The older sibling of Cognac, Armagnac is not only most likely the oldest wine spirit in the world but also shares many similar characteristics with its family member. Such as both spirits being:
- types of brandies
- produced in France
- made from grapes
- aged in oak barrels
- carry the name of their growth region
Read more about it in-depth here.
The following is a direct side-by-side tasting with the mission to delve into the similarities and, most importantly, the many differences of Cognac and Armagnac.
Tiffon 1995 Fins Bois Cognac
Nose: On first pour, there is a youthful spirit nip. The Cognac needs air. After some quality air time comes oozy juicy golden raisins in syrup, tinned pears, caramelized pears, greengage plums, ginger, and what I’d consider just a general earthiness. I quite like the nose once it gets air; it’s spirit-y yet seems to be heavily focused on white fleshed fruits, raisins, and syrups.
There is something almost challenging to the nose, but I appreciate the sincerity of everything. Curiously enough, this is not the first medium age Fins Bois I’ve tasted that have these syrupy white fruits and other earthy qualities.
Palate: This Tiffon is extremely soft and cushioned, maybe too much so. Some tasters might desire a touch more structure. There is a very nice natural sweetness coming from the inherent fruitiness. As the nose gave away, the fruits were all raisins, tinned pears, applesauce, white fruit cup, ginger, and rhododendron honey – a fantastic honey, try it if you can find it.
This is more a Cognac of balance and finesse than one of flavor intensity and textural intensity. Thus far, this is a lovely Cognac – not an extroverted Cognac but more of an introspective one.
Finish: This finish is relatively straightforward, keeping with the soft quiet temperament of the Cognac from the nose and palate, which is a good thing – no split personalities here. The Cognac finishes with a light honey natural sweetness and a cooling anise or licorice note. Then it slowly fades away begging the taster for another sip.
The bottle improved as the level decreased.
I would love to see this at 42-43% abv. At 40% I feel it might struggle to capture the attention of some who come to it. Thankfully for me, this is a style of Cognac I enjoy a lot: spirit-y, soft white fruits, light runny honeys, syrups.
Marcillac 1995 Armagnac
Nose: This Armagnac is a more obvious nose, one that is easier to get along with and to understand. The nose immediately confirms the sensation of richness picked up from eyeing the Armagnac – an Armagnac to chew on. Front and center is a lovely vanilla extract aroma. Just behind the vanilla notes are caramelized apples and pears; apple cinnamon applesauce comes to mind. Soft baking spices are lurking, but this does not seem to be an overtly spicy Armagnac.
It really is a fantastic nose. It’s fresh, fruit-driven, and youthful, while simultaneously showing the signs of maturity and the delicate oakiness often found in mature Cognacs and Armagnacs.
Palate: In the mouth initially there are no surprises. The clean pleasant vanilla from the nose shows up in the mouth. There is some oak spice, but it is measured and in balance. As far as the fruit: applesauce, caramelized pear, and toffee apples.
Yes indeed, the Armagnac is chewy and has a wonderful texture. The flavors are integrated in the sense that no one flavor sticks out, or is heavy handed. The time spent in the barrel has allowed the flavors to melt and marry. Despite the chewy texture, there is not an ounce of sweetness in the mouthfeel.
Finish: Grainy tannins and a tingly rustic finish cause the cheeks to contract under the teeth. Grainy or rustic should not be taken with a negative connotation. Here they add character and provide a touch of firmness to the finish that contrasts the heavier layered texture – heavier layered texture compared to Cognac, that is.
The 1995 delivers in its aromas, flavors, and sensations. It’s clearly an Armagnac, but it’s not too far of a departure from Cognac. This is a fantastic gateway into the world of Armagnac.
What a great start! Both the Tiffon 1995 Fins Bois and and the Marcillac 1995 were faithful to my preconceived notions of the respective spirits. Moreover, both products were very accessible in terms of their flavor and textural intensities. The Tiffon was soft and delicately fruity, whereas the Marcillac had a little bit more meat on its bones. A textbook sibe-by-side to better understand the differences between Cognac and Armagnac.
Deau 1975 Petite Champagne Cognac
Nose: This is a quieter nose. I can smell some power lurking – 48% abv – as the other notes take some time to get going. Once it opens up, there are ultra sharp chiseled tangerines and peaches. There is somewhat of an Orange Jolly Rancher note too – a hard candy I enjoyed often as a child.
The Cognac smells very fresh and firm, and it must be said that the force from the oak is intertwined and perhaps masks a few of the other notes that may be inclined to come forward. I would not classify the smells as introverted or extroverted; everything is just there. I keep saying to myself, sharp and firm. We seem to have a Cognac of character on our hands here. This one needs time in the glass. Give it the time and you’ll be rewarded.
