To launch the beginning of Amathus Drinks monthly master classes, they invited the only Armagnac house in the world that has been awarded ‘World Class Distillery’ for the last 3 years – Chateau de Laubade Bas Armagnac (CLBA). The class was held in their Soho based store in the heart of London and I was lucky enough to attend!!
The owner, Denis Lesgourgues, of CLBA was our ‘tutor’ for the evening and I must say he did well. In the hour or so that the class went for he covered everything from what Armagnac is to why it shouldn’t be confused with Cognac to the history and current going’s on at CLBA. Plus of course we got to try not 1 but 6 different Armagnacs from their range.
During the WSET courses I have learnt previously about Armagnac and having tried a few I’m not a newbie but I don’t know a lot about it either which is great because the class suits beginners to professionals. I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Armagnac was produced in 1310, that means it was made way before Cognac and Scotch whisky. It’s believed that the Romans brought the vines, the Arabs the stills and the Celts the barrels. So much history!
There are 4 main differences between Armagnac and Cognac, those being; the location, the grapes used, the distillation processes and sort of oak used for the barrel ageing. Armagnac is made in the heart of Gascony and it can only be produced in this area otherwise it cannot be called Armagnac. The ‘Bas’ in the name is the sub region where CLBA Armagnacs come from. The grapes grown in this area designated as Armagnac are: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Baco and Colombard. The sandy soil in Armagnac is well suited to these grapes and come harvest time the grapes are picked and made into a white wine. This is not a fancy white wine; actually it sounds quite horrible – high acidity and low alcohol. It’s these components, which are surprisingly a good base for Armagnac.
After the base wines are produced the different varieties are distilled (only once, not two like Cognac) at the perfect temperature for that variety. Some heads and tails are left however the minimum of 18 months ageing in new oak barrels kills off any bad traits in the now distilled spirit. The ageing elixirs are then placed in one of CLBA’s 7 cellars (the main reason for having 7 cellars is incase of fire risk, no one would want to lose their whole inventory in one flaming mess!). However if you are visiting CLBA the room you need to look out for is called ‘Le Paradis’ (the paradise) – this is where all the pre-1930 Armagnac’s are stored and are under strict lock and key with only the cellar master and Denis’s Grandfather knowing the codes.
So that’s enough about how Armagnac came into this world, what I more enjoyed hearing about what the Chateau itself, how did it come to be and why is it unlike other Armagnac producers.
CLBA was first on the grid in 1870, however I will skip a few years up until 1974 as that is when the Lesgourgues took over the property. They currently have 103 hectares of wines and Denis admitted that they have a soft spot for growing the Baco grape especially and that reminds me that they are in fact the largest Baco producer in the whole region. The story behind the Baco grape is that it came from a French teacher who in the early 20th century set out on a grape quest to find the perfect grape for distilled products. Mr. Baco eventually found one that brings good structure and is the essential backbone to the most prestigious and older vintages of Armagnac and naturally he called in Baco 22A (row 22, vine A).
Since we are along the line of what sets CLBA apart from other producers, the main highlight for me was hearing that they employ sustainable agricultural methods such as weather machines, planting oak trees for future coopers (by future, I mean 250 years from now!) and using a shepherd (who has since swapped his daily scotch drinking to Armagnac) to scatter 400-600 ewes amongst the vines each year from October to May to produce the necessary fertilizer. Fantastic work!
I truly could go on and on about this fantastic producer but I am going to have to cut you off and give you a few quick notes on what we tried;
1. Signature 40% abv: Floral, fruity (citrus) with a smooth vanilla mouth feel. This baby can even make some great cocktails apparently!
2. VSOP 40% abv: Baked plums, orange peel and a citrus sprinkled vanilla finish.
3. XO 40% abv: 30 different blends in this one, which range from 15-25 years old. Brown sugar, spice and biscotti.
4. Extra 40% abv: The youngest vintage that when in to this one was 1978, the blends range from 32-40 years old. Super smooth; spice, nuts & candied fruits.
5. 1994 Vintage 40%abv: A real explosion of flavours however round and smooth with a strong note of licorice.
6. 1982 Vintage 40%abv: A real thick golden syrup colour, alongside the 1974 this is one of the top Armagnac vintages. Full flavours of licorice, orange peel & a smooth biscotti note. It definitely has those ageing aromas, which is understandable after spending 29 years in an oak barrel!
Needless to say this was a great tasting to do in the middle of a British winter – i was sure warm by the end of it. Even better was that we had some gorgeous 65% cacao chocolate from Papa New Guinea made by the guys at Paul.a.Young to match with the tipples, it went extremely well with the VSOP – the only thing missing was an overly large bubble bath all to myself.. Oh and maybe a cigar (got to do it properly!).
For more details on Amathus Drinks future masterclass, please click here.