Thu, Dec 04, 2014 - Page 12 News List

‘Mysterious alchemy

France’s itinerant distillers good to the last drop

By Laurent Abadie  /  AFP, Perquie

An employee of Marc Saint-Martin, a wine grower and an itinerant Armagnac home distiller, tastes the Armagnac from a still in a room of the Ravignan Castle in Perquie, southwestern France.
Warning: Excessive consumption of alcohol can damage your health.

Photo: AFP/ Nicolas Tucat

It’s a scene which has been repeated for centuries in the rolling wooded hills of Gascony.

As the autumn chill sets in and trees and vines turn a coppery yellow, itinerant distillers load up their stills and set to work transforming the region’s fragrant white wines into Armagnac, France’s oldest — and for many — finest brandy.

Marc Saint-Martin has never been as busy, nor has his order book been as full.

Yet he is one of the last of a dying breed, one of only three remaining traveling distillers left in the Armagnac region of southwestern France.

From October to January, Saint-Martin — a winemaker himself — drags his 100-year-old copper still around the region on the back of his tractor, setting up his wood-fired alembic everywhere from humble barns to the keeps and courtyards of its many chateaux.

Then his team work night and day for two or three days to turn the wine from a blend of Ugni blanc, Colombard and Folle blanche (crazy white) grapes into a white spirit that is at least 53 percent alcohol.

It’s as much art as science, with Saint-Martin often trusting a hand placed on the copper of the boiler as much as the thermometer.

The chemistry is simple. The wine is converted into steam, and then cooled to form the brandy.

The reality of the process is altogether more “fiddly,” Saint-Martin says in his singing Gascon accent, with the heat coming from a wood fire. “You have to heat it enough, but not too much, and make sure that enough wine is going in, but not too much.”

Even the weather can play a part, he says, as he stokes the fire on a damp day at the Chateau of Ravignan at Perquie in the Landes department, where Armagnac has been made since the 18th century.


A fourth-generation distiller himself, Saint-Martin says Armagnac’s great particularity is “it’s continuous distillation. That means wine has to come into the still non-stop, with Armagnac coming out the other side all the time as well. So it needs to be monitored all the time, 24 hours a day” by him and his beret-wearing assistant — Gascony being also one of the last fortresses of the most French of hats.

At Ravignan they keep the fire burning for two and a half days, as they distill 26,000 liters of wine down to 5,000 liters of Armagnac.

Although the clear distilled liquid is already Armagnac, it takes at least 10 to 12 years of aging before it becomes the finished product, with its deep amber color.

By then connoisseurs claim that it is more fragrant and flavorsome than Cognac, the rival brandy to the north, which is double distilled.

The really mysterious alchemy takes place during its storage in 400-liter oak barrels, where the Armagnac takes on its characteristic aromas of quince, prune, hazelnut and orange.

Part of the alcohol also evaporates as it ages (known as “the angels’ share”), and more complex flavors also appear with oxidation.

At Ravignan the barrels are made from oak cut from the chateau’s own estates.

In the end, however, it is all about patience.

“You can sell Armagnac after only three years but we keep it for 10 to 12 years in our oak barrels,” said winemaker Anne-Laurence Boubee de Gramont, whose aristocratic family owns the estate. “Unlike a wine Armagnac does not develop in the bottle, but will keep the taste, color and aroma it had on the day it was bottled.”

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