September 18, 2006

Thursday- Armagnac

This is terroir on a plate. The deep golden ochre of a small patch of land down the hill from a stone building the same color called 'le Rey' is the quintessential definition of terroir. This is what makes armagnac--Armagnac. And this is what makes Guy Arrouy's spectacular armagnac a magical mouthful of honey-colored scents and flavors- the taste of Gascony.

On Day Four of the French Culinary Institute's "Week in Gascony", we drive the slow hills south into the Gers and into the heart of Armagnac production near Eauze. Here the Teneraze and the Bas-Armagnac regions nestle side by side producing both highly perfumed and full flavored eau-de-vies. Guy's land straddles the geological divide and so his output of both exceptional Cotes de Gascogne white wines and a bold and memorable brandy profit from this marriage. It's in the land, boys and girls.

Our 'tour' is in response to my love of this proud winemaker. Guy Arrouy knows I dote on his clean palate and fresh-mouthed wines. His Cote de Gascogne starts with a complex citrusy juice that he draws off the outside vats for us to taste. Sauvignon Blanc, picked and pressed yesterday, is sweet, fresh and hold the promise of a complex little wine. Next, we enter the stock room to taste last year's finished product- a Sauviginon/Colombard blend. But Guy's own pride is a 100% Gros Manseng wine that recalls the late harvest sweet wines of the Jurancon- this is a dry-finished Gascon cousin. With more patience than most American's allow, and only after we have sipped and swirled and swallowed approving the post-breakfast libation, do I dare reveal my dark ulterior motive. Dark as aged brandy, dark as a dimly lit cave, dark and smooth and soft as only a 36 year old armagnac can be.

By definition, brandy produced within the terroir-defined appellation is only called armagnac after ageing three years in oak barrels. When Guy invites us (ok, I begged) to enter the quiet unpretentious chai tucked behind a dozen large cement vats I began to whisper. This is hallowed ground; underscoring the resting spirits there is a zen-like attention to this private reserve. Don't show up and expect to buy any of this! Guy Arrouy only bottles on demand and the large 400 liter casks of resting 1970 and 1972 vintages continue to evolve in rustic tranquility.

With a long clear tube he siphons off generous tastes of his prized vintages. 1970."This is what they sell at Maxim's in Paris." 1982. "Someone in Washington imported this for a diplomat." 1990. "This is the last of what I make. The youngest but not too young." It is as delicious and seductive as only a 16 year-old farm girl can be. With a little bit of cajoling and a lot of gratitude, Guy finds an empty unmarked bottle and fills it by the siphoning tube. It is the color of deep caramel; the color of a slow-burning flame; the color of over 5000 sunsets that have warmed these stone walls cradling it's evolution. It smells of pruneaux- cooked plums and pear. It tastes of cocoa and vanilla and bay. It is smooth in the mouth leaving a lovely long souvenir in the mouth. It is Gascony in a bottle. This is a cook's brandy.

Thursday lunch at Chez Simone in Montreal-du-Gers finished with armagnac. Dinner back at the French Kitchen that night was splashed with armagnac- in sauces and used for deglazing pans. But the moment of glory came when we could sit around the vast round cask-bottom table sated from another day of discovery and good food. Passing the bottle of Guy Arrouy's 'Domaine de Rey' from hand to hand was the finishing taste of just another day in a Week in Gascony.

Thursday's Child. Guy Arrouy- distiller and wine maker

Domaine de Rey, Gondrin, Southwest France

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