Armagnac is (probably) the oldest wine spirit in the world. The first written evidence of the drink was noted in 1310, scribed in Latin in the pages of a book entitled To Keep Your Health and Stay on Top Form. However, in complete contrast to Cognac, Armagnac remains difficult to find in many countries outside of France and is somewhat shrouded in mystery.
The following guide delves into the similarities between the two brandies and, most importantly, the many differences. For while they are, indeed, related, Armagnac and Cognac can at best be considered cousins—even if they are produced only a few hundred kilometers apart.
Armagnac vs. Cognac: An overview
Before we delve into the nitty gritty of the difference between Armagnac and Cognac, let’s first determine some very important similarities.
- Both Cognac and Armagnac are types of brandy
- Both are produced in France
- Both are made from grapes
- Both are aged in oak barrels
- Both can only carry the name if they’re produced in a specific region of France and are created in accordance with a strict set of rules
Looking at this we can see that the two spirits have much in common. However, there are many distinctions between the two—in fact, there’s far more distinguishing features than there are similarities. To understand these intricacies we have to look at each in more detail.
Armagnac vs. Cognac: Where are they produced?
While both are produced in France, the area each comes from has some very significant differences.. One very important aspect is that, although the Cognac and Armagnac regions are only geographically separated by around 300km, the soil in the two areas is very different. That of Cognac is predominantly chalk, but in Armagnac the grapes grow in quartz sand, siliceous clay, and riverbed sediment.
This creates huge variety in the flavors of the grapes that grow there, and, indeed, the easiest varieties that best flourish.
Cognac is produced in South West France, in a wide-spread location north of the city of Bordeaux that covers much of the department of the Charente, the Charente-Maritime, and some small parts the Dordogne and Deux-Sèvres. We discuss more about the Cognac region and the growth areas (known as terroirs) in our article, The Six Crus of Cognac: Growth area and region.
Where is Armagnac Made?
Armagnac is also produced in South West France, but in a region known as the Pays de Gascogne. This is found west of the city of Toulouse and extends between the rivers of the Adour and the Garonne, in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. Although it covers an extensive landscape, there are only around 37,000 hectares of vineyards, from which around 6 million bottles of Armagnac are produced each year. (This is a drop in the ocean compared with more than 217 million bottles of Cognac produced in 2019).
Similar to the Cognac growth region, that of Armagnac is also divided into different terroirs. These number three (as opposed to Cognac’s six) and are called:
Most Armagnac is produced in Bas-Armagnac, where around 57% of all Armagnac comes from. 40% is made in Armagnac-Ténarèze and only 3% in Haut-Armagnac. Exactly as the soil and climate in each Cognac terroir impacts the flavors and aromas of the eau-de-vie it produces, this is also mirrored in the individual Armagnac terroirs.
Armagnac Grapes vs. Cognac Grapes
When it comes to Cognac, the most common grape in use today is the Ugni Blanc. However, as cellar masters push boundaries and vie to bring ever-eager consumers more choice and facets of aroma and flavors, we’re beginning to see other grape varieties entering the mainstream. These include Folle Blanche, Colombard, and Montils.
Armagnac, on the other hand, has historically utilized a wider combination of the fruit. The Ugni Blanc accounts for just over half of all Armagnac produced, followed by Baco (previously known as Baco 22A), Folle Blanche, and Colombard.
The Baco grape is an interesting one, being a hybrid of the Folle Blanche and Noah varieties. It was developed as a hardy grape following the devastation of European vineyards following the phylloxera crisis in the 19th century and named after its creator, Francois Baco. It’s the only hybrid grape allowed to be used in the production of Armagnac.
Other grapes are also permitted—making 10 types in total. Although rarely used today, Armagnac can also be produced from:
- Plant de Graisse
- Meslier Saint François
- Clairette de Gascogne
- Jurançon Blanc
- Mauzac Blanc
- Mauzac Rosé
The Armagnac Production Process
By far the most important aspect to understand about Armagnac production is that in 95% of cases it is only distilled a single time (Cognac is double distilled). This takes place no later than the 31st of March following the previous summer’s harvest.
The stills used to carry out the distillation are different from those used for Cognac. Rather than using the pot still, eau-de-vie destined to become Armagnac is distilled using a continuous column still, known as an Armagnac alambic. This allows the spirit to be distilled at a far lower alcohol content range than that of Cognac (52 degrees – 72.4 degrees, as opposed to a minimum of around 67 degrees). This leads to the distinctly rustic flavor of Armagnac, as well as a difference in texture. Armagnac is much thicker than Cognac—a little like vodka from the freezer has a different mouthfeel to that sipped at room temperature.
Another interesting fact is that many Armagnac producers don’t have their own stills. Instead they utilize the services of traveling alambics. These travel from producer to producer, with many of them still using wood fires to produce the heat needed for the process.
The distillation process is cause for much celebration for the farms and local communities. From the end of October to the end of January (when most distillation takes place) is known as La Flamme de L’Armagnac, a time of a variety of festivals and events throughout the whole Armagnac region.
