Food & Drink

Armagnac: can France’s craft spirit keep up with demand?

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Whereas different spirits are dominated by big manufacturers and companies, Armagnac producers are true independents, usually with tiny groups – and their artisanal method is paying dividends.

Armagnac: “gross sales have rocketed”

*This characteristic was initially printed within the September 2021 concern of The Spirits Enterprise journal.

When the primary lockdowns started in 2020, Armagnac suffered badly. “The primary couple of months of the pandemic had been fairly horrible; every thing simply got here to a halt,” says Maeva Vidonne, head of communications on the spirit’s commerce physique – the Bureau Nationwide Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIA).

“Quite a lot of producers began doing on-line gross sales themselves, and people who often bought direct to shoppers on the property or at commerce gala’s, did the entire drive‐via factor.” Demand progressively elevated and “curiously sufficient, gross sales have rocketed because the starting of 2021, with a 21% enhance in quantity in France, and 28% in exports,” she says, quoting figures to the tip of Could that additionally confirmed a 33% leap in export worth.

Whether or not that momentum could be sustained stays to be seen, however Jéróme Lassus from Le Membership des Marques, whose manufacturers embrace Jean Cavé and Clós des Ducs, sounds optimistic. “To this point it’s higher than 2019,” he says. “Final 12 months the nationwide market was down by 20% and our exports had been up by 7%. Now it’s exploding.”

Development pattern

Denis Lesgourgues, proprietor of Château de Laubade, is equally upbeat. “Earlier than the pandemic, we posted a reasonable however constant progress previously 5 years,” he says. “General, we registered a 12% progress in 2020 over 2019 despite the pandemic. That is outstanding in view of the closing of the bars and eating places; and 2021 is on the identical progress pattern.”

In contrast with Cognac, which is vastly greater in scale and pushed by world energy manufacturers reminiscent of Hennessy and Martell, Armagnac seems virtually unbranded. The large gamers are absent, bar a token presence from Pernod Ricard with its Marquis de Montesquiou Armagnac, and La Martiniquaise‐Bardinet with Saint‐Vivant, and neither might be thought of strategic manufacturers for his or her French homeowners. This leaves the spirit’s annual manufacturing of round 5 million bottles, in contrast with Cognac’s 2019 gross sales of 216.5m, within the arms of a whole lot of smaller producers. The ensuing picture is much extra various and artisan, which is an enormous a part of Armagnac’s attraction.

“We are saying Armagnac is ticking all the present bins of shoppers who’re on the lookout for authenticity,” says Vidonne. “They’re on the lookout for transparency by way of manufacturing strategies in an AOC with comparatively strict guidelines to make sure high quality. And so they’re on the lookout for direct contact with the women and men who produce it. You get that with Armagnac – it’s so ‘craft’; and that’s ‘craft’ within the true sense of the phrase.”

Serge Der‐Sahaguian, CEO of Janneau, agrees, and says: “Janneau is likely one of the massive Armagnac manufacturers, however there are simply three folks concerned in producing our eau‐de‐vie. The large teams obtained out of Armagnac some 20 years in the past, and I don’t see them coming again quickly.”

Exports account for 90% of Janneau’s volumes, in contrast with 55% for the class as a complete, and it is likely one of the few Armagnacs in journey retail. “Obligation free is one among our 4 key markets,” he says, cheerfully admitting that 2020 was a catastrophe for the sector. “We had deliberate in our funds for a 90% fall, however in truth we did even worse, and had been down 95%.”

He believes the connection with different French brandies is “not as apparent as you’d assume,” and says: “Armagnac didn’t profit from the big boom you’ve seen in Cognac, and we’re not particularly focusing on Cognac drinkers slightly than the individuals who admire single malts, for instance.”

Jérôme Castledine, Château Bordeneuve’s industrial director, feels the identical means, and says: “We shouldn’t make direct comparisons with Cognac. It’s not the identical product and doesn’t fulfil the identical perform.”

Armagnac being distilled
Demystify the class

A key level of distinction between the 2 spirits is classic Armagnac, which is aged in casks stretching again a long time within the producers’ cellars and whose bottles are sometimes purchased as items for large birthdays and celebrations. What number of of them collect mud ready for that elusive ‘special day’ to be drunk is unknown, however Castledine is satisfied classic Armagnac has restricted the market, including: “My focus for the final 4 or 5 years has been making an attempt to demystify and open up the class.”

