LIZ SAGUES: Our award-winning wine writer is well-armed with Armagnac
This is cheating, just a bit. My brief is to write on wine, but there are other products of the grape ... like armagnac – spirit of the Musketeers and the fragrant expression of a particular distilling process and the white wines used in the alembic. But
This is cheating, just a bit. My brief is to write on wine, but there are other products of the grape ... like armagnac - spirit of the Musketeers and the fragrant expression of a particular distilling process and the white wines used in the alembic.
But let's return to its roots. British drinkers love Côtes de Gascogne, those aromatic, crisp and simply delicious whites which are the perfect good-value aperitif or light food wine. It wasn't long ago, however, when most of those wines ended up in the armagnac cask.
They came to our glasses as a result of a dip in the spirit market and - crucially - because André Dubosc, head of the deservedly lauded Producteurs Plaimont
co-operative, realised that grapes such as colombard had a fine future without distillation.
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Armagnac is on a roll again though, with British sales rising - thanks in no small measure to a decision by the bureaucrats (literally, the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l'Armagnac) to move into the 21st century rather than rely on the appeal of the past.
So alongside the traditional amber liquid there is la Blanche, successfully introduced into the hotspots of the cocktail world. And, for all armagnacs, there are new quality rules covering not only production but also how the final product tastes. And, rather than the narrow-minded grape selection which so often prevails in France, there is support for the varieties the producers want.
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Cocktails apart, there's another use of armagnac beyond pouring it into a balloon glass and sipping happily (all through a meal if you really love the stuff - I can vouch that's an unforgettable experience, though not for every day).
This other use is culinary - in duck liver pâté, for example, or enriching sauces for posh fowl or with prunes in ice cream. And there are croustades, those delicate confections of armagnac-marinated apples or prunes in tissue-paper thin pastry, their tops crumpled and gilded in the oven.
In Gascogny last autumn, I met Fabienne Laporte, whose artisanal croustades are in demand in restaurants and patissieries for miles around her farmhouse kitchen just outside Eauze - the armagnac capital.
Alongside some admiring chefs from the US, I watched as she deftly stretched a ball of dough to cover a large table, cut circles and laid them in tins, coated them in melted butter, added the apple slices and finally the crumpled top sheets, all again brushed with butter. Later we collected the just-warm finished article, sprinkled with more armagnac. Yum!
Sadly, unlike the bottled spirit, croustades don't travel. So to taste them in Gascogny, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org. co.uk) for details of an armagnac producer's gîte just a stroll from Fabienne's kitchen.
But to return to liquid delights. Here are two excellent, classic Côtes de Gascogne whites. The first, Marc Ducournau (£4.50), you'll find in your local Majestic and even if you stick just to that for your minimum 12 bottles, they won't gather dust for long. The other, Domaine Millet (£5.75) requires a little more effort - order from Yapp Brothers, www.yapp.co.uk, where quick delivery is free on two or more cases - but it's the true flavour of the region and the current 2005 vintage is especially good.
As for armagnac, most of the producers are small and too numerous to recommend. Try any one from a retailer you trust and flourish your glass like a true Musketeer.