The last bottling of "Grape of the Art" ("GotA") was not long ago. When the 350 bottles of the 36-year-old "Hontambère 1985" went on sale at the beginning of February, almost all available stocks were sold out within 15 minutes - despite the high price of 175 euros per bottle.
Such prices, which have long been accepted with a tiresome shrug of the shoulders in the scene for coveted whiskey or rum, are rather unusual for Armagnac. Because the "little brother" of the much more famous cognac has a dusty, almost boring image. "Completely undeserved," says Robert Bauer, founding member of "Grape of the Art," in an interview with the star. Together with his colleagues Oliver Gerhardt, Christian Maier, Leonard Stumpf and Sascha Junkert, who now runs the online shop Armagnac.de full-time, the team has set itself the task of creating a new stage for this completely underrated spirit.
The French "water of life" is a brandy whose producers are primarily winemakers, i.e. they grow French wine in three specific wine-growing areas of the Armagnac region. "A high-quality wine is crucial for a good Armagnac, which is why extra vineyards are only cultivated for Armagnac," explains Junkert. Armagnac can only be called what comes from Bas-Armagnac, Haut-Armagnac or Ténarèze.
The spirit is then produced as follows: white wine is first pressed from a total of ten approved grape varieties, but primarily Ugni Blanc, Baco Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche. This is then distilled in mostly mobile stills made of copper in a single distillation process. The still alone, the so-called Alambic Armagnacais, exudes an enormous charm. Because the adventurous-looking, sometimes quite small devices are driven by a tractor from farm to farm and are "available from appointment to appointment for the wineries," explains Junkert. He also knows the reason for this: "Most wineries are so small that it would not be worthwhile for them to distil the Armagnac completely on their own. That is why it has always been done in cooperation with the specialized distillers." The distillate is then placed in new barrels from the Gascon Black Oak and stored there for at least a year, but often much longer.
For collectors, there is currently still a favorable time window, which has been firmly closed for whiskey and even rum for years. "What excited us about Armagnac at the beginning - and what is still the case: You can also buy very old vintages, i.e. 30s or 40s, relatively cheaply," Junkert reports, "only a few bottles, such as an Armagnac from 1895, cost four figures. Everything else is almost ridiculously cheap compared to other spirits." Exactly why that is, no one can really say. The creators of "Grape of the Art" assume that Armagnac's current reputation is also due to the fact that the product lacks the marketing it deserves. "Many don't even know the product," explains Robert Bauer, adding: "Or not anymore." There could be several reasons for this fact.
At the end of the 19th century, the phylloxera plague destroyed large parts of the French wine-growing regions, which had catastrophic consequences for the harvests for decades. When the situation had recovered thanks to new grape varieties, two world wars followed. In the post-war years, it is said, Armagnac was extremely popular. However, the high demand meant that the quality of the spirits dropped very sharply. The image was correspondingly damaged at the time and this resonates to this day.
Unlike whiskey and rum, no large corporations have made it their business to raise Armagnac from the valley. "There are 600 to 700 small producers, most of them family-owned. So far, there has hardly been anything like Diageo, Beam Suntory or LVMH in this world," explains Junkert.
Good for explorers like the guys from "Grape of the Art". After all, it was the combination of old stuff and good availability at fair prices that led to the founding of the company - and thus to the first renaissance of the spirit. At least within the collector scene.
"It started for me in Freiburg, when a bartender friend of mine gave me my first Armagnac ten years ago," remembers Junkert, "but then I lost sight of Armagnac again and only started to focus on it a few years later. There Then it clicked and I got more involved and ordered a selection of different bottlings from a few small farms with hands and feet."
Robert Bauer joined later. "Sascha and I know each other from the Internet. We first came into contact via Facebook, where we arranged to meet a few people from Stuttgart and the surrounding area to taste various spirits. The focus was actually on whiskey and rum. Armagnac then somehow came along and was always extremely positive in blind tastings."
Everyone quickly agreed: "Armagnac tastes very diverse, the range is huge. A good Armagnac can taste of dark or light fruit, have floral or heavy notes and even be reminiscent of high-end rum from Guyana," adds Bauer , "but in Germany there was very little choice. The 'gateway drug' came for everyone from L'Encantada (an independent bottler of Armagnac, editor's note), after which the German market quickly became thin."
At some point the circle of friends had the fax thick. Something had to happen. Because although Armagnac is on the shelves in some supermarkets, there was a severe lack of what the regulars were longing for: unadulterated and undiluted individual casks, often very old.
The idea of "Grape of the Art" was born and at the end of 2020 the project took concrete shape. In June 2021, the team bus took us to the growing regions in western France, somewhere between Bordeaux and Toulouse, for the first time. The hunt for "characteristic, special individual casks" was on. The years of counter training came at the right time. "Because we are all very familiar with rum and whiskey and were able to try many benchmarks there, we also knew what to look out for with Armagnac so that spirits lovers like us like it," says Bauer. The expertise of the "GotA" members is quite verifiable. Oliver Gerhardt is the founder of the world's largest rum database "Rum-X".