Barrels, Maturation, and Aeration
Cognac is, for the most part, aged in Limousin oak barrels. Armagnac also languishes in barrels, but there are significant differences that should be noted.
Typically it begins the process in new barrels for anywhere from six months to two years. These barrels are usually 400 liters in size. After this relatively short period the eau-de-vie is transferred into older barrels. This is done to prevent tannins and the wood extract of the new barrels from dominating the finished product.
Similar to Cognac, the favored oak is that from the Limousin or Troncais forests. However, some producers choose to use black oak from the Gascon region. While brandies aged in these barrels become very intense and fruity, a diminishing supply of the wood means the use is becoming less common.
Aeration: Unique to Armagnac
The process of aeration is something that doesn’t happen during the Cognac process. Armagnac producers often move the spirit during maturation. This involves emptying it into a tank and pumping it back into either the same barrel or a different one. This could be an even older barrel, done to reduce the amount of tannins being imparted into the liquid. If the producer considers the brandy to be too aggressive then water might also be added at this time.
Once the aging process is complete it’s common for Armagnac to be transferred from the barrel into Dame Jeanne/Demijohn glass bottles, or even steel tanks.
Armagnac vs. Cognac: The legalities
Both Armagnac and Cognac have strict rules as to where they’re produced, the distillation process, and other legalities. Both were granted AOC status in 1936 (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), which gives both brandies the legal right to the sole use of their respective names.
The BNIC is the ruling body for Cognac (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac) and for Armagnac it’s the BNIA (Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac)
The classifications used to describe the age of Armagnacs are similar to those of Cognac, but they have distinct differences.
- A VS or ***: Has been aged for a minimum of one year
- VSOP: Aged for a minimum of four years
- Napoleon & XO: Aged for a minimum of six years
- Hors d’Age: Aged for a minimum of 10 years
- Vintage: Aged for a minimum of 10 years and will have the year of the harvest displayed on the label.
It’s very common for Armagnacs to be of a particular vintage—much more so than that of Cognac.
Sales & Marketing: A world apart
Cognac, as you’re undoubtedly aware, has massive global appeal. Much of this is due to the might of big house advertising, such as that from Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell, and Courvoisier. The mid-sized houses also advertise aggressively, pushing their wares into countries all around the globe.
The world of Armagnac is very different. There are no major houses, no multi-million dollar marketing budgets, and certainly no industrial-level production. The largest of all Armagnac houses is Maison Janneau, based in the town of Condom in the Gers. Other brands of note include Chateau de Tariquet, Duc Moisans, and Chateau de Laubade.
While Armagnac isn’t commonly found in many other countries it is exported—mainly to China and Russia. Around 50% of the spirit is kept for local and national enjoyment, as opposed to that of Cognac, where 95% is exported.
Does Armagnac Taste Different to Cognac?
The resounding answer to this is yes. While they are both brandies, the different soils, distillation, and production processes instill a very different character into each drink. The small scale production of Armagnac means that there are dramatic variations from one distiller to another—even in those who might have neighboring vines.
The best way to describe the nuances of Armagnac is that it’s bold, complex, and robust–with a spectrum of aromas and flavors that range from light through to the heaviest of chocolate and dark fruit tones. It feels thicker on the mouth than Cognac and pairs very well with the rich foods of the regions (duck, truffles, foie gras, etc.).
Armagnac and Cognac both share genetic similarities but certainly don’t offer the same tasting experience. The only way to discover the wonderful nuances of the spirit is to try it—and it’s something we highly recommend.
How to Buy Armagnac When you Don’t Live in France
As you can see, the difference between Armagnac and Cognac is pretty distinctive—even through the two share much of their genetic makeup, they are two very different products. While most definitely homologous, the spirits aren’t quite close enough to be considered siblings—we think the term ‘cousins’ is a more accurate description.
Of course, the ultimate method of discovering the individual nuances of each is through taste. While Armagnac is typically challenging to purchase for those living outside of the Pays de Gascogne region of South West France, we at Cognac Expert are delighted to be able to ship a hand-picked selection to you, whatever country you reside in.
Find out more on our dedicated Armagnac page, where you can further discover intricacies about the spirit and purchase a bottle or two for your own home taste-test.
In Conclusion: The main differences between Armagnac and Cognac
The most important takeaways when it comes to understanding the similarities between the two and how Armagnac and Cognac differ are as follows:
- They are both brandies produced in South West France
- Cognac is double distilled, Armagnac is single distilled
- The process of aeration is often carried out during the maturation of Armagnac
- Far more Cognac is produced than Armagnac (217 million bottles vs. 6 million bottles in 2019).
- Both have AOC status and their own ruling bodies
- Cognac has a global presence. Armagnac is not so commonly found outside of France
- Armagnac is commonly bottled and labeled according to its year of vintage
- There are no huge producers of Armagnac—most are small craft producers
We hope this has helped shine a light on the differences between Cognac and Armagnac. Have you tried much Armagnac? If so, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave us a comment below or head to our lively Facebook group, Cognac Lovers, where you can join in the discussion.