France's best-kept secret is Gascony, home to armagnac brandy

Brad Japhe

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France is the most visited country on earth. Every year, more than 85 million tourists make the pilgrimage to this Western European wonderland. Most come to marvel at the cosmopolitan charm of Paris. Some come for a taste of fine wine, champagne and world famous cheese. Not nearly enough go to Gascony. This bucolic region of rolling hills and medieval fortresses tucked into the southwestern corner of the country remains largely unexplored by outsiders.

Gascony is home to armagnac, a barrel-aged brandy distilled from local grapes. Although – or perhaps because – it doesn’t receive the global recognition of its more famous cousin, cognac, this alluring drink offers its own brand of mysticism. And it can only be found here.

Armin Grassa has been making the stuff for most of his adult life. Château du Tariquet was founded by his great grandfather over 100 years ago. Since then, it has grown into the largest independent estate winery in all of France. This is helpful when it comes time to distill brandy, as it takes a lot of great wine to make even a bit of Armagnac – a ratio of about 10 to 1, to be exact.

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Grassa has observed an uptick in armagnac’s stature over the past several years, as demand for craft products continues to swell. “A new generation of spirits consumers is more and more looking for artisanal spirits made by family companies like in armagnac, than for big spirits brands,” he explains.

As a result, tasting rooms are taking shape throughout Gascony. At Tariquet, a modernized visitors center welcomes guests around a streamlined bar where 20- and 30-year-old brandies are sampled. Like cognac, armagnac is classified into three basic categories: VS (aged in French oak for at least 2 years), VSOP (aged for at least 4), and XO (aged for more than 10 years). “Armagnac can be seen sometimes as a product from the old ages, which is not true,” Grassa contends. “If you look at our armagnacs and taste them, they are full of crispness, fruitiness and finesse.”

Armagnac is France’s oldest form of brandy, dating back to the 14th century. But take a table at the many acclaimed eateries across Gascony, and you’ll find all sorts of ways in which the native liquid figures into contemporary cuisine.

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At La Table des Cordeliers, a Michelin-recommended restaurant built into a 13th century convent, armagnac is paired alongside molecular gastronomy, enlivening the flavors and textures of seafood foams and brûléed proteins. During dessert, an elegant XO shines against chunks of dark chocolate or Croustade Gascon – an apple tart-like local delicacy.

La Vie En Rose excels at preparing the region’s other prominent specialty: foie gras. Positioned just beyond the medieval walls in the historic village of Eauze, this two-story bistro pan sears duck liver to perfection, plating it atop grilled peaches in an armagnac reduction.

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Imaginative fare is peppered across the landscape, lining the village square within the hilltop fortress of Montreal, satisfying well-fed gourmands in the town of Condom. And whether accompanying the comforting cassoulet at Les Jardins de la Baïse, or at a purveyor adjacent the 13th century fortified village of Larressingle, armagnac is never more than an arms-length from reach.

“Gascony is special for its tranquility,” observes Grassa. “[We have] green scenery, situated at the foothills of the Pyrenees, preserved castles and generous cuisine.” But above all else, it’s the armagnac that might just earn this region the international recognition it deserves. As producers such as Tariquet amplify the category’s global visibility, folks around here might one day have to deal with living in a top-tier tourist destination. Grassa and his Gascogne neighbors aren’t worried. They are happy to have you. And there’s plenty of armagnac to go around.

Brad Japhe

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