7 SEPTEMBER 1951, Page 8

A Miser of Armagnac


ttF you had sold your armagnac, you would no longer have it." My inane remark set the wrinkles of Joseph's weather-beaten face expanding in a radiant smile.. His little blue eyes twinkled, and the corners of his thin lips twitched. His expression combined a bland childlike simplicity with more than a touch of that sly cunning which the peasant shares with the wild animals he knows so well. My words for him were full of meaning, and he repeated them to himself chuckling with satisfaction: " If I had sold my eau-de-vie, I should no longer have it."

A sturdy, thickset Gascon of 76, Joseph was standing in the vineyard of his property, 20 or 30 rich acres of vines, pasture and wood, in the heart of that Bas-Armagnac which is to armagnac what Grande Champagne is to cognac, the very apple of the eye. The sun was scorching with the menace of a storm, and as he worked in the strange mixture of clay and sand, known as boulbene and beloved by the vine, with two of his tenants who shared both his labours and his profits, 'his head was protected by an immense straw hat with the beret from which he was never parted neatly fitted over its crown. On his feet he wore boatlike ' sabots enclosing carpet-slippers—a favourite foot-gear in these parts even for motor-cyclists—and pale blue socks. He had been complaining that no one would buy his armagnac. My friend Castarede, who was initiating me into the mysteries of armagnac, had warned me that Joseph was as miserly over his famous brandy as Harpagon over his gold, and scared off intending purchasers by asking preposterous prices, preferring to part only with wines and spirits by which he set no great store and live, not, indeed, meanly—he would have given us a splendid lunch, if we had been able to accept his invitation—but thriftily and very simply, consuming only what his estate provided. The rarely visited and sparsely populated region of Armagnac lies inland between Bordeaux and the Pyrenees. It is a great mistake to think that armagnac brandy is only an inferior kind of cognac. Distilled on a different principle, with a much lower alcoholic strength, it has an individuality of its own. It does not attain the heights of ethereal transcendence to which the finest cognacs aspire, but it boasts modest charms of its own which are hardly less attractive. Armagnac represents in volume one-fifth of the wine employed for its distillation, cognac one- eighth, and, consequently, armagnac retains a higher percentage of wine constituents other than alcohol. It smacks more of the soil, and is altogether less commercialised, pleasing by its unsophisticated freshness and a variety of such scents as a country lane offers on a summer day.

Castarede wanted to taste Joseph's 1950 eau-de-vie as a matter of business ; Joseph was all agog to show off the-masterpieces he had grown and distilled to a foreigner who had come specially from England to study armagnac. So we strolled through the wood to the farm and the chai, the lofty massive building propped with huge oak beams, where the brandies were stored. On the way Joseph grumbled at old age which prevented him from working as hard as he used. Rheumatism had driven him to seek relief at a Pyrenean spa, and so forced him to leave his native Armagnac for the first time in' his life.

We plunged from the Midi glare into the freshness and dim light of the great chai. " 0, the dark translucence of the deep- eyed cool 1 ' Never did the lord of a great house do the honours of 'his collections, never did a painter display the works of his art, with greater zest than that with which Joseph submitted to our appreciation examples of his wine-growing and wine- distilling skill ; but Castarede's requests for a taste of last year's spirit were quietly ignored as if they had not been made. Was the 1950 brandy below par ? Or was it too good to sell ?

Joseph might be a miser when it came to selling his treasure ; he was positively extravagant in the precautions he took to set off its beauties to the best possible advantage. A test tube at the end of a string served to bring up the spirit from the cask, and there followed a ritual of purification worthy of the Orphic mysteries. The glass held lengthwise was revolved, and brandy poured liberally over its outer surface to remove any speck of exterior contamination ; and then its inside was rinsed and swilled with even greater care. In the end almost as much spirit was used to cleanse the glass as eventually went into it for the taster, and this process was repeated as we passed from cask to cask, so that each sample might stand or fall by its own isolated qualities. With tears in his eyes Joseph implored us to heat the glass thoroughly in our hands before we attempted to savour the bouquet of its contents or submit their aroma to our palates. Were we not dealing with the subtlest of perfumes and the most delicate shades of taste ?

Two vast foudres, or vats, pei-ched high on scaffolding, held the gem of Joseph's collection, eau-de-vie of the renowned 1904 vintage, on which the leading armagnac firms had been casting covetous eyes.for years and years. Sixty years ago he had helped to make these giant casks out of the home-grown black oak in which alone armagnac can be matured. Mature brandy both in cognac and armagnac owes nearly as much to the wood as it does to the wine from which it is distilled ;. for the colourless spirit takes from the oak staves all its colour and half 'its taste and bouquet.

" Yes,' said my friend in my ear, " but Joseph's eaux-de-vie have long ago drained the wood of all its virtues. They ought to have been bottled years ago. Now they can only go downhill. He knows it, but he will never sell."

Joseph was leading the way to the house for the tasting of the 1904, which could not be conveniently drawn from the foudres, and I asked Castarede what value he would put on Joseph's stock of fine brandies. " At present rates I should reckon about fifty million francs." Fifty million francs is worth a good deal more than its exchange value of £50,000 to the average Frenchman, and enormously more to such an' Armagnac peasant as Joseph. Yet who can doubt that he has- been wise in his generation-?

The furniture of our host's room 'consisted of a cupboard and a table, well garnished with bottles and glasses, some rush- bottomed chairs, and on a peg a top hat which must need a deal of attention before Joseph can don it for solemn occasions. No doubt my expert friend was right when he said that the 1904 was going downhill: but I found it remarkable with an agreeable tang of its own, still beautifully fresh, and particularly enjoyed that mellowness of age known as rancio, so-called because in excess it becomes rancidity.

We tasted and talked. In 1914 Joseph's two brothers were called up, and he, the eldest, left in charge at home. During their absence he sold a cask of his 1904 brandy for what 'seemed to him the fabulous price of 5,000 francs. A year later, when his brothers came home on leave, they were furious with him for having wasted their common patrimony ; he could now have got 10,000 francs for the same cask. He was not to be caught twice. Now his brothers are dead, he has not married, and what will happen to his armagnac when he dies no one knows.

This hoarding of armagnac has made him a potentially rich man, and he has had great pleasure from it. It has been fun watching would-be buyers' faces when they have heard his selling- price. It has been real enjoyment to demonstrate to his neigh- bours the greater virtue of his soil, his mastery of viticulture and the superiority of his own distilling. Better amass what can be drunk or eaten than paper, or even gold ; and, better still, Joseph feels that he has done what all Frenchmen love to do--cheated the tax-collector.