The BNIA is on the same mission and slightly than speaking up the vintages now actively promotes youthful expressions together with blanche Armagnac, which comes straight from the nonetheless with no wooden ageing. “They’re geared toward shoppers who need to open a bottle, and don’t need to spend a whole lot of {dollars},” says Vidonne. “They’re straightforward to drink, and you need to use them in cocktails or over ice. They’re not complicated; they’re approachable.”

Classic Armagnac has premium credentials but in addition a barely fusty stereotype shopper of an previous man sipping it by the fireplace. “Armagnac needs to be on the cocktail record, and one thing needs to be achieved to get it out of consumption by the hearth,” says Der‐Sahaguian. “However I feel blanche is a little bit of a gimmick. It’s higher to concentrate on our core strengths.” In Janneau’s case which means blends like VS, VSOP and XO, and varied age statements.

Dartigalongue, a small, household‐owned producer with annual gross sales of 55,000 bottles, carries the same line-up, although it lately added an Expertise vary of a lot youthful expressions. These embrace a blanche known as Un‐Oaked, a two-year‐previous Dry‐Cellar and Double‐Oaked.

Younger product

“We’ve got to discover a method to get worth from Armagnac lower than 10 years previous,” says Dartigalongue’s managing director, Benoît Hillion. The normal concentrate on classic expressions has stored the class ticking over, however not booming, which is why he feels the business should take into consideration younger merchandise. He says: “We distil sufficient for our present gross sales, and Armagnac manufacturing has been fairly steady for the previous 10 years. If the market is extra constructive, we should distil extra.” After France’s devastating spring frost this 12 months, he says: “The 2022 classic can be actually vital for everyone.”

At Membership des Marques, Lassus hopes the area can keep a steadiness between manufacturing, gross sales and what’s laid down for the longer term. “If we promote an excessive amount of, in 10‐15 years’ time we received’t be capable to provide any 2021 Armagnac,” he says. “We’ve got to supply extra to answer demand, and have sufficient to maintain in our cellars, in any other case we are going to lose the differentiating issue of our vintages.”

The BNIA is engaged on the problem, as Vidonne says: “We’ve got a strategic plan for the following 10 years, which we hope to launch by the tip of this 12 months, by way of what we’re going to plant, what we’re going to distil and what we’re going to promote. If we maintain producing what’s been bought, we’re by no means actually going to take off.”

The BNIA believes there’s market share for the taking, however its plan to steer producers to pump up the quantity may show difficult, as Castledine explains: “The issue they’re going to face is that there are fairly just a few ‘grandma and grandpa’ setups, who’re fabulously proficient at rising grapes and distilling, however they don’t perceive advertising.”

And even people who do might wrestle to search out the time or sources required, particularly in someplace just like the US the place “you need to chuck cash at it,” says Castledine. “Sadly, it’s an enormous boys’ market, and it’s finest to attend for folks to return to you, saying ‘can I’ve your product’.”

Château de Laubade claims to be the main model by worth within the US. “Armagnac is seen very positively by the US whiskey and Bourbon shopper as a real craft spirit,” says Lesgourgues. Each Armagnac and Cognac had been briefly hit by 25% US tariffs imposed on 12 January 2021, however these had been removed on 5 March and don’t appear to have dampened demand for Armagnac. Within the first 5 months of this 12 months the worth of US shipments jumped by 59.6%, in accordance with the BNIA.

Château de Laubade

“Once I went to the US in 2018 for the primary time, I needed to clarify what Armagnac was,” says Lassus, however three years later he’s impressed by the extent of data amongst shoppers.

Within the US and elsewhere it appears folks have had the time and inclination to discover the class on-line which has develop into a burgeoning gross sales platform for producers.

“By spending just a few kilos on e‐commerce, you possibly can generate actual turnover,” says Der‐Sahaguian at Janneau. “And we’ve obtained excellent leads to the UK from Amazon.”

On-line gross sales had been additionally sturdy via the unbiased off‐commerce, in accordance with Martin Oppenheim at Fells, Janneau’s UK importer.

“It actually helped decide up numerous the slack from responsibility free, which nearly stopped in a single day, and the on‐commerce, which noticed a really fast decline,” he says. The BNIA stories UK shipments grew by 13.9% by worth this 12 months to 31 Could, which provides to the case for growing manufacturing. Will Armagnac producers make the leap and settle for the dangers concerned, or will they stick with it producing to order? It appears France’s ‘different brandy’ is at a crossroads.

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