Nicholas Palazzi is a man of singular tastes. A négociant of brandies who operates PM Spirits, he bottles only from single casks (mainly Cognac) procured through his close relationships with small, independent artisan distillers in a world otherwise dominated by huge corporate houses intent on blending. One of his current releases, Domaine d'Espérance 2000, is a single-cask vintage Armagnac, but is made by a single producer from a single grape—folle blanche—cultivated in the Bas-Armagnac sub-region in a single year.
While the grape is seductive, using it exclusively is far from ordinary. Palazzi describes the fruit as the finicky entrant in the grapes from which Armagnac may be made (which include Bacco, colombard and ugni blanc). Folle blanche has fallen off in favor ever since the 19th-century phylloxera infestation, to which it showed little resistance. Poor yields and difficulties with managing it have kept it in the shadow of the hybrid Bacco 22-A. However, folle blancs offer an extremely floral, light and elegant brandy, with pronounced grape and orchard fruits.
The hallmark of the PM Spirits bottlings is that they contain no additives—no coloring, no sugar, not even water. (Typically, Armagnac and Cognac are reduced from cask strength to the minimum allowable 80 proof). "This really impacts the way it unfolds on the palate," says Palazzi. "I'm trying to show that Armagnac can be something else."
He sourced the Armagnac from a small operation in the sandy soils of the Bas-Armagnac. Domaine d'Espérance is currently run by scions of the de Montesquiou family who reentered the business in the 1990s subsequent to the family having sold the Marquis de Montesquiou brand in the 1960s to finance a political campaign.
While the Armagnac region, part of Gascony in southwest France, produces less than Cognac, its cousin to the north, it has a longer heritage—by about a century-and-a-half—in making brandy. Both operate as legally mandated appellation denominations. (To be labeled Armagnac or Cognac a brandy must be grown and distilled in either of those respective regions.)
A major distinction comes in distillation. Cognac is distilled twice, to about 144 proof. In Armagnac, the wine is distilled only once to a level of 100 to 120 proof. Both regions typically blend to maintain consistency from bottle to bottle. However, the vintage-year concept is far more developed in Armagnac, where many producers make bottlings available with a statement of the year in which it was born. It is quite popular to buy them as gifts for celebrating landmark birthdays. In fact, Palazzi says that when he's looking to procure a cask from a significant year (say the 1993 vintage this year, when it would be appropriate as a gift for 21-year-olds) the price to him rises 15 to 20 percent.
Vintage brandies tend to reflect both the climatic conditions under which the grapes were grown and the cycles under which maturation was achieved. Vintage whiskeys, on the other hand, are more affected by aging conditions (e.g. were the winters cold, the summers hot) during the time it spends in the cask as the grains they are made from are more uniform from year to year.
Evidently, the year 2000 was a good year for folle blanche. We found a couple of cigars that were in agreement.
Domaine d'Espérance Bas-Argmanac 2000, 100 Percent Folle Blanche (tasted at 101.2 proof, or 50.6 percent alcohol by volume, $150 for a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep amber color (with no color added). Medium-width, slow legs.
NOSE: A bouquet filled with honey and backed by a strong floral and fruit character. Showing red berries and honeysuckle, it quickly develops such spices as cinnamon and licorice as well as displaying a nutty side with almond/hazelnut notes.
PALATE: On the tongue it quickly restates its floral/fruity side with berries, grapes and pears, as well honeysuckle. Then the spice quotient reappears and you're tasting anise, cinnamon, cardamom, mint and pepper.
FINISH: A long finish follows with most of the flavors of palate tagging along before its rich nut character-hinted at on the nose resurfaces-and does the bowing out.
Aging Room Havao Breve (Dominican Republic, 5 inches by 38 ring gauge, $5.09, 91 points, October 2014 Cigar Aficionado) A thin cigar whose creamy, dense smoke layers the palate with citrus notes and sweet almond paste intonations. Lots of character for such a small smoke. The sweet side of this Armagnac dives right into the center of the cigar and props up its nutty side as well as playing well with the Aging Room's full character. The cigar brings out the almond and hazelnut component of the Domaine d'Esperance without having to wait for the finish. The brandy's honey fills out the Aging Room, lending it quite some hearty notes and making it more full-bodied.
La Flor Dominicana Ligero Oscuro Natural Cabinet (Dominican Republic, 4 3/4 inches by 48 ring gauge, $6.60, 89 points, October 2014 Cigar Aficionado) A dark and oily robusto with a rich, woodiness that takes on notes of black pepper before leaving an oily impression on the finish. The nuts and spice of this brandy take almost no time to seek out and enhance like characteristics in the cigar, making it deeper and smoother. The La Flor's wood becomes instantly rich and mellow. At the same time the Armagnac's meaty, orchard fruit comes into full view, with lush berries as well. A hard-to-walk-away-from partnership of components seemingly meant for each other.