Armagnac is a distinctive kind of brandy produced in the Armagnac region in Gascony, southwest France. It is distilled from wine usually made from a blend of grapes including Baco 22A, Colombard, Folle blanche and Ugni blanc, traditionally using column stills rather than the pot stills used in the production of cognac. The resulting spirit is then aged in oak barrels before release. Production is overseen by the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO) and the Bureau National Interprofessionel de l’Armagnac (BNIA).
Armagnac was one of the first areas in France to begin distilling spirits, but the overall volume of production is far smaller than cognac production and therefore is less known outside Europe. In addition, it is for the most part made and sold by small producers, whereas cognac production is dominated by big-name brands.
Cognac is a variety of brandy named after the town of Cognac, France. It is produced in the surrounding wine-growing region in the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime.
Cognac production falls under French Appellation d’origine contrôlée designation, with production methods and naming required to meet certain legal requirements. Among the specified grapes Ugni blanc, known locally as Saint-Emilion, is most widely used. The brandy must be twice distilled in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais. Cognac matures in the same way as whiskies and wine barrel age, and most cognacs spend considerably longer “on the wood” than the minimum legal requirement.
A traditional age grading system, although its use is unregulated outside of Cognac and Armagnac. These indicators can usually be found on the label near the brand name:
V.S. (“very special”) or ✯✯✯ (three stars) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in a cask.
V.S.O.P. (“very superior old pale”), Reserve or ✯✯✯✯✯ (five stars) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least four years in a cask.
XO (“extra old”) or Napoléon designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years.
Hors d’âge (“beyond age”) is a designation which is formally equal to XO for Cognac, but for Armagnac designates brandy that is at least ten years old. In practice the term is used by producers to market a high-quality product beyond the official age scale.