By Eric Olson, Travel Host
It was once called the “water that burns,” and was feared and respected, for it came from alchemists and practitioners of mystical medical arts. It was the product of a centuries-long search for the water of life, a universal medicine.
We will soon be seeing Montreal-du-Gers and perhaps the villa, along with gently rolling hills, gorgeous fields and old fortified chateaux. It will be a reunion with people who love life, food to die for and lovely wines and… the water that burns.
Some of these Roman grapes are still grown here, including a rich and nearly untamable wine known as Madiran. (Note: Madiran blended with quality Bordeaux is unrivalled when paired with duck. Those who travel with us this September will discover this largely unknown but exceptional combination first hand).
When I feel acquainted with my eau-de-vie, I allow a drop to fall onto the tongue and mix into my mouth. New layers arise, and the hearty aromas fill the nose. This is why only a tiny amount is taken at first – it can be overwhelming to do so otherwise. One appreciates this step. It is amazing that this delicious liquid comes from little grapes, which are transformed in the most interesting way.
This method preserves the complex aromas of the young grapes, which are distilled shortly after harvest both because of tradition and for eminently practical Gallic reason. In earlier times, before the invention of sulfites for preservation, wine would often go bad in the barrel. By raising the alcohol level, the wine could be concentrated – and preserved. To preserve full flavor the gentler alembic method is used. It’s an art, practiced by master distillers who travel the region with 100-year old portable stills during wintertime, the traditional time for this work.
Finally, I allow a full sip. It is gratifying, intricate on yet another level. This is not the crude fire of cognac, it is something also altogether. Warming and soft, yet intense. It is alchemical, releasing it’s deepest mysteries only to those take the time to become acquainted.
But what does it add up to? What am I drinking with such appreciation?
It is of course Armagnac, the oldest and according to many (including me) still the best of the remarkable distilled spirits that come from France.
Viticulture from the Romans, distillation from the Arabs, storage barrels from the Celts. This fortunate triangulation of arts all happened in an oak-leaf shaped "department" of France called Gers, part of a larger region known as Gascony. Almost all of the Armagnac of France is produced in just three areas in Gers: Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Tenarize, and Haut Armagnac.
In the middle of the region is the village of Vic-Fezensac, which is the location of an ancient water mill now converted into a charming B&B known as Le Moulin de Laumet, or Laumet’s Mill. It is also the home of Vincent Laterrade, our charming innkeeper and a former sommelier at several Michelin 3-star restaurants.
Vincent is now a master cellar master with his own “cave,” or storage room for Armagnac. One enters the Moulin through this “cave,” which is imbued with the gentle and lovely aromas of old Armagnac, thus deftly introducing the inn, the product, and the “cave” to the visitor in a gracious and very French way.
Le Moulin de Laumet (along with another nearby B&B) is where we will stay during our upcoming return tour of Bas Armagnac in September. My wife Nancy and I are hosting a 9-day all inclusive culinary and cultural immersion to experience the charming lifestyle, cuisine, sights and people of this part of Gascony.
On our first evening, Vincent will prepare a “Garbure” – a well-loved regional duck stew – over the fire in the massive old fireplace in the dining room. Later he will teach us the intricacies and traditions of Armagnac, with offerings from his own selections.
The tour is being organized by our masterful travel planners, Matt and Brandon Hill, also known as The Hill Guys. They will also accompany the group to provide concierge support and excellent company. Participation is limited to only 12 people to maintain an intimate experience.
To learn more about our travel tour, which is designed to be informative and interesting, yet refreshing and relaxing and not at all like a “typical tour,” please visit http://www.hillguystravel.com/gear-down-in-gascony-tour.html.