The modern history of Tariquet begins in 1912, when father and son Artaud bought the estate where Armagnac had been distilled since 1683. They came from a family of bear tamers from the Pyrenees and had made their fortune in the USA before homesickness brought them back to Gascony. The vineyards had been almost completely devastated by phylloxera, so the owners lived mainly from growing grain and raising cattle. This was to change only in the next generation. Helène Artaud and her husband Pierre Grassa rebuilt the small 16th-century château and sold their brandies by the barrel to Négociants. In 1972, their two children, Maitié and Yves, took over.
Saved by white wine
Yves initially decided to bottle the Armagnac himself. From 1982 onwards, part of the harvest was not distilled but vinified as white wine in order to finance the Armagnac production. This was a revolution, as wine was otherwise only produced in this region for its own production. With the help of oenologist Denis Dubourdieu, but also inspired by studies in viticulture in the New World, strict hygiene and cool, temperature-controlled fermentation found their way into the cellar. In the vineyards, classics such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc were added to the traditional varieties. The success was resounding, both in France and in the export markets. In 1987, the International Wine Challenge named Yves Grassa winemaker of the year. With 1,300 hectares of vineyards today (1,125 currently planted), the family has risen to become the largest private wine producer in France.
But Yves Grassa dreamed other dreams. In 2007, he left the family to start over as a large-scale farmer in Romania. “A small oak cannot grow in the shade of a big oak,” he told his two sons Armin and Rémy. The two (whose mother, by the way, comes from Berlin) were only in their mid-twenties and had just gained their first professional experience – now they had to manage one of the largest wineries in Europe together with their aunt Maitié. Both of them bit their way through, expanded the vineyard holdings, built a new winery and diversified the portfolio. They are very committed to natural and sustainable farming methods (HVE and RSE certificates).
The soul of Gascony
Today, the Armagnac business accounts for only 10 per cent of Tariquet’s business. Compared to the approximately 9 million bottles of wine sold, the 140,000 bottles of Armagnac seem modest. But Armagnac, they say, is the soul of Gascony. Perhaps that is why it is still at the heart of Tariquet’s production. After all, times have changed quite a bit for Armagnac.
It is said that the spirit has three origins: the winegrowing art of the Romans, the barrel-making technique of the Gauls and the distilling know-how of the Moors. The first mention of Armagnac dates back to 1310. The Dutch pushed the production of Armagnac because brandy was easier to transport and did not oxidise on long-distance journeys. This was also the reason why the drink became increasingly popular through crises and wars. In 1893, shortly before the appearance of phylloxera, 100,00 hectares were planted with Armagnac. The subsequent crisis was joined after the Second World War by the love of whisk(e)y, which alienated the French from their national brandies, Armagnac and Cognac. Today, only 1,725 hectares remain for Armagnac production.
The uniqueness of Armagnac
The brandy from Gascony is distinguished by a number of unique characteristics. In the 19th century, the distillation method was perfected: a single-stage, continuous distillation process in the stills called Alambics Armagnaçaises – in contrast to the two-stage process in stills in Cognac. This technique, which produces more intense brandies, shapes the style of Armagnac, as does the use of new wood at the beginning of the ageing process. In the past, stone oaks from the Gascogne region were used for this purpose; today, oak from Alliers or the Limousin region is mostly used. The landscape of the old county of Armagnac is also mostly characterised by sandy soils in a hot climate – in contrast to the limestone soils and the mild climate in Cognac. The former conditions tend to produce fruity brandies, the latter more structured.
There are also special features in the grape varieties used: Ugni Blanche does not dominate here as much as in the Charente. A good 20 percent of the area is made up of the hybrid grape Baco, created in 1898 (the only one allowed to be used in a French AOC). It gives the brandy a special softness and spiciness. Colombard and Folle Blanche are also used. In addition, Armagnac is produced by much smaller producers on average than Cognac and represents only a fraction of its production volume. Due to its production process, Armagnac reaches its peak after 18 to 30 years, as the book author Charles Neal writes, while Cognac only has its sweet spot after 40 to 50 years.
With this knowledge of their own strengths in mind and the buying behaviour of the younger generation in sight, who, after the start of the cocktail wave and the subsequent demand for regionally rooted brandies, turned increasingly to Armagnac again, the Grassa brothers invested in two new Alambics in 2016 and differentiated the portfolio. In addition to the classic range of VS, VSOP, XO and Hors d’Ages, the focus is on varietal bottlings, some of which are made from grape varieties that were popular before the phylloxera plague, such as Folle Blanche or Plant de Graisse, which is very rare today.
Unlike its competitors, Tariquet only produces Vintage Armagnacs in the best years. “As a domaine, we don’t want to buy in grapes because we want to have complete control over the production. Only a few vintages we consider so perfect that we bottle them as Vintage. Négociants, on the other hand, simply buy in grapes from other areas of the appellation. For us, alcohol production is the art of finding a perfect balance in the assemblage,” comments Armin Grassa. The white Blanche Armagnac made from 100 per cent Folle Blance and the new prestige blend Montreuers d’Our, with which the house remembers its roots, are both in keeping with this.
[An extended version of this article with economic data on the current Armagnac production appeared in German in WEIN+MARKT 6/2023.]
© of Images: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images