Cognac tour France: When it comes to cognac, it’s all about the barrel says Geraldine Smith as she finds out how the angels take their share…
Cognac, a grape brandy, is produced in the Charente-Maritime region of France, mainly within the surrounding areas of the town of Cognac.
Staying about ten miles away from Cognac in the sleepy hamlet of Saint Preuil, we feast our eyes on the wall to wall greenery of rolling vineyards, musing over the names of the owners proudly displayed at the vineyard entrances. We marvel at the silence around us, the empty roads, the sleepy villages….where is everyone?
The Cognac region is home to hundreds of producers of the fine nectar. However, it is rare to see any of the work force behind such a huge industry. Occasionally, beyond the vineyards you can see a collection of neat buildings, presumably the powerhouse of the estate. How marvellous it would be to take a peek into this fascinating world of the precious grape.
We make our way to Segonzac in the heart of the Grande Champagne region and to the family business of Paul Beau, producer of Grand Champagne Cognac.
“I will start with an apology.” says Sophie Beau as she greets us. “This is the first time I have conducted a tour, and my English is not very good.” In fact, Sophie’s English is very good, she is delightful and the tour of the estate is perfect. My husband and I are the only visitors so Sophie can practise her English and we get to practise our very poor French.
The vineyard and most of the buildings we visit were created at the end of the nineteenth century by Samuel Beau. There is a wonderful old black and white photograph on the office wall, depicting the family and the employees in the vineyard in 1912. Samuel died in 1914 and his son Paul took over the business which remains in the family to this day. The current head of the family business is Michel, Sophie’s father in law.
Sophie explains to us that over the years the business has modernised and developed while staying true to the family principles of producing the finest cognac in the region. She patiently takes us through the complex production process, accompanied by visits to the various production buildings, including a peek into the magnificent cellars. Here, the ageing process takes place over many years in a dark, very pleasant smelling silence.
I have never taken the slightest interest in barrels – only the contents have ever caught my attention. However, I received an education on all things barrel related while I was in this dark cellar where row upon row of oak caskets were concentrating the flavours, aromas and colours of their contents, some for just a few years, others for many more. What an introduction I had to this humble vessel that is so vital to the production of the best tasting liquors. It was fascinating to hear about the traditional skills of the local coopers who created the perfect barrels to age the brandy.
An interesting fact here is the alcohol evaporates considerably through the barrels during the ageing process and is often referred to as “the angels share.” I love that term and the picture of boozy angels it conjures up. Traditionally the dark cellars where the oldest cognac age are called “Paradise”.
While technology and innovation have been inevitably introduced to support the business as it is today, the method for measuring and inspecting during the distillation process has not changed in over one hundred years. It is entirely down to the nose of the Head Distiller. It is currently Michel as head of the family but Sophie tells us that she and her husband are currently learning “the nose” method. A huge responsibility.
During the tour we are joined by Michel, a lovely friendly man, and we feel honoured that the family, who are clearly very busy, make the time to ensure our visit is as informative and enjoyable as possible.
This seems like a good time to taste the various cognacs. They taste so much better when you are more informed about the process.
Back home in England, witheach sip I take of my cognac I remember my visit and the beauty of the estate and its rich history. To see the skills preserved and passed from generation to generation is fascinating, and in today’s world seems quite rare. The visit with a genuine family who are clearly proud of their business and heritage is a joy.
Geraldine Smith lives in Greater Manchester, England. She is retired, enjoys travelling with her husband.