Cognac is a small bustling town in the Charente department in South West France. Home to just over twenty thousand souls, it straddles the navigable Charente river. Follow these tips from a local to enjoy Cognac’s charms…
Relax and watch the world go by
The place to go is the central pavement café area on the Francois Premier roundabout. Sitting below the statue of Francis I, who was born here in 1494, watching the world go past or eating in the many excellent restaurants close by is perfect to get a feel for the town. Follow the pedestrian precinct down to the daily covered market opposite the lovely park.
Enjoy a tipple
Of course Cognac is well known for its brandy or “eau-de-vie”. La Cognatheque, a small boutique store, has more than 400 different Cognacs in stock. The famous spirit is big business.
Renowned across the world, “Cognac” is double distilled from a white wine grape juice, normally Ugni Blanc, that has been fermented to an alcoholic strength of around 7%. The town is surrounded by the vineyards, all grouped according to their classification.
Covering an area of 74,000 hectares or 182,000 acres the designated areas are called “Fins Bois”, “Petite Champagne”, “Bons Bois”, “Borderies” and sounding like a poor relation but far from it, “Bois Ordinaires”. Out of the group, the “Grande Champagne” with Segonzac as its self-styled capital, is recognised as the best area for producing “eau-de-vie” of the highest quality. However, each of these areas will produce a superb spirit with a different characteristic flavour and bouquet. Unlike a single malt Scotch whisky, Cognac is made up of various blends from different years and areas. Every Cognac house has a master blender who mixes the spirit to best effect.
Take a tasting tour
Back in the town, life goes on whatever is happening in the vineyards. The larger manufacturers conduct tours throughout the summer. Some days, when it’s very hot, the heady aroma of Cognac can be smelt in the air. This is what is known as the “angel’s share”, evaporating through the Troncais oak staves of the barrels.
My favourite visit is to the Hennessy distillery founded in 1765 by Richard Hennessy, an Irish businessman and military officer. They are one of the largest producers, now part of the LVMH and Diageo group. Their tour involves a trip from the main building across the river in a boat to the storage sheds. In here there are the barrel making tools and an exhibit showing the stills and how they work. The introduction on a surround screen is very atmospheric, showing all the seasons in the vineyards and the development of the grape on the vine.
The main fear in the barrel sheds is fire and some producers have their own resident firemen. With valuable eau-de-vie that can go back to the late 1800’s the liquor is preciously guarded.
Every year “Cognac Blues Passions”, a week-long music festival, takes place in July. Some of the music is free with artists playing in the cafés and bars as well as in the pretty public park. In the evening, there’s a great atmosphere with top bands performing. We saw Seal and BB King here for example.
Take a boat trip
In the early days barrels of Cognac would be moved up and down the river on flat bottomed boats called “Gabares”. Nowadays you can take a trip up the river to Jarnac on a replica Gabare called the Dame Jeanne named after the glass storage jars or “Demi Johns”. The boat departs from Cognac Port near Hennessy.
Andy Simpson lived in Cognac for several years before settling in Devon. He blogs at: blackbirdwoodindevon.blogspot.com