This initial article by John Winthrop is the latest manifestation of a thirty-year personal obsession with the Armagnac of Laberdolive. He is not alone in his passion. On his visit to Champagne this autumn with Jean-Claude Rouzaud, the justly famed Director-General of Roederer reminisced over "une coupe" how his father used to swap Cristal with Gérard Laberdolive for bottles of the prized 1923.

There are very few products whose clear superiority allows them to define their own category. The Armagnacs of Laberdolive, however, have for many years, been objectively regarded as the apotheosis of Armagnac. Just as Nikita Khruschev once diverted his elaborate and heavily-guarded entourage to visit the chais and acquire a prized bottle of the famed Armagnac, so did French President Jacques Chirac bring along a bottle of Laberdolive 1972 to toast his hosts on a recent state visit to China. David Ridgway, chef-sommelier at La Tour d'Argent in Paris, not long ago remarked to The Wine Spectator that Laberdolive has been "considered for a long time to be the benchmark of Armagnac." Although only recently available in the United States, and thus not as widely-known here, there are scarcely any three-star tables in Europe that do not boast a vertical selection of Laberdolive.

The reasons behind this stunning achievement are not merely that Laberdolive is a single vineyard, vintage-dated Armagnac crafted by one Gascon family for over five generations. Nor that Laberdolive is produced from wine made with the family's own old-vine grapes, including rare ungrafted, pre-phylloxera folle blanche. Nor that it is distilled by hand from an antique wood-fired continuous still, nor even that it is aged in black oak barrels made on the estate from the family's own forests. Not merely that Laberdolive is bottled cask strength only when fully mature, and with no addition whatsoever, not even coloring nor water. Nor is it merely that the Laberdolive vineyards are situated on the best section of the finest soil in Armagnac. Rather, the singular and remarkable success of Laberdolive derives not only from the interplay of all these factors, but also from the artisanal skills of the family that enable the soil, culture and history of the region to express itself completely and accurately in the Armagnac.

"Cognac is like a beautiful young girl," the Gascons are fond of responding to the oft-asked question. "Armagnac is like a woman, also beautiful but of a 'certain age', that you would not bring home to introduce to your mother." ("Le Cognac, c'est comme une jeune fille. L'Armagnac, c'est comme une femme d'un certain âge que vous ne présenteriez pas à votre mère.") Well-made Armagnac is thus a more sophisticated and complex brandy, gorgeous surely but seductive more importantly, one that exudes an earthy attraction and sensuality. One may indeed become very fond of Cognac. One becomes passionate about Armagnac.

Prior to the vine plagues (mildew, oidium, phylloxera) of the late nineteenth century, Armagnac (just as Cognac) was distilled from wine made from the folle blanche grape. After the scourges devastated the vineyards, Cognac began to be produced entirely from ugni blanc. Armagnac producers also began to use ugni blanc, in addition to a hybrid grape called baco 22A, which was a cross between folle blanche and an American varietal, noah. Many Armagnac producers also employ some colombard, and a few use miniscule amounts of extant folle blanche. Laberdolive, because of its favored site rich in sandy soil, still supports a reasonable amount of ungrafted, pre-phylloxera folle blanche, which is typically blended with ugni blanc and baco.

The distillation of Armagnac is a relatively simple, physical (as opposed to chemical) process. The alcohol, together with certain congeners (those chemical compounds extracted from the wine that impart character and interest), are separated from the water in the wine. This process is facilitated by the fact that the alcohol and congeners boil at a lower temperature than water. Most basically, the wine is heated in one vessel until the alcohol and certain congeners vaporize and pass into a separate vessel where they are cooled and returned to liquid form. The water and other impurities are left behind in the first vessel, and later discarded.

Conventional Gascon wisdom advises that Armagnac should be distilled within view of the vineyards that produced the wines. This is especially sound advice today when the overwhelming majority of Armagnac is produced by negotiants far from the vines. Aside from the purely aesthetic aspect, transporting the wine by truck necessarily reduces its freshness and depreciates the volatile and fragile aromatics that are so crucial to Armagnac. The Laberdolive still, which was hand-wrought from copper during the last century, is situated a very few meters from the edge of the vineyards.

Traditionally, the stills were, of course, dependent on firewood to heat the wine to the prescribed temperature. Today the simplicity and convenience of natural gas make it the nearly ubiquitous choice. Gas offers the added advantage of control, since the flow can easily be regulated to maintain the requisite constant temperature in the still. The Laberdolive family, however, insists on using oak logs from their own forests to fire their still. While they cannot point to any single reason justifying the infinitely greater effort, they are convinced that this traditional method produces better Armagnac. "Fire," Joseph de Pesquidoux wrote, "is the soul of distillation." On a more temporal level, one can speculate that the wood fire from the oak releases or produces certain flavor compounds imparted to the base wine.

Another unique feature is the Laberdolive insistence on using only barrels made from the black oak trees found in the family's forests surrounding the vineyards. Staves are cut from the ancient oak groves, and are left in the elements to age gracefully for several years. Coopers then come to the Laberdolive chais where they fabricate and toast the barrels under the watchful eyes of the family. Just as certain foods seem to "marry" best with other produce of the same region, the Laberdolive tradition maintains that wood from their own trees marries better with wine from their own vines.

The distilled wine (it is years away from becoming Armagnac) is then placed into a combination of new and old barrels, the number of each depending on the characteristics of the vintage. The barrels are then lodged into the cellars under the Laberdolive family home. There the barrels repose for years with the wine gradually maturing into Armagnac. In barrel, as the wood and alcohol components interact, additional congeners are absorbed into the developing Armagnac. Air entering slowly through the porous wood of the barrel stimulates chemical reactions that impart additional flavors. The air transpiring out through the porous barrels generates increasing concentration as well as a lower level of alcohol in the Armagnac remaining in the barrels.

Pierre Laberdolive and his sons taste the developing Armagnac frequently to evaluate its progress. When they judge that a vintage has achieved its full potential, which can occur at any time between the fifteenth and fiftieth years in barrel, the barrels of that vintage are taken off wood and bottled. Once the Armagnac is bottled, the aging process ceases and the Laberdolive Armagnac waits at its peak to be savored by connoisseurs.

© Veritas Imports, LLC. 1999