700 years of history (and indulgence!)
In Armagnac, the Romans introduced the vine, the Arabs, the alambic and the Celts, the barrel. Armagnac is born from the meeting of these three cultures.
The growing of vines in this privileged region dates back to Roman times. As the superb mosaics discovered in the Gallo-Roman villa in Séviac bear witness; the most beautiful depicting scrolls while bunches of grapes, vines and leaves sing of the harvest.
Later on, towards the end of the 6th century, the Vascons invaded the country that would carry their name and which became the first Duchy of Gascony in 670. Examining the name of Armagnac, historians found traces of a knight called Herrman, companion of the fiery Clovis, to whom a kingdom was given as reward for his bravery. Latinised by the medieval ‘capistes’, Hermann would become « Arminius », just until the local language took over, transforming it into Armagnac. In the 10th century, a little county carrying this glorious name saw the light of day in Gascony.
Armagnac is the oldest French eau-de-vie. The first evidence of its use dates back to the year 1310 when Maître Vital Dufour, prior of Eauze and Saint Mont, extolled the 40 virtues of this Aygue Ardente in Latin in his book « To keep your health and stay on top form ».
Thereafter, its history becomes intimately entwined with that of Gascony. In the 15th century, between 1411 and 1441, there was considerable evidence of its commercialisation. According to René Cuzaq, from 1461, Armagnac was an everyday product found at the Saint Sever market in the Landes.
A water of immortality: originally, this mysterious product bordering on alchemy was not consumed very much. Therapeutic virtues were attributed to it … Water that burns: « aqua ardens ». A water of immortality with complex aromas and flavours.
Mentions of the Gascon eaux-de-vie increase until we find traces of a real Armagnac market in Mont-de-Marsan and Aire-sur l’Adour in the 17th century.
In the 17th century, the Dutch bought nearly all the wines from the French Atlantic coast except those in Bordeaux that were English. They then went up the river Garonne and made their first contact with the winegrowers in the Gers. Worried about the competition, the Bordelais intercepted the convoys that went down river on the grounds that none other than the Bordeaux wine could be transported by river. If the wine was forbidden to travel this way, spirits were not and so it was in this way that the wines from Gascony started to be distilled. The Dutch therefore bought large quantities of alcohol that was used to enrich and stabilise the wines destined for the people in northern Europe.
Toward 1730, eau-de-vie was a truly commercial product that was subject to fluctuations with good and bad years. To overcome the shortcomings, the eau-de-vie was kept in reserve and stored in wooden barrels that had been around since the Gauls, then lo and behold! A treasure was discovered: the colour, the roundness and the best fragrances that ageing can pass on.
In the 18th century, the War of Independence in the United States gave a supplementary boost to business. From the second half of the 19th century, certain trading houses in the region built cellars, surveyed the ageing and attempted to get Armagnac known and appreciated for itself. Concerned for their reputation, the quality of their eaux-de-vie and the durability of their companies, the traders were already looking to improve the quality of their Armagnacs. They started by organising meticulous blending, carrying out strict ageing controls and managing of their stock as well as the characteristics of each batch.
Before the Hérault and the Gironde, the Gers became the first French wine growing department. However, the Armagnac vineyards also suffered from the scourge of the phylloxera in 1870. Out of 100,000 hectares of vines, only a quarter would be replanted.
The region got organised: the decree of 25th May 1909 marked out the production zone for the Armagnac eaux-de-vie and it’s three regions, followed by the decree of 6th August 1936 that defined the 'Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée’ Armagnac and its production conditions.
Armagnac was traditionally sold in barrels for the ease of transportation. After the war of 39-45, consumers became more demanding, wishing to know the identity of the products and the practice of bottling Armagnac spread which gave a better guarantee of authenticity for the Gascon eau-de-vie.