Brandy showdown: Cognac vs. Armagnac

There s nothing quite like sitting back after a meal or on a cool evening and nursing a brandy. Two of the most popular in the world happen to be from France. They re Cognac and Armagnac. However, they differ somewhat. Here’s how.

Both are produced in southwest France: Cognac in a region north of Bordeaux and Armagnac in an area south of Bordeaux. Both utilize mainly the Ugni Blanc grape (known in Italy as Trebbiano), along with Folle Blanche and Colombard to a lesser degree. They re both made by distilling white wine made from these grapes, and are aged in oak casks and often blended to ensure consistent quality.

The Cognac region is split into six delimited zones, five of which are known as  ‘crus’ and deemed to be the best. They are Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne (nothing to do with the Champagne region in northern France), Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Boisand, and a sixth non-cru, Bois Ordinaires. Armagnac is slightly simpler with only three crus: Bas Armagnac, Tenareze, and Haut-Armagnac.

Distillation is very different. Cognac is traditionally double distilled in a Charentais Pot still. This copper kettle, as it were, heats the wine to a steam and condenses it back to a milky liquid. Armagnac, on the other hand, is single-distilled in an Alambic Armagnacais still, or single-column still, and the process is continuous. Both spirits come off the still at anywhere between 60 to 70 per cent alcohol.

Maturation and blending also differ slightly. Cognac is usually aged in oak barrels made from wood from the Limousin, Troncais and Allier forests. Armaganac utilizes Monzelun, Alsace and Limousin oak and more recently, Troncais. In both cases, the wood aging decreases volume, reduces alcohol, softens the flavour and adds colour and tannin. During maturation of both spirits, some brandy evaporates and feeds a black fungus that coats the maturation environment. This is known as ‘the  Angels’  Share’. Before bottling, both are further reduced to 40 per cent alcohol by volume, by the addition of distilled water.

As for Age Classifications of these distillates, both Cognac and Armagnac use the same terminology to determine their age.  VS or *** – a minimum age of one year for Armagnac, two for Cognac. VSOP – a minimum of four years old for both. XO – a minimum of six years for Cognac, five years for Armagnac. Note that classifications terms like XO and Hor d’Age are more marketing tools with the chance that there are older brandies present, but there is no set rule.

Hollywood and TV often depict folks sipping brandies out of a large snifter . Ideally, they should be consumed out of a small snifter or tulip-shaped glass. This way the heat from one’s hand does not speed up evaporation of the spirit, thus making the alcohol more aggressive. It also allows the complexity to emanate out of the glass slower.

The taste is similar and different. In both, nuances of nuts, dates, figs, other dried fruits, toast, caramel and smoke in older aged versions can be found. Because of the single distillation in a column still, more upfront aromatics are maintained in Armagnac, resulting in a fruitier brandy with a richer nose and more body. Cognac, because of its Pot still distillation, develops more subtle complexity and flavours. Cognac will also live and age longer than Armagnac. The older the brandy, generally the smoother the taste! However, some that spend a long time in barrel can become too woody.

If you like Cognac or Armagnac, there are two aperitifs made from these in their specific regions. In Cognac, fresh, unfermented grape juice is mixed with the local grape spirit to create Pineau des Charentes. In Armagnac, fresh, unfermented grape juice is mixed with its namesake to produce Floc de Gascogne.

Edward Finstein, a.k.a. The Wine Doctor, is a wine writer, educator, judge &  consultant

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