Sunday, 9 October 2011

Armagnac Tour - Samalens (part two)

Our second distillery of the day, Samalens, was an absolute delight. We were greeted by Pierre, the great-grandson of John Samalens, who founded the distillery in 1882.
Located in the heart of Bas Armagnac, the landscape was notably different from Tenareze - not least by the surprising abundance of sunflower fields.

Boasting eight stills, the oldest of which dates back to the 19th century, Samalens is the largest distillery in Armagnac. Equipped with both pot and column stills (another unique feature), the distillery itself is a sight to behold. The column stills you see in the picture below are the earliest examples of column stills I have ever had the pleasure of seeing 'in real life', and certainly not how one would imagine a column these days. In fact, they look more like industrial ovens!
Armagnac stills, notably different from the more ornate versions in Cognac

Each is equipped with 12 individual baffling plates, crafted in 1970, which are so complex as to be prohibitively expensive for modern trademen to recreate. They were buuilt to last, too: except for having replaced wood and coal fires for gas to heat the stills, they have remained unchanged for over 100 years.
As distant church bells echoed around the concrete floored distillery, the 'spirit of armagnac' became all consuming. It was definitely time for a trip to the cellars...

I'm willing to bet that the wine enthusiasts reading this blog will shudder at the sight of this cellar. Dust, dirt, and cobwebs are a stark contrast to the clinical cleanliness to be found in most wine cellars these days. With armagnac, however, things aren't quite so fussy. The alcohol level in the spirit is so high whilst in cask that the contents literally preserve themselves, fending off any bacteria which may get close.
The oak which forms these casks is selected by Pierre himself. Trees of between 100 and 150 years old are felled, and only the lowest five metres of the tree are used. Cut into staves by highly skilled workmen, they are then left outdoors for around two years to dry in the open air.
Oak staves drying outdoors before being made into barrels

Moving into the 'Paradis' cellar was my 'kid in a sweet shop' moment of the day. Having stood proudly since 1888, these two small rooms contain within their walls more than 95% of the world's armagnac over 100 years old. Simply incredible. In all honesty, it's a humbling experience to stand there - especially in the company of the founder's great grandson.
The 'Paradis' cellar
Not long after, we were whisked through to another room for a serious bout of armagnac tasting.
Starting out with the Blanche was an excellent choice. This is a realtively new expression for armagnac. Completely unaged, it is surprisingly approachable, with very well integrated alcohol. I can see this making an impact on cocktail lists around the country even as I write, finding its way into mojito's and caipirinha's before some bright spark comes up with a signature cocktail for it (yes, I'm working on it!).

In the range of 'traditional' armagnacs, we also saw the VSOP (8 years old), the Reserve Imperiale XO (12 years old), the Vieille Relique (15 years old), and the 'Millenium Millesime 1900', which is, as the name suggests over 100 years old!
The real gem for me (bearing in mind my limited budget) was the Vieille Relique. Constituting entirely single distilled grapes, from the Grande Bas Armagnac area, this stunning example had a very well developed maturity: full bodied, earthy, and with true rancio right through to the long finish.
Of course, the 1900 was also a treat. After 60 years on the barrel, the spirit was transferred to glass demi-john back in 1967. Drinking this in the cellars of the same age feels like a very personal kind of time travel. In fact, Marty McFly can keep the Delorean - just leave me here with a glass, and I'm happy to wait as long as necessary to get back to the future.

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