My first foray into the world of Armagnac was when my boyfriend bought me a bottle of Marquis de Montesquiou Imperial XO for Christmas last year. He considerately also bought two brandy glasses so that I didn’t have to drink it alone – not that I had a problem with that! Thus my initiation into the pleasures of this wonderful liquid began. So when we espied the Armagnac Masterclass advertised on the board inside the lovely Gerry’s on New Briggate (you know, the place with the amazing window which tempts you inside?), well, we knew it was the perfect opportunity to learn more about this brandy and enhance our appreciation of it.
The masterclass was held on Thursday 17th March in a side room in Brown’s. Upon crossing the threshold we were hit by the sweet, heady aroma of the Armagnac – one sniff and we were giddy! Inside the suitably opulent room, we were met by the friendly folk from Gerry’s along with the CEO of the Marquis de Montesquiou, Bruno Gazaniol, and his UK agent, James Rackham. The room began to fill up as Bruno and James poured out samples of six different Armagnacs for each guest , throwing in convivial warnings such as “You only get one!” but also “Nosing is permitted!”
The evening commenced with Bruno giving us a brief history of Armagnac, France’s oldest spirit, and the origins of the Marquis De Montesquiou company. Its founder, Pierre de Montesquiou, was a direct descendant of the famous musketeer, Comte D’Artagnan. En garde! Armagnac is an artisan product from a very small region in south-west France made by 800 small producers. Bruno explained how crucial the distillation process is and what an important part of the culture it is for the people in this region. The Cellar Master for the Marquis de Montesquiou, Jean-Claude Dallas, hand-crafts the product by blending eaux-de-vie (distilled wines) from around Armagnac. The Armagnac is then aged in oak casks in their cellar, which is known as the ‘Cathedral’. This is apt – it is clearly a revered place.
We were now ready to sample their wares. Before us were six different Armagnacs and Bruno advised that they had been poured out in advance to give them time to ‘express’ themselves. He showed us how to check the colour, how to sniff the bouquet correctly and tilt the glass to coat the sides to release more aromas. We then slowly sipped each sample and tried to identify the different flavours and tones. After sampling one, James and Bruno had us shouting out what we could taste in it, before we moved on as a group to the next one. Starting with the youngest Armagnac, the VSOP (approximately 4-5 years old), we then tried the XO Imperial, the 1980, the 1934, the Cuvée Louis 1er and finally the Cuvée Pierre de Montesquiou Comte D’Artagnan. They were all incredible and I found I could identify different tones in each. For me, the most distinctive were the VSOP (a buttery, caramel flavour), the 1934 (exceptionally smooth with a hint of cinder toffee and roasted coffee beans) and the Comte D’Artagnan which was rich, subtly spicy… and very expensive!
By the third sample, the room had livened up, and by the last it was getting rowdy. But the night was not quite over because, as a final treat, Bruno and James produced a bottle of Byrrh for us to try. This is a French vermouth-style apéritif, a blend of red wine and quinine, which was popular in 1930s France. It was absolutely gorgeous and, when Bruno mixed me a Harvard-style cocktail of Byrrh and VSOP, it was a taste bud sensation – wow!
The evening was very informative and entertaining and I would recommend these Gerry’s masterclasses to anyone. There was an excellent atmosphere, everyone seemed to have a good time and by the end of the night, the noise inside the room was louder than outside in the main bar of Brown’s, which is saying something! Bruno and James were unequivocally charming and happily answered everyone’s questions and a general invitation was extended to visit the Marquis de Montesquiou and have a go at blending Armagnac, if we were ever in the region. Wouldn’t that be great?!
I’m looking forward to Gerry’s Bourbon Masterclass on 1st April. Tickets are £15, available in-store from Gerry’s. Another night of decadence and joviality to be had… all in the name of education, of course.
Check out Gerry’s.
Visit the Leeds Savage Club.