As with all aged spirits, casks are very important for Armagnac. For a product to be able to call itself Armagnac, it must have been stored in an oak barrel for at least one year. For this purpose, mostly wood from the local forests, but also from the Limousine region is used. However, in both cases only two specific types of oak may be used: sessile oaks and English oaks (or their hybrids).
Armagnac cask aging
Usually, fresh Armagnac is matured in fresh barrels for 6 to 24 months in order to extract a lot of aromas from the new wood during this time. The Armagnac is then transferred to used barrels in order to be able to better control the maturation. The longer a cask has been in use, the less influence the maturation has on the distillate. If an Armagnac is to mature for a particularly long time, it will spend most of the time in an older cask so that the taste of the wood does not get the upper hand. By the way, Armagnac is not diluted before it is put into casks. This is often practiced with whiskey or rum, since the alcohol content is significantly higher after distillation.
Age groups for Armagnac:
|VS - ***||Aged in barrel for at least 1 year|
Aged in barrel for at least 4 years
|XO and Hors D'Age||
|Vintage (Millésime)||From the harvest of a specific year|
In the following photo you can see a stave of an older barrel in which Armagnac was matured for 25 years. The color difference shows that the spirit has worked its way into the wood up to about 2/3 of the thickness and has thus absorbed the aromas of the barrel.
Humidity in basements and warehouses
When it comes to storage, the climatic conditions in the cellar or warehouse play a major role. Between 1% and 3% of the Armagnac evaporates every year due to the storage in the barrel. Depending on the humidity, however, more alcohol or water evaporates, which is crucial for the alcohol content of the Armagnac.
In a damp cellar, more alcohol evaporates due to the saturation of the air, which lowers the alcohol content. So it is not unusual that after 15-20 years the alcohol content has dropped to eg 46%. After even more decades, in many cases one is already approaching 40%. At this point, very old Armagnac is transferred to glass containers, so-called Dame-Jeanne, to prevent further reduction.
If, on the other hand, the Armagnac is stored in a dry cellar, more water evaporates than alcohol, which initially increases the alcohol content. However, the warehouses in Armagnac are often very simple and humidity levels can vary throughout the year. This often results in a relatively constant alcohol content in predominantly dry cellars. For example, Domaine Seailles 1986 #3 still has 58% and has lost little of its approx. 60% after distillation.
Gilles Bartholomo, in the municipality of Le Frêche in Landes, is one of the last traditional coopers in Armagnac. Together with one employee, he produces about 500 to 600 barrels per year by hand. These are very popular with wineries because the quality is outstanding and Mr. Bartholomo can custom-make the barrels.
Before the production of barrels can begin, the wood must first be air-dried outdoors for several years.
Burning out or toasting barrels is now commonly used to influence the taste during maturation. Originally, however, it was only intended to make the wood flexible so that it does not break when the lower rings are pulled shut and attached. At least in Armagnac, only very light toasting and no medium and strong toasting were common until the early 1990s.
The finished barrels