Each fall, in the rolling green hills of what was once known as Gascony in southwestern France, where ducks outnumber people by 200 to 1, a special celebration takes place. It’s been happening for over 700 years in what are now the Gers and the Landes departments. Many of the hills are covered in white grape vines, and the wine from these grapes goes into France’s oldest brandy (predating Cognac by a good three centuries).
All over the region you’ll find flames being lit in the alambic stills that will transform this young wine into the Armagnac spirit that was originally used for medicinal properties. Armagnac production does seem to be some sort of alchemical magic. Many of the alambics have been in use for more than a century. They’re more function-than-form, with their copper and bronze pipes, and bits of iron plate soldered and welded into a Willie-Wonkish, twin-tower assembly. Wine is fed by gravity into one tank tower, while a wood-or-gas-fired broiler heats the other tower. Through a system of tubes and plates, the wine is heated into an alcohol vapor, infused with the wine’s aroma, and then returned to the first tank to liquefy, before dripping into an oak barrel. Watching the production of this eau de vie is akin to a Krispy Kreme doughnut machine taking raw dough in one side and spitting out sugar-clad rings out the other.
Distilling is a long, lonely process, going on day and night for sometimes several weeks. The quality of the Armagnac depends on keeping the alambic at a constant temperature by continually adjusting the flow of the cool wine and the heat of the boiler. To liven the mood during distilling, it’s traditional to invite family and friends to the distillation chai for a gastronomic feast. The Domaine de Rébert, a Bas Armagnac producer in Monguilhem, a small village on the border of the Gers and the Landes, is one of the increasing number of properties that allow the public to partake in these feasts.
Up to 75 people journeyed to the domaine on several weekends in November for a special lunch and dinner. Some came from afar, like the two couples who drove six hours from Brittany. Others obviously don’t regularly visit a vineyard, or they wouldn’t have worn their best shoes, which will probably never look the same after sloshing through the muddy courtyard to enter the chai where the rough wooden tables were set up in front of the alambic.
But it was worth the effort when foie gras and duck confit from the farm next door, sautéed duck-gizzard salad with walnut vinaigrette, fresh cheese from the nearby Pyrenees, and a sublime apple tart dosed with Armagnac are on the menu. Red wine from the Saint Mont wine region, on the lower slopes of the Pyrenean foothills, accompanied each dish.
The Domaine de Rébert has Armagnac millésimes back to 1936, with the de Saint Pastou family tracing its farm origins to before the French Revolution. Jacques-Henry de Saint Pastou, the family patriarch, spent most of the lunch getting up every five minutes to check the temperature of the alambic that he had purchased the year before the birth of his oldest son, Hughes. Jacques-Henry’s youngest son, Pierre, in his mid-30s, spends most of these Armagnac distillation meals dancing and singing in the space between the alambic and the tables. His repertoire of French classics, inter-spaced with a mix of Gascony drinking songs, has the crowd bouncing on the wooden benches.
Eat your heart out Rémy Martin. It’s this authenticity that makes Armagnac, in my mind, the most authentic brandy in France.
The Bureau National Interprofessionel de l’Armagnac (BNIA) has information about “La Flamme de l’Armagnac” events (named for the “flames” in the alambics), including lunches and dinners organized by Armagnac producers between October and January each year. See their website for information.