26 May Armagnac Anxiety
We may have gotten through Wine 101, and we’re even getting a little cocky about beer and whisky, but show Americans a bottle of brandy and our old-world inferiority complex comes roaring back to life.
Two of my close friends have a thing for Armagnac, maybe because one grew up in France. Regardless, when I was invited to an Armagnac tasting with Domaine D’Espérance, I decided to check it out. When I am in a liquor store looking for something to bring to dinner with these friends, I always browse through the Armagnac, but what I really know about brandy is as shallow as the miniscule selection in most stores, and I’m probably wrong anyway.
The very unassuming Nicolas Palazzi greeted me warmly as his distributor silently observed. I asked him how I should choose between the three bottles displayed. Nicolas asked me with a moderated French accent what I usually drink, and then explained his suggestion. (His explanation was in excellent English, though he clearly worried over it.) There was a white, a 5-year, and a 10-year. I expected to like the white best and 10-year least, kind of the way my taste runs with Rye. The experience was quite the opposite.
This brand’s family also makes wine (as does Nicolas’s family). Their grapes are used to make both products, one distilled and one fermented. Nicolas explained that due to low volumes, family farms must also make wine to stay in business while the aged spirits mature. This led to asking whether the Armagnac he brought was something exceptional, and what bar owners should know about it. Very casually he replied that there are hundreds of brandies being made and mostly nobody knows anything about them. Many of them are very interesting, but due to broad lack of familiarity with brandy and its varieties, the public continues to avoid seeking a new experience. And with almost no effort on the part of producers to educate, volumes remain very small.
There are big producers of Cognac and Brandy whose names we recognize, but they sell based on the brand name, not the type of spirit. This doesn’t help consumers develop a taste or an interest. So my final question to Nicolas asked what his company, PM Spirits, looks to accomplish with tastings. Was it supporting a bar that already carries their products? Was it to gain distribution? Yes and no.
Nicolas explained that not every family is lucky enough to have land where a bottle of wine automatically sells for 65 to 125 Euros. A Bordeaux where his family is from may never be marketed above 15 Euros no matter how good it actually is, simply because of geographical reputation. Not daunted by artificially imposed limits, Nicolas has become a quiet and patient explorer. His company in New York finds exceptional products with interesting stories. Then Nicolas puts on his sneakers and heads out into bars to demonstrate that there are undiscovered gems worth noticing. Though he laments a lack of nuanced English, his spark and passion is evident. And it seems that the joy he finds in his company is reinforced with each person he can patiently bring along through discovery.
So, two things to know. One, brandy is not all sweet (it often barely tastes like fruit after it has aged). And two, the 10-year Armagnac I tasted this evening could put to shame some whiskeys you may currently be very proud to enjoy.