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In the Spirit of a Good Brandy

May 04, 1999|CHRIS RUBIN

France's oldest brandy isn't Cognac--it's Armagnac, a.k.a. "the velvet flame" for its smooth but fiery qualities, and "France's other brandy" because it has been so totally eclipsed by Cognac.

Any brandy lover would be wise to sample Armagnac (produced in the heart of Gascony, also famous for foie gras and Musketeers), as this spirit got its start in the 16th century, about 200 years before Cognac, and, many connoisseurs say, is the better and more flavorful of the two. Well-known brands include Lapostolle (from the family that produces Grand Marnier), Sempe, Larressingle and Cles Des Ducs.

But time may be running out. A century ago, more than 247,000 acres of grapes were farmed in Armagnac to make the eponymous brandy, but that number had dropped to 37,000 in 1992 and today stands at less than 4,000.

Cerbois, part of Gabriel & Andreu Fine Spirits, has been buying vintage Armagnacs and is just now releasing its product in the United States, from the introductory level VSOP and the premium Reserve Personelle to assorted vintage-dated bottles going all the way back to 1900. Local establishments, including Lucques and Greenblatt's in West Hollywood, stock some of the bottles. For jet-setters, the bar at Paris' Hotel de Crillon, under brandy-loving sommelier Frederic Lebel, author of "The Spirit of Armagnac," has one of the world's great repositories of the liquor.

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