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Armagnac

A form of grape brandy only made in an area of South-West France around the town of Condom. Most Armagnac is produced in the department of Gers.

The area of production was classified in law in 1909, so it controlled in much the same way as that of Cognac. There are various legalised sub-divisions - Bas Armagnac (produced on sandy soil stretching towards the Atlantic); Ténarèze (around the town of Condom); and Haut Armagnac (on chalky ground to the east). Of these, Bas Armagnac has the finest reputation, Ténarèze is light and matures fairly quickly; while Haut Armagnac is used locally or mainly as a base for other liqueurs.

The minimum age at which Armagnac can be sold is at one year; again this would be for local or blending consumption. Three star must be a minimum of two years old; VSOP four years; Extra or Hors d"Age at least five years old. Unlike Cognac, it is permissible for Armagnac vintages to be named after their respective years (say 1996). Bottles are also found labelled saying "ten years old" - these may well be a blend of different years, but the youngest may be no younger than ten years old. Generally speaking spirits will no longer improve in-the-wood after about 50 tears, in fact begin to go down; but once in glass they stabilise, and won't change.

The chief vines used are Picpoule, Saint Emilion, Jurançon and Plant de Grèce (also called Baco); while some older vineyards are planted with Folle Blanche, but this is out of favour for new plantings as it is not as sturdy as more recent varieties.

A degree in 1936 laid down that Armagnac must be made in a continuous still; this method of production means that its upper strength limit is confined to 63% alcohol, and most is about 10% less. Cognac, on the other hand, must be distilled twice, this produces a product of about 70% alcohol. Armagnac continuous stills are claimed to retain more of the characters of the original wine.

Partly for this reason many people believe that Armagnac is closer to its origins than its competitor Cognac; and due to soil conditions (sandy rather than chalky) and a more reliable climate, it is less smoothed out by blending than its more Northerly rival. It's also more natural in the way that no sugar needs to be added.

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