It’s not a proper review if it’s not from the Review region of France. Otherwise, it’s just sparkling whine.
Before I got into whiskey, I recall making light of the pretentious stereotype of a wine connoisseur: holding the special glass in a much-too-serious manner, carefully wafting aromas from the glass, and taking a thoughtful sip only to sarcastically claim “Yes, this is wine.”
Of course, now I feel differently. Although I’ve never really tried to appreciate wine, the ways we smell, taste, and even use specific glassware are just as prominent in whiskey tasting as they are wine. I’m sure the way I approach whiskey now would have drawn similar ire from younger me, but of course that’s alright, since I do this for my own fun, regardless of what jokes could be made.
The review I have for you today is – at least for me – an exciting crossover between whiskey and wine: Armagnac.
Armagnac (“ar-MIN-yak”) is a lesser-known cousin of Cognac, with both being French brandies distilled from wine and aged in oak barrels. Cognac is the spirit with a larger production, with brands such as Hennessy, Courvoisier, and Rémy Martin with broad recognition around the world. Armagnac may actually be the older of the two, with a history dating back over 700 years.
Much like bourbon, both Cognac and Armagnac must meet specific legal requirements to bear their name. The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) controls agricultural products that have origins with specific regional terroir such as wine (yes, Champagne), cheese, and other products. This is also why Champagne, Cognac, and Armagnac are capitalized; they refer to a specific place in the world just as much as they do the product itself.
The regional origins go further into the differences: Cognac is made from only one type of grape (called Ugni blanc) along the coast of western France, where wine is only produced for distillation. Armagnac, however, is made from up to 10 different varieties (including Ugni blanc) in a region 300 kilometers (180-ish miles, for those of us still using imperial measurements) to the south, where wines are made for tasting.
This particular Armagnac is the result of a collaborative barrel pick from a sizeable panel of some big names in bourbon social media led by Jay West (also known as T8ke), the head of the massive reddit group r/Bourbon. The final product was a blend of three vintages: 1993 Belair, 1986 Cassou, and 2008 Pouy. This was bottled at cask strength, which came out to be 102.6 proof. After listening to Jay, Wild Turkey expert and author David Jennings (RareBird101), and the other pros from the panel discuss it ahead of its release, I bought this bottle for $150 through Seelbach’s.
If you’re like me, the prominent “XO” may draw your curiosity. According to the official French website on this spirit, the “XO” designation is just a commercial denomination meaning “extra old” that signifies an age of at least ten years. That mark was far surpassed with the three vintages making up this brandy, of course. Did you see the vintage years? Over 85% of this bottle is well over 25 years old! A bourbon that age would taste like licking an oak stave, so I’m very curious how this is going to taste.
Before tasting, I want to lay out any preconceptions: this is my first experience with Armagnac; I’ve had one other opportunity to buy a bottle of it (as it just so happens, also a L’Encantada pick). I passed on it at the time, but from the local bourbon group I saw a lot of happy customers. I bought this with a good deal of interest, but it won’t surprise me if this doesn’t appeal to my taste.
L’Encantada XO Armagnac “Aficionados & Friends” – Review
Color: Sunset orange.
On the nose: The first thing I notice is that it smells a lot more like wine than I expected. Even knowing it is made from wine, the color and oily legs made me forget that I wasn’t drinking bourbon at fist. This has decadent buttery notes that make me wonder what food would pair well with it. Continued nosing reveals butterscotch, honey, vanilla, and a grassy hay characteristic that reminds me of summer.
As an aside, I would be interested to hear what someone experienced with wines thinks of this or any Armagnac nose from a wine perspective. I wonder if there are notes that I may not be noticing?
In the mouth: Immediately a grape flavor, but in a mellow, almost warm sense. Herbal tea, apricot, a hint of cloves, and oak that is so subtle that it was downright flooring once I realized the age. If I had my eyes closed and you told me I was drinking a semi-sweet white wine, I might believe you and even guess it to be a Riesling. The proof here feels perfect. I often wonder what something could be like at a higher or lower proof, but I don’t think I could imagine this being any better in that regard. The finish is light, palate-forward, and long. As I write this, I finished the last of my dram nearly five minutes ago and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Consider me the newest member of the Armagnac fan club. Overall, this is extremely pleasant and something I am going to enjoy having on my home bar. The price tag at $150 is a little high for my usual preferences, but I could easily see this as a permanent fixture in my collection going forward. I plan on taking my time with it and maybe seeing what else I can find out there.
If you’re ever presented with an opportunity to buy an Armagnac, I would recommend it. As primarily a bourbon drinker, this is just different enough from my typical choices to be exciting but without being off-putting or harsh in any way that other spirits can be at first.
This has been a delightful first experience for me and, from what I can gather from other palates I trust, this is an all-around great example of Armagnac. Even with price considered, I am inclined to score this among the highest spirits I’ve reviewed.
Photo courtesy of Jay West.