In December 2021 the time had come for the first time: With the "Le Frêche 2007", the young company presented its first bottling of a 13-year-old, powerful Armagnac together with L'Encantada. The debut was extremely well received in the trade press, and the 150 bottles sold out very quickly. Shortly thereafter followed a 20-year-old Armagnac from the "Domaine de Séailles", filled in 195 bottles, which also sold quickly. Meanwhile, "Grape of the Art" has eight releases behind it and is preparing the ninth bottling at this moment. On March 30, 2023 it will be that time again.
However, a lot happened behind the scenes before "Grape of the Art" bottled a new Armagnac. When the "GotA" crew arrives in the growing areas, there are many appointments. The team then either heads for farms where you have registered for a tasting before you leave, or you look along the streets where there are signs that lead to winegrowers and Armagnac manufacturers. "At Domaine Séailles, whose Armagnac we have bottled twice in the meantime, it all started with a small sign pointing to an inconspicuous grove," recalls Robert Bauer, "we were actually done with all the appointments that day and already on our way home, but somehow we were magically drawn to the farm there. We met Julien Franclet on his tractor and asked him if we could try something. A little later we stood in his basement and chatted for hours rummaged through the barrels."
It couldn't be more romantic and authentic - the makers of "Grape of the Art" know that too. That's why nothing is bought on site at first - no matter how difficult it may be at the moment. "You have to be very careful, at some point you're just not objective anymore. This basement feeling, the level, the smells, the setting - you can't let that lull you," reports Bauer. That's why there is a fixed rule with "Grape of the Art": A second round must follow.
After the trips to France, which usually last a week, the team takes a break and meets again for a tasting. Only when four out of five co-founders are enthusiastic about a certain bottling in the second run is the keg awarded. "There are rarely disputes," says Junkert, "sometimes we put each other to the test and praise a controversial sample especially to see how everyone else reacts. But mostly we agree." Bauer agrees.
As soon as the decision is made, the "cellar find" will be ordered. But the barrel does not leave the farms - because if "Grape of the Art" were bottling the Armagnac in Stuttgart, it should no longer be called that - that's just the way it is with a protected designation of origin. So the small company sends the bottles to France and gets them back filled and sealed. The guys like to do a lot of the work themselves.
From this point on, "Grape of the Art" differs significantly from other providers. Because while the majority of all Armagnac suppliers print clichéd vines, grapes, swords, script or royal-looking seals on the bottles, a "GotA" release stands out. The labels are made by designer Theresa Plos, and the entire online presence appears more modern and bold. And that is noticeable.
"Of course you can call most farmers, send an email or even shop in the online shop. But if in doubt, only someone who knows their way around will find them. We offer the producers a completely different platform and thus open up target groups that have previously been ignored have been left. These are, for example, rum enthusiasts who are willing to get to know something new, but are hardly interested in the standard bottlings. Meanwhile, cask strength, i.e. undiluted bottlings, are not very popular with regular customers in France. We act there as a link and offer the manufacturers buyers for their special barrels, which one actually wants to present to the world in their raw form," explains Bauer.
Social media also plays a huge role, the two explain. Many farms concentrate exclusively on production and direct sales, but are not on the screen due to the lack of a platform in the globally networked community of spirits lovers. Bauer: "That's where we come in. We kind of blow the dust off the barrels and pack them in bottles with a modern, complex design. Armagnac doesn't deserve its dusty image. However, the star of our bottlings is the producer, which is why I think the name of the respective domain is always prominently displayed on the label."
"Grape of the Art" is also about a new stage at its next big premiere. On June 24th and 25th, 2023 Germany's first Armagnac Festival will take place in Stuttgart and try to defy the countless whiskey and rum fairs.
Currently, almost all founders still have their main jobs and operate "GotA" more or less in their free time. "But the numbers look good and are going in the right direction," says Robert Bauer, who is responsible for sales, "but we're taking our time and concentrating on the product. It won't happen that we suddenly have 5 Punching out releases and somehow scaling them by hook or by crook. The market wouldn't be ready for that either."
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After all, Armagnac still feels what happens when you rush things. So reviving the reputation of the fine spirit is not a race, but a tasty marathon. In any case, the current situation is both a curse and a blessing. Because if Armagnac were as popular as whiskey or rum, the production of small businesses would (again) hardly be able to keep up. Like the spirit itself, the current positive development must slowly mature and adapt to the circumstances.
Now the next bottling is pending. A 33-year-old Armagnac 1988 from Domaine Danis, a small farm in the Côtes de Gascogne wine-growing region in southern France. The artistic label shows a St. Bernard with a barrel around his neck, vineyards, trees and mountains. What's waiting in the bottle remains to be seen. How long (or short) you can buy them, too.
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