A couple of seasons ago Armagnac took a brief star turn on television's "The Sopranos" as the subject of an importing scheme by the restaurateur Artie Bucco, who pronounces the venerable French brandy "the next vodka." The hapless Bucco may have been misguided—full-flavored Armagnac is nothing like clear vodka, either in taste or market segment—and star-crossed—he promptly takes a bath in the investment—but his gaffe did have the happy consequence of spotlighting France's well-kept brandy secret and the efforts of more competent, real-life importers of the spirit.
Armagnac, which for generations has been overshadowed in America by that other Gallic distilled wine, Cognac, is every bit its equal in taste, finesse and compatibility with a fine cigar. While the Armagnac region has a longer heritage in brandy, corporate Cognac giants have outmarketed the smaller estates of Armagnac. This is an irony you should take advantage of. Top-flight Armagnacs—at the XO and vintage levels—are bargain-priced next to comparable quality Cognacs.
Several factors distinguish Armagnac from Cognac. The grapes in the wines used to make Armagnac—Folle Blanche, Colombard, Ugni Blanc and Bacco—grow in the region's predominantly sandy soil, not in the chalky vineyards of Cognac. The wines are then distilled in the region's distinctive Alembic Armagnacias, a continuous copper still that needs but one run and allows for more of the wines' character to make it through to the final product. The resultant eau-de-vie is then aged in casks of the area's black oak, which imparts a naturally dark color. The final product is a brandy with the same sort of fighting spirit and romance as D'Artagnan, the fourth member of the Three Musketeers who also hailed from Gascony, the province within which Armagnac lies.
Armagnac uses the same terminology as Cognac to designate minimum age: VS (two years), VSOP (five years) and XO (six years), as well as Hors d'Age (10 years). Armagnac also widely markets vintage bottlings, a practice made plausible because so much of the character of the wine of a particular year can carry through to the brandy. Consider some of these excellent Armagnacs: the sweet and floral Larressingle; the chewy, toasty Tariquet; the caramel- and berry-like Cames and the nutty, fruity Laubade. They will not only enthrall your palate, but according to a recent medical study, Armagnac may also prevent blood clots, explaining why it is the region where the "French paradox" of low cardiovascular mortality rate is most prominent. To your health!