmagnac. It is now one of the world’s largest producers of Armagnac, with 105 hectares (260 acres) of vines, seven different chai that contain 2,800 barrels (over a 16-year supply, based on their yearly Armagnac sales), and the recipient of numerous international spirits competition medals. In 2001, Lesgourgues passed on the operation of his company to his five children. It’s currently run by two of them, Arnaud and Denis Lesgourgues.
Armagnac distillation at the Château de Laubade takes place from October 20 to December 15. Four distillers, working in shifts around the clock, distill 720 hectoliters (7,200 liters) of eau de vie alcohol. This eau de vie, which is between 52% and 60% alcohol (between 104 and 120 proof), is then placed in oak barrels for aging.
The festival to mark the debut of the distillation at Château de Laubade featured speeches from local dignitaries, a dinner of delicious, local specialties for the entire village and other guests in one of the property’s chais, and a 22-piece, wind-and-percussion Basques band.
Sitting in this candle-lit structure, surrounded by over 500 oak barrels, you can’t help but think that there is something divine about the creation of this legendary brandy. Legend has it that the Armagnac slowly evaporating from the barrels is “la part des anges” (“the angels’ share.”). Any angels present the night of the alembic-lighting festival didn’t get much sleep, as the party went on late into the night.
Following working as a journalist and then a communications career with high-tech start-ups in Silicon Valley and international companies such as Coca-Cola, Tom Fiorina dreams of having a vineyard in the Southwest of France, where he lives with his family in Toulouse. Until then, he’s content to blog about French wine and archetypical winemakers on his blog, The Vine Route.
Website: Château de Laubade