Palate: As expected, the Cognac is very full bodied and has the richness to go with it. There is a heftier weight to accompany the richness too. Maybe I’m falling into the traps set by my own preconceived generalizations of Cognac and Armagnac, but despite the richness, the full body, the heft, and the power, this Deau beauty still conveys a sense of finesse. It is indeed firm, and there is some good force coming from the oak, but it never goes out of bounds.
There are fruits and they are as sharp as ever: peaches and apricots. There are orange and peach hard candy flavors too. Good stuff here. The higher abv may lead one to think the Cognac has a strong character, but the reality is that the balance and composure are pretty much dialled in.
Finish: The finish is warming and firm thanks to the higher alcoholic strength, but the underlying finesse of the Cognac prevents it from feeling rough, or brutal. The strength is there, and you can feel it as the Cognac goes down, but it never exceeds a level beyond warming. The lingering flavors are of dried peach fruits and rich oak.
Marcillac 1975 Armagnac
Nose: Massive! The nose is very buttered and dessert-like – patissier is the word in French. Right off the bat, smells of butterscotch, caramel, toffee, dried red fruits, and vanilla compete for the nose’s attention. The vanilla is not front and center because the other bombastic notes steal the spotlight. With a little air, an unmistakable savory note like that found in fruity sweet bbq sauce appears.
There is an old wood note, but again it’s not center stage because of the richly seductive dessert and savory fruit notes which leap from the glass. Lastly, it must be said that one could be forgiven for thinking he or she is smelling a sherry bomb single malt whisky – a proper malternative nose as the whisky community would say. One could just smell this all night. It’s a nose from another planet!
Palate: This is a mouthful of an Armagnac. The texture is immense. It is an Armagnac to chew on. The palate initially feels how oak-driven this Armagnac is. The force of the oak fades away only for bags of sultry sweet fruits to take the relay: fig jam and Medjool dates all coated in a dark high strength raw honey. It is a heavier spirit with a memorable texture. And yes, I do taste traces of that savory bbq sauce I picked up on the nose. The tannins are grainy and rustic. They ruffle the cheeks and leave a firm imprint from the midpalate into the finish.
Finish: As the Armagnac is swallowed, the oakiness reappears and the grainy rustic tannins roar back leaving a pleasant bitterness in the mouth. The astringent sensation on the finish is like that from drinking a fine black tea. This must be viewed as a positive as the firmness on the finish counterbalances the honeyed fruity notes from the midpalate.
This is a robust Armagnac of real character. Seemingly hours after tasting, the teeth will still feel as though the Armagnac is clinging to them. My palate seems stained; my teeth feel clung to, and the Armagnac finishes full of rustic charms.
Despite the differences in alcoholic strength, this side-by-side was equally as interesting. Sure enough, the typical differences between Cognac and Armagnac were on full display, albeit less so than with the 1995s. The Deau 1975 Petite Champagne showed high strength, richness, and finesse can all belong in the same sentence when describing the same Cognac. And Marcillac’s 1975 Vintage demonstrated just how charming a characterful, spicy, and rustic Armagnac can be.
Godet 1970 Fins Bois Cognac
Nose: Oh wow this smells incredibly fruity. This is all sorts of oranges in all forms and drippy oozy yellow peaches. The fruit is not candied or dried but more stewed. I envision a pot with fresh cut oranges and peaches stewing away on a low fire.
There is an earthiness underneath that makes the fruits feel slightly dirty, but it is definitely for the better in this case. It adds a sense of complexity and prevents the nose from being just a one-dimensional fruity nose. Also, the smells give off a great sense of maturity. It oozes; it almost wafts out of the glass. It’s almost as if you can smell the long years the eau de vie spent aging in barrel. Everything smells very “fondu”, a French word for melted. I would be content just to smell this all night!
Palate: First off, the 43.1% abv is just perfect on this Cognac. There is enough body to carry the fruity and earthy flavors across the palate into the finish. The flavors themselves are indeed very melted. The oranges, yellow peaches, and even some tangerines form a perfect marriage and blend together with the earthy rancio notes that only age can bring.
There is a little miel de fleurs as well. The texture deserves mentioning too. As the Cognac coats all corners of my mouth, I can sense great richness but without any heft. The Cognac is flavor rich and texturally rich but still light and graceful. This is what the finest Cognacs can do best: richness and lightness. Those two seemingly conflicting sensations are on full display here. This is complex. This is balanced. This is easy to drink yet can still hold anyone’s attention. For my palate, this is just about perfect.
