Cognac in France

Cognac is on the river Charente between the towns of Angoulême and Saintes. The majority of the town has been built on the river's left bank. The town is on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela

The town gives its name to one of the world's best-known types of brandy or eau de vie. It must be made in certain areas around the town of Cognac and must be made according to strictly-defined regulations to be granted the name Cognac. Cognac is a unique spirit in that it is double-distilled. We visited Hennessy, Martell, Otard, all within walking distance of the hotel, and Remy Martin ~ 3 k outside the town

There are six vineyard areas around the Cognac area, all of which are within the Appellation Controlee for Cognac, but which are considered to vary in quality from the best growth area of "Grande Champagne" (nothing to do with the Champagne wine region in NE France), through "Petite Champagne" then "Borderies", "Fins Bois", "Bon Bois" and finally "Bois Ordinaire".

All Cognac is produced by blending a variety of "Eau de Vie" which can be made from grapes from different locations, and from different vintages. It is the Cellar master's skill that ensures that a brand's Cognac is recognisable regardless of when it is produced since he can blend multiple eaux de vie to achieve the right taste for his house. Different qualities of Cognac are produced by all brands, and include VS ("Very Special"); VSOP ("Very Superior Old Pale") and XO ("eXtra Old"). (English terms are still used, since in the early days of Cognac production it was the British and Irish who were the main consumers and also became some of the main producers of Cognac, using techniques acquired from the distillation of whisky, etc.)

These blends are controlled by the length of time the Cognac is allowed to mature in oak barrels, a minimum time being required at each grade level. The longer the Cognac matures in the barrel the smoother it will generally become. Once it is bottled no further development takes place. Most houses still have barrels of Cognac dating back to the 19th century sitting in their cellars waiting for fine blending by the Cellar Master.

None of the major brands produce much eau-de-vie from their own grapes, it is virtually all bought in from outside suppliers. So the skill is in selecting the right eau-de-vies from the ones offered, then blending and storing them in the major producer's cellars.. I would personally doubt that anyone could tell the difference between brands of a given level in a blind tasting. What is being sold is the marketing and advertising of a given label.


Hotel Chais Monnet

We stayed at a 5 star hotel, Chais Monnet, in Cognac. Although I got it on a deal from Secret Escapes, they charged me for the accommodation twice. And I am still in the midst of trying to get my money back

The front desk were very good, well very good whenever there was not a muppet on duty, and booked our tasting tours for us. The bedroom was an "executive" room and very large. The whole hotel really was five star, until we got to the dining room

The dining room was a 3 star mass tourist place. The hotel had neglected to tell us that their up market restaurant was closed - something to do with building a new car park, but never did see the connection. We had a reservation that included dinner, but were offered the same 2 choices 2 nights runniing. The vast majority used the buffet. In fact in the evening the place was packed with orange wristband wearing groups, who seemed to disappear for the rest of the day.

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Cognac walking round town

Cognac has the air of a once prosperous town. The pedestrianised main street has many empty/closed shops. There are not that many restaurants, and there were very few tourists - and this was the middle of August. From the main street we wandered down through narrow cobbled streets to the river. The town had first grown as a centre for the salt trade, with the river expediting the movement of goods. It then went on to export cognac via the river.

The town hall is a very grand affair. It is actually a mansion, Otard La Grange, which was purchased by the commune in 1889, the Hotel de Ville was installed there in 1892.

The original building was redeveloped and a bell tower and monumental staircase added. In 1921, the Dupuy d'Angeac mansion was purchased and turned into the museum. The gardens of the two mansions were joined together to create what we see today.

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Cognac Production

We visited 4 of the large Cognac Houses. All Cognac is made the same way, bought from the same sorts of growers, and the Cognac House finishes the process by blending, aging, bottling and marketing the eau-de-vie. Given that they were all doing the same thing, it was interesting that the 4 tours and tastings were very different.

The distillation season in Cognac runs from the November following the vintage to the end of March of the following year. This is because the "age" of cognac starts from 1 April and runs for a year. If the distillation is not done by end of March, the spirit is a year younger, and not so valuable.

Cognac is a double distilled spirit, and the only still used is the copper charentais pot still.

The still has a capacity of 30 hl, but is only filled to 25 hl to allow for expansion when boiling. The wine is heated to 80°C by direct heat. The vapours collect in the top of the still (the chapeau) and then pass through the Swan's Neck (Col de Cygne), by pipe through a vessel where it part warms the next batch of wine due for distillation (the chauffe-vin) into the condenser. The result of this first distillation, the brouillis, has a strength of between 26 and 30 % vol. and will be about a third the volume of the original wine. For the second distillation, the brouillis from three first distillations are put together and redistilled to produce a spirit up to 72% vol.. On this occasion, the first vapours to come off, the heads, and the last, the tails, are removed.

The heart of the spirit is then aged for a minimum of two years, usually much longer, in cask made from Limousin oak.

During the ageing period the strength of the spirit will reduce naturally. It will also mellow and soften, and take on colour and flavour from the wood. What evaporates is known as la part des anges (the angel's share) and leads to a black fungus growth on the buildings which gives them a smoked looks.

Finally, after a careful selection of the cellar master, different spirits will be blended together and and will be broken down to 40% vol. with distilled water, to become the Cognac. Caramel can be added to get the desired colour



Martell offered a self guided tour, with different exhibits in various building across their campus. Each designed to give a different perspective on cognac production and blending. Then every half hour their is a guided tasting in their bar area. We were fortunate to have the tasting to ourselves, and I got a lot out of it, as the guide was very knowledgeable

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Remy Martin

The least enjoyable of the the tour venues. They had an obsession with security that none of the other houses had. Airport style scanning to enter their factory area, then confined to a designated area while waiting for our tour to start - even keeping to the area had officious guards after us.

The tour was by train around the factory with a fair number of stops. The tour guide was of the "muppet" variety , which did not help: she was also Chinese with pronunciation difficult to understand . Nor did the fact that their offering in tapas with the tasting was rationed to a solitary cheese biscuit and a single macaroon.

In the end, I resolved to avoid Remy Martin in the future.

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A very agreeable tour given by Meghan. . We were by ourselves, which always helps. We started with a boat ride, about 2 minutes, across the river to their old factory, where our guide took us round the various venues. We were a bit pushed for time as we had to get to the next venue so did not have time to dwell over the tastings

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Otard's take is to push the history of their chateau. It was bought originally by the company as a run down building and used as a warehouse. It has now been spruced up and is the showpiece of their tours. It includes graffiti of Irish Prisoners of War, incarcerated here during the 7 years’ war (1756 – 1763). The prisoners were held in very small spaces, and the graffiti was found during restoration work

The French lady running the shop had lived in Birmingham for 25 years and spoke English fluently with a Midlands accent.

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On to the Gunns

Holiday in France