What is the difference between Cognac and Armagnac?

Published the 12/09/2019 in Food & Wine

Two mythical spirits with hundreds of years of history and so much tradition and know-how that you could spend a lifetime researching it. The similarities between Cognac and Armagnac are obvious, they are both technically the same spirit: brandy. Still, these two spirits are fascinatingly different and their respective stories are widely set apart. What is the difference between Cognac and Armagnac?

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The Origins

You might be led to think that two very similar spirits from roughly the same part of France (circa 300 km apart) would share a similar backstory, but that is not at all the case. Armagnac is the older brother of the two, having been first mentioned in texts by a bishop (named Vital Du Four) in the 1300s. At the time Armagnac was praised as a medicine capable of curing all kinds of diseases (like hepatitis and red eyes) and that massaging the liquid into your skin could heal wounds.

Cognac on the other hand started popping up in the 1500s (a youngster right?) when Dutch settlers in the Bordeaux region were struggling to bring wine back home without it turning into vinegar. The solution was to distill the white wine (even twice as we will see later) and hence the birth of cognac. Brandy, by the way, is suitably derived from the Dutch word for burnt wine, "brandewijn".

Cognac of different maturity levels ready to be tasted

Where on the map do you find Cognac and Armagnac? 

Map of wine growing areas around Bordeaux in South Western France

Armagnac-making is centered around the town of Condom (pardon my French!), a commune in Gers south of Bordeaux that is very beautiful and ancient, with plenty of 13th and 14th century architecture. There is no so-called Armagnac city (but it is the ancient name of the region), but three big regions included in the appellation: Bas-Armagnac, Haut-Armagnac and Ténarèze. 

Cognac is an appellation and also a town of itself, a two hour drive north of Bordeaux, and where you will find all the big Cognac houses. Cognac is also a quaint town with plenty of traditional charm and cobblestone streets situated on the Charente river.

The making 

The making of Cognac and Armagnac follow the same principals but is essentially different on a few deciding points. The base is the same in both spirits; white wine. In the case of Cognac the base white wine is mostly made from Ugni blanc grapes (Trebbiano in Italy for Italian white wine lovers) that grow inside the appellation.

In Armagnac Ugni blanc is also used but is commonly blended with Baco blanc, Colombard and Folle blanche. Another main difference is the distillation, Cognac is distilled twice in pot stills -"alambic charentais" - whereas Armagnac is distilled only once in column stills. This has a detectable impact on the final product, something we will see further down.

A pot still used to distill Cognac

Did you know that Cognac is made in Champagne? However confusing a fact it might be, it is actually true. The two main grape growing areas in the Cognac region are called Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne. But, they do not having anything to do with their namesake of fizzy drinks in the Northern French appellation of Champagne. 

The spirit 

So what about the spirits themselves, do they taste the same? The uninitiated would probably argue that there is no noticeable difference. And for sure, in a blind tasting it could be hard to tell the two apart. But if you look closer you will find that a good aged Cognac will be finer, more texturally balanced and with more complex perfumes than your Armagnac counterpart.

Armagnac is often described as heavy, sturdy and strongly flavoured with notes of dried fruits, butterscotch and liquorice. The double distillation that is used in Cognac-making is generally regarded to give a finer, purer spirit than a single distillation (as in Armagnac-making). Cognacs have an unmatched aging potential and can develop complex aromas of leather, cigar box and tobacco over time.  

Another interesting difference concerning aging regards the packaging. While most Cognac use the age of the youngest component to define themselves as XO, VSOP or VS, most Armagnac mention a vintage on the bottle. Good to know for a birthday gift... 

Cognac ageing in oak barrels in the Hennessy cellars

The connoisseur might also remark that there is a difference in ageing techniques between the two, Armagnac is usually aged in local Gascony oak barrels while Cognac will be aged in barrels made from Limousin/Troncais oak that are famous for infusing rich vanilla flavours into the eau-de-vie.

The brands

One critical difference when looking at Cognac and Armagnac today is the way the spirits are branded and sold. Armagnac is in wide terms an artisanal product with a strong connection to its terroir and grape varieties, without major global brands. Cognac is sold on an industrial scale and the four biggest houses (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier) account for 80% of sales. Circa 200 million bottles of Cognac are sold every year to compare with circa 3 million bottles of Armagnac. In this regard, the two spirits have taken distinctly different paths. 

Two glasses of cognac ready to be tasted

SO, WHAT's YOUR CHOICE?

Cognac and Armagnac are two golden nuggets of South Western France and the Bordeaux region. Two world class spirits with histories that date back hundreds of years and continue to nurture their respective legacies. Both with their own personalities and characteristics. Essentially the same spirit but with so many striking differences between them. Picking a winner between Cognac and Armagnac would be near impossible, they are too special in their own regards and it should probably be decided by the context you find yourself in. And of course, your personal taste! 

Cognac being checked when maturing in the oak barrel

Are you interested in getting more knowledge about Cognac and/or Armagnac? Would you be interested in visiting the regions and learn more on a first-hand basis? Touch the wooden barrels with your own hands and taste the different nuances and aromas that both Cognac and Armagnac deliver with utter perfection?

Join us for one of our private tour for small groups  in February 2020 in Bordeaux and Cognac, or inquire for a private and personalized itinerary in Bordeaux, Cognac and Armagnac

We are from the region and can take you wherever you wish to go, for a day or a longer stay. Do not hesitate to get in touch with us at contact@millesimeprive.com for further information or to design your next holiday experience with us.