Over the past several years, the BNIA (Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac), the professional organization made up of armagnac producers, cooperatives, negociants and brokers, has been working to modernize the image of France’s oldest brandy. I admit a preference for the mud-on-the-boots, dirt-under-the-fingernails grandfatherly (and occasionally grandmotherly) producers who sell armagnac from their kitchens. But I can understand that this organization charged with promoting armagnac gets tired of hearing that more cognac evaporates each year than the amount of Armagnac sold annually.
The BNIA is using “Armagnac Ambassadors” to increase its visibility in key markets. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several from the U.S.A., and I can attest to their professionalism and enthusiasm for armagnac. The oenologist and traditionalist in me, however, is more attracted to bottles of old armagnac millesimes and armagnac made from single-variety grapes, such as Folle Blanche and Baco, but I realize that my interests, in marketing terminology, are relatively rare and old, and that the next-generation of spirit drinkers are looking for something new. Which is, in my usual manner, a long explanation of why I found myself in late-December in the cellar of a trendy, Toulouse wine shop as part of an “Armagnac Week” sponsored by the BNIA. It’s also a good excuse to share what is best described as the start of my food-armagnac porn photo collection.
In descending the stairs into the aforementioned cellar, the most obvious sign that the mention of the word terroir would not be a part of this marketing effort was the pastel lighting. Best described as a pink-violet aura, this lighting only made sense if you understand that Toulouse is known, in France, as “La Ville Rose” because of the pinkish-colored bricks in many of its buildings, and the recent creation, using the scent of violets (the flower is the emblem of the city of Toulouse), of the “Cocktail Violeta.” The recipe for this cocktail, which is made from Blanche Armagnac (a fruity, floral, unoaked clear brandy that ages for just three months in stainless steel tanks after distillation) is below–in French. This shaken, not stirred, cocktail also contains violet-flavored liqueur, ginger and sirop d’orgeat (barley water).
The other indication that the BNIA’s new target audience is no longer the Gentlemen’s-Club, cigar-chomping, after-dinner-brandy crowd was the menu given out at the Saturday afternoon “Armagnac Week” lunch that I attended. This tasting menu matched southwestern France specialties, such as foie gras, duck, jambon noir de Bigorre (black pig from the Central Pyrenees region of the same name), and chicken from the Gers department, which includes the majority of the Armagnac region, with different armagnacs.
The foie gras starter was matched with a VSOP armagnac (five-years-old), followed by a risotto-with-asparagus dish and smoked salmon that was accompanied by a Blanche Armagnac from Domaine de Bilé. Other dishes, including the black pig on a bed of creamed celery root and a well-aged Roquefort cheese, showed the food-friendly flavors of white armagnac. A Domaine de Joy VSOP demonstrated why this category of armagnac goes well with sweet and savory elements combined in the same dish, in this case a sweet potato and duck confit shepherd’s pie.
A 1980 millesime Vignobles Fontan armagnac paired with macaroons from what is reputed to be Toulouse’s finest pastry shop, Le Poussin Bleu, showed how aged armagnac, with its complex array of attractive aromas of figs and candied prunes, and successive savors of caramel, ripe pears, and cocoa, can make a delicious dessert even better.
Even though the Cocktail Violeta didn’t alter my belief that this aroma is best left in violets; I’ve run too many times through the Toulouse airport gagging from the odors emitted from its multiple Violette Boutiques filled with soaps, perfumes, liqueurs, sweets, macaroons, and scented-bag sachets meant to make your clothes, cars and cupboards smell like a mountain meadow. And the cocktail arena, in my opinion, is best left to the vodka, whiskey, tequila, rum, gin crowd. Armagnac, to me, is best left undiluted and unadulterated. Although, having written this, I still might purchase a bottle of Blanche Armagnac to share with friends when we prepare a meal with a salmon or trout dish, or a really ripe bleu cheese. But I’m still going to save a bottle of old vintage armagnac to enjoy after the meal. And whether or not the others get a taste will hinge on a simple question: How do you feel about violets?