Finish: The Cognac finishes with sweet notes from the aforementioned fruits. The tannins are very fine and give a little tingle to the sides of my mouth as it is swallowed. The entire length of my tongue seems coated with the lingering flavors from before. Everything else thereafter is a slow fade out before I reach for the glass again to take another smell and sip. Perfect!
Marcillac 1970 Armagnac
Nose: Extroverted yet composed first come to mind as the nose is dipped into the glass. The oak presence takes somewhat of a backseat and allows cushioned soft fruits to come forward. With time in the glass, the nutty and salted butter caramel smells make themselves apparent. Like with the 1975, I’m also picking up clear traces of bbq sauce.
This time the bbq sauce seems less fruity and more caramelized and warmly spicy (recipe: ketchup, brown sugar, paprika, and honey). Behind it all there are some warming tingly spices in the mix. Everything is in good proportion: the oak, the fruit – candied and dried – the vanilla, the spices, and the buttery and bbq notes. Nothing is out of place; nothing is edgy. All aromas act as one cohesive unit. The taster’s attention is captured from the first second. It is not an outrageous nose; It’s just a classic, sophisticated, almost perfect nose.
Palate: In the mouth, from the entry to the midpalate all the way to the finish, everything is measured and seamless in transition. The oakiness, while certainly present, is more civilized. The fruits, both candied and dried, are soft and provide cushion for the palate.
Speaking of fruits, this Armagnac is all about red raisins, figs, fig jam, Medjool dates. Fresh fruit pastes also feature prominently. There’s also more of the dark raw honey, and the savory bbq sauce note lurks. The texture is again out of this world, as one could swirl and chew on this without swallowing for hours on end.
Finish: The warming spice tingle is present throughout, but thankfully never adds heat. The finish shows the grainy rustic tannins, and the black tea astringency does ruffle the cheeks, but it’s all just so fine. What more can one say? This is a fantastic mature Armagnac!
A tasting that perfectly showcases the typical generalizations between Cognac and Armagnac, but with spirits that are mature and have strong footprints. This side-by-side was very much like the one with the 1995s above, but here the Cognac and Armagnac exude a greater sense of maturity and singularity. This is to be expected given that the products are significantly different in age.
I have no intention of announcing winners, or ranking the products in this tasting, but the Godet 1970 Fins Bois was just stunning, a veritable diamond in the tricky-to-navigate sea of vintage Cognacs and Armagnacs. We all have bottles that just tend to descend faster than others. Well, the Godet is well on its way even though the Marcillac 1970 was very enjoyable as well.
One would be remiss to not make some comparisons between these vintage Marcillac Armagnacs and Cognacs, in general. It would be unhelpful to evaluate one against the other; that was never the intended goal with this tasting. The goal here was to better understand the two spirits by tasting Cognacs and Armagnacs from three vintages alongside one another. There’s even so much to learn from tasting Cognac and/or Armagnac alongside other spirits like rum or whisky.
Nevertheless, clear differences do exist between Cognac and Armagnac. The following are personal observations and generalizations:
- Both Cognac and Armagnac are highly aromatic, but Armagnac can carry greater weight and depth.
- The differences in distillation methods most certainly lead to spirits with different textures. For sake of analogy: Cognac is a fine cashmere sweater, whereas Armagnac is a flannel button down shirt.
- Cognac tends to have more subtle and elegant finishes that are generally non abrasive on the palate, whereas Armagnac can ruffle the cheeks a bit with its charming rusticity. Yes, there is charm in rusticity.
- Cognac and Armagnac are different spirits, but they both have singular identities and strong personalities. They just have different footprints.
- In order for one to truly understand Cognac, one has to taste a lot of Cognac but also taste other characterful spirits, like these Armagnacs from Marcillac. One’s understanding of Cognac can only improve by tasting and understanding Armagnac. Side-by-side tastings can provide an educational and sometimes eye-opening experience. When you venture back to your favorite Cognac, your experience will be enhanced, and your love of that Cognac will only be stronger.
- For both Cognac and Armagnac, there are some tremendous vintage gems to be found, but since little or no attention is given to how the vintages are reported, determining which vintage to buy can be difficult. Producers need to give consumers a better reason(s) to buy vintage Cognacs and Armagnacs. These products can’t just be for birth year bottle purchases. Spirits enthusiasts will miss out on some real treasures. They’re out there.
- If a producer is going to go through the trouble to make a vintage Cognac or Armagnac, they must also state the bottling year – not a legal obligation, but a strong opinion of mine. Two 1970 Cognacs, one bottled in 1980 and the other bottled in 2020, will be entirely different. Producers, please put the bottling year on the label.
- Vintage Cognac and Armagnac appeals to my wine enthusiast side. There is something interesting knowing that what is in the bottle comes from one growing and distillation season.
That’s enough for now. Cheers!