What's the difference between Cognac and Armagnac?

Although Armagnac is, without any doubt, the oldest eau-de-vie of France, its younger sibling, Cognac, is more popular outside France. These two grape-based eaux-de-vie are similar in many respects, yet each has its own identity.
Let’s take a look at their similarities and particularities, because, between these two spirits, there’s no flavor battle. Armagnac Vs Cognac: why not both?

1. Terroir

1. Terroir

The first difference between Cognac and Armagnac: terroir.
The Cognac and Armagnac terroirs, both in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, are located some 300 km (186 miles) from each other; which means differences in the soil.

In Armagnac, there are fine quartz sands, continental and riverbed sediments and siliceous clay. This terroir is divided into 3 crus:

  • Bas-Armagnac or Black Armagnac is partially located in Landes. It is characterized by siliceous clay land which is poor in limestone, occasionally acid.
  • Haut-Armagnac or White Armagnac is characterized by soils which are predominantly limestone except along its southern part where soils are siliceous clay “boulbènes” (bolbena in Occitan).
  • Ténarèze is transitional land which is partially situated in Lot et Garonne. Here, vines are grown on soils which are predominantly clay-limestone.
    Map of Armagnac crus (External link)

Cognac soils are mainly limestone. Cognac is divided into 6 crus:

  • Grande Champagne, around the town of Segonzac, produces the finest Cognac eaux-de-vie.
  • Petite Champagne, sits astride the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments, around Barbezieux (Charente), Archiac and Jonzac (Charente-Maritime).
  • Borderies, a small production area around the village of Burie.
  • Fins Bois is located on the periphery of the three aforementioned areas. It is here that the majority of the wines are produced (42%).
  • Bons Bois, even further away from Cognac.
  • Bois Ordinaires. In this extensive area only 1.5% of vines are devoted to Cognac. They are found close to the Atlantic Ocean as well as towards Deux-Sevres and Dordogne.
    Map of Cognac crus (External link)

2. Grape varieties

2. Grape varieties

In Cognac 97% of the grape variety used is Ugni-Blanc which produces fine, high-quality eaux-de-vie. It is also used in Armagnac (55%).

In Armagnac, we also find Folle Blanche (2%) which produces fine, floral eaux-de-vie, Colombard with fruity, spicy aromas appreciated in blends, Baco (hybrid of Folle Blanche and the American Noah) which produces well-rounded eaux-de-vie with a ripe fruit aroma (35%).

The differences in the use of the grape varieties in these two regions come from the fact that Armagnac produces wine intended for consumption without being distilled. This is not the case in Cognac where the highly-acid wine is not pleasant if left unaltered.

3. The distilling and ageing method

3. The distilling and ageing method

Most Armagnac is obtained using the Armagnac continuous still. The patent for this equipment was filed in 1818 and perfected over time by distillers. The eau-de-vie obtained at the end of the distilling process has an alcohol content of between 52% and 72%.

On the other hand, distilling with the Charente still comprises two distillations. The first heating cycle results in an alcohol of between 20-30 degrees called “brouillis” which will be redistilled during the second cycle known as “bonne chauffe” at 70-71 degrees. This last distillation will become Cognac.

A similarity is that labels on Cognac and Armagnac bear the same references attesting to the number of years of ageing:

  • VS Very Special: young
  • VSOP Very Superior Old Pale or ***
  • Napoléon or XO (Extra Old): aged for 6 years at least
  • Hors d’Age: aged for 10 years at least
  • Millésime: from a single harvest (a reference (vintage) year)
  • XO Premium: aged for over 20 years.

4. Commercialization

4. Commercialization

Armagnac: family-sized production and French consumption

As we already mentioned, Armagnac is one of the oldest eaux-de-vie in France. Its history is an integral part of French gastronomic heritage as illustrated in the many recipes and culinary preparations which include Armagnac (for flaming, sauces, etc.). However, Armagnac is but little exported and continues to be mainly consumed in France. It comes from small producers and family-run establishments which perpetuate ancestral traditions and know-how.

Cognac: great Cognac houses which export worldwide

On the other hand, Cognac historically developed around a model focusing on export to the Netherlands and to England. Cognac was created by wine producers who wished to export their low-alcohol white wine to England and Holland but decided to distill it so it would withstand the journey better.

Its success in Holland is the result of its ageing in oak barrels. The resulting eau-de-vie was nicknamed “brandewijn” (burnt wine), which would become “brandy”.

The existence of the port of La Rochelle and the 1860 Trade Agreement between France and England under the authority of Napoleon III enabled Cognac to grow exponentially abroad, which continues to this day. 98% of production is exported. Cognac is mainly sold by __four major, world-known Cognac trading houses: Hennessy (External link) , Courvoisier (External link) , Remy-Martin (External link) and Martell (External link) .

Cognac has now become an absolute trend in the United States. After “Pass the Courvoisier” Busta Rhimes’ hit, in 2012 the performer Jay-Z entered into a partnership with Bacardi to create his own brand of Cognac: D’Ussé.

Did you know?

Discover the Armagnac ecomuseum only 30 minutes from Mont-de-Marsan, in Labastide-d’Armagnac (External link) . Visit the museum dedicated to wine producers and stills, set in the heart of an Armagnac producing estate. The site also proposes a nature trail.
Armagnac ecomuseum (External link)

20 kilometres (12 miles) from Cognac, visit the Cognac ecomuseum located at the Domaine de Tesseron. The museum shares the Tesseron family history and the heritage of distillation through its Winemaker-Distiller Museum as well as the world of Cognac in a lyrical, but educational, way.
Cognac ecomuseum (External link)

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Getting to Nouvelle-Aquitaine