On Friday the 5th of February on a cold winter’s night I hastily rushed to Old Chapel Cellars in St. Clement Street, Truro for an evening of tasting Cognac and Armagnac. I was greeted by a warm welcome and a glass of champagne. Neil Monyard is one of the country’s leading experts when it comes to Cognac and Armagnac and a great raconteur! He has a wealth of knowledge and a passion for the drinks distinctive tastes and their history.
Iain and Charlotte made us all feel most welcome and cooked a delicious rich stew. It was a relaxed evening on the prized Old Chapel Cellar couch and all six bottles were laid out ready, with glasses for us to begin our tasting. I am a novice when it comes to alcohol and I found the talk most interesting. I have always heard of cooking with Cognac or Armagnac in puddings, biscuits, stews and cocktails. I feel that I walked away with great knowledge about the drinks and that I had learned something that evening.
First of all, Armagnac, this is a type of brandy produced in the Armagnac area of France. Anything outside of this region is known as a French grape brandy. Armagnac is distilled using column stills (large container that holds the liquid) and made from a variety of grapes, which is aged in oak barrels. Armagnac is made on a far smaller scale than Cognac, which is dominated by big name global brands. The area where the grapes are grown to produce Armagnac is split into three, Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Tenareze and Haut-Armagnac. (Armagnac is has two distillations, however only one movement through the still. ) Once distilled it is then aged in the oak barrels (which gives flavour) and impacts on the colour of the beverage – as does where the barrels are stored, with regards to temperature and climate.
The Cognac is produced around the town of Cognac, from where its name derives. Cognac has to be made from certain grapes, such as Ugni blanc (known as a high yielding grape and not prone to rotting easily) and is grown in a chalky soil. It is distilled twice in copper pot stills and also aged in oak barrels.
The difference in the taste of the two drinks is mainly down to their geographic areas in France, with their soils which defines Cognac (chalk) and Armagnac (clay, sand, closer to the ocean). We tasted the Cognac and Armagnac against each other. The alcohol in both is 40%. The grades on the bottles are the same for both Cognac and Armagnac. We tasted the (Prunier) Cognac, which has been the leader in the Chinese market for 30 years. Whilst we sampled the Armagnac (Domaine De Papolle).
The first sipping we tasted was the three star VS (very special), where it has been stored in a cask for a minimum of two years. I preferred the Cognac. The Cognac seemed to show a bit more development of the grape.
With the second pair of bottles, we tried the VSOP (very superior old pale), which means it has been stored for at least four years. I noticed the incredible honey brown colour. I preferred the Armagnac this time, which seemed to show more complexity and little less ‘polish’.
Then, finally onto the more expensive bottles, we compared the XO (extra old), which is stored for at least eight years. With the Cognac, we drank from the Cognac Prunier family. This time, I preferred the taste of the Chateau de Lacaze Bas Armagnac, which was smoother and noticeably different to the first bottles that we tasted.
Neil advised that if you do have to mix your drink, then only use Ginger Ale (and not American Dry)! Overall, Neil surmised that Cognac and Armagnac have their ups and downs in popularity in the global market and he believes it will become increasingly more popular, just as Gin, Vodka and Whisky. He made the evening, fun and lively with Charlotte and Iain hosting us with pleasure.
Old Chapel Cellars holds regular wine tastings, as well as the first Friday of the month, where a guest speaker comes in and they cover a certain geographic area of wine, food is included and this is a ticketed event.
The next event is based on Southern Italy, Scilly and the Sardinia area, which is an up and coming area in the wine world. This area that use to produce delectable wine for the locals, has now been ‘discovered’. It costs £15pp and starts at 6.30pm on Friday the 4th of March at Old Chapel Cellars. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01872 270 545 to book your place.