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Armagnac may not be as well known as its bigger brother, Cognac, throughout the world of brandy drinkers but but among afficionados it is appreciated for its greater sophistication and subtleness. Indeed, someone once said : ``Cognac is like a fresh young girl, but armagnac is like a woman of a certain age that you do not wish to take home to meet your mother.''
There is a hint too of romanticism about Armagnac. It is part of the world of Gascony, which also gave birth to those great adventurers of French literature, d'Artagnan and the three musketeers, who have captured the imagination of many generations even outside France, and - inevitably - Hollywood.
One reason for the relative obscurity of Armagnac is perhaps that with one exception it is still produced by myriad small `chais' which do not have the resources to commercialise it in the same way as the big names of Cognac.
One of the principal differences between Armagnac and Cognac is the system of distillation, the Alhambic. This has five to eight stages in the one distillation machine. The spirit that emerges at the end of the process is more complete, because it has kept those parts that are lost at the beginning and the end of simpler distillations. These fragrant esters impart to Armagnac a greater fruitiness, reminding the discerning connoisseur of the fruit from which the spirit came. The bouquet of a fine Armagnac has wonderful hints of prune and other fruits which are driven out in other eaux-de-vie.
This unusual distillation process has made possible another innovation: recent developments in the control of rot in grapes have meant that some Armagnac producers have been able to produce a single grape Armagnac - folle blanche - a magically scented spirit.
The Armagnac growing area is divided into three: Bas Armagnac, around Aire-sur-l'Adour and Eauze, which produces the most prestigious Armagnacs, the Ténarèze, (Nérac, Condom and Vic-Fezensac), which produces some highly perfumed spirits sometimes rather coarser, and the Haut Armagnac (Mirande, Auch and Lectoure) which produces very little Armagnac nowadays.
There are four main varieties of grape used mainly in Armagnac: folle blanche (known as gros plant elsewhere), colombard, ugni blanc and the baco. Once the spirit emerges from the alhambic (at anything between 52 and 72 degrees alcohol) it is stored in new oak barrels. Although the spirit takes the colour faster than cognac, the maturing process takes longer to round the raw spirit -at least five years.
FLOC DE GASCOGNE Faced with a slump in sales of spirits Armagnac producers started selling the aperitif Floc de Gascogne in the late 1970s. This is a ratafia, grape-juice matured with Armagnac, and comes as a white or red drink. Another aperitif is the Pousse-Rapière, a mixture of sparkling wine and armagnac, somewhat inspired by the legend of the Musketeers.
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