48 hours in Cognac

Heading down the coast from La Rochelle on our road trip, the first thing you start to notice, is the landscape becoming a lot more interesting. The environs of La Rochelle, are pancake flat and peppered with agricultural land mainly, there are a few pretty villages but on the whole, it’s pretty uninspiring.

Then, you start to gradually hit lush green vinyards, fields full of sunflowers and and everything begins to feel just that little bit more like Southern France. It’s a beautiful drive, although our sat-nav might have gone a little off piste, some of the D roads we were travelling on were somewhat questionable….. but it was an adventure.

The only things that were pre-booked on this whole trip, were the 2 distillery tours. I’d read that you needed to do this well in advance to ensure a tour in English if you needed one, but also because there was limited availability, especially if you chose a tour that wasn’t the standard option, which is what we did. This meant an early start from La Rochelle, which was a wrench, as we needed to be at Remy-Martin, right in the centre of Cognac, for 10.00am.

Our hotel of choice was this time the Ibis, and it was only a 5 minute walk from there to the distillery. Brilliantly, the Ibis is directly opposite a large free carpark, so we parked the car in good time and made our short walk.

Remy-Martin is housed in a handsome small chateau in the centre of town. Lovely white shutters, beautifully clipped box hedge and vines climbing the walls, elegant, perfectly French, and giving just a hint of the generations of skill and tradition that goes into the Cognac’s production.

You start in the boutique, where you can see the standard retail offerings, alongside more special bottles, plus those not readily available for sale such as the Louis XIII, which contains eau de vie over 100 years old. To do the tour that allows you to taste this fabled Cognac of kings costs 1200 euros. Just to taste it!

But it’s sooooo pretty.

Our tour was somewhat cheaper, the “Stopover at the Historic House” tour, cost 32 euros each, and included a 2 hour tour, two different tastings of V.S.O.P (one with ice, one without), and a tasting of X.O, accompanied by sweet and savoury appetisers.

We started in the impressive reception area, which was all glass cases and wood panelling, including examples of some of the special edition bottles, with specially engraved Baccarat crystal glasses that had sold at auction for up to $100K. Jaw hits floor.

€100k anyone?

You learn about the generations of cellar-masters, and the production process. You can smell the eau de vie at different stages of the process, and the barrel wood, the smokiness from charring the barrel is one of the critical elements to aging the cognac, and getting the richness of colour. The cellars here, are absolutely hung in huge cobwebs – surprised me somewhat and as an arachnophobe I was a bit creeped out, but they are encouraged there, as it keeps away the flies. Makes sense I guess, and it’s not as if I had to walk underneath them, so fear not!

Where the Eau de vie is held before barrelling
How the Cognac changes colour as it ages
How the barrels play their part

Our visit ended with the tasting, which sadly I did not take a lot of photos of. We tried the cognacs, in deep leather chairs in a wooden panelled room, like members of an exclusive gentleman’s club, which was very cool. They were all laid out on the table for us when we entered, and canapes appeared with each tasting, we had amazing vanilla macarons, little cubes of goats cheese containing dried fruit and nuts, foie gras on a biscuit studded with dark chocolate (not for my veggie self) and little dark chocolate fondants with candied orange peel in the middle – OMG! The French couple that we were with on the tour, loved the foie gras, but didn’t want the chocolate, so it seemed like a fair swap to me. My goodness it was delicious. So interesting how well the cognac married with the flavours of the food.

Our tasting.

Then, all too soon it was over and we were back at the boutique, to drool over beautiful things. I now have an appreciation of why these things cost what they do. Even the selection of the trees to make the barrels, have to be 30 years old at least, and they only use the core of the oak tree. Every crystal baccarat bottle is completely unique and takes a mind-blowing amount of craftsmen to manufacture. They are works of art in their own right.

We then wandered into the centre of Cognac, which is pretty enough, you’ll walk past Martell on the way, with it’s state of the art visitors centre. It has an impressive bar I’m told, but was closed on the day we visited so you’ll have to check that one out for yourselves I’m afraid.

We grabbed a sandwich and set about killing a little time until we could check in to the hotel.

This is the thing. Unless you really, really, really , really, like Cognac (the tasty beverage), this is not a destination that merits 48 hours, 24 hours here – one night, would be ample. We were lucky, that we arrived on the last night of the annual Blues Festival, so there was live music in the streets everywhere, and the line-up was impressive. Tom Odell, Macy Gray, Garbage, and that night Toto were playing. We toyed with spending the 55 euros it would have taken to bellow along loudly and tunelessly to “Africa” and decided against it. There was some great music in the streets though, all for free, so we had dinner in the main square and soaked up the atmosphere, which was convivial and lovely.

Cognac Blues Festival
Band playing outside La Renaissance in Cognac’s main square

La Renaissance, served us meals of gigantic proportion, which were delicious but couldn’t be finished, and of course we rounded off the meal, with a glass of the good stuff. I could get used to this….

Tomato, mozzarella and pesto starter.
Croque madame for Monsieur, and a salmon croque for me with Creme Fraiche – absolutely massive!
Poire Belle Helene for dessert (pear, chocolate, vanilla ice-cream and cream).
How else do you end a meal in Cognac?

We did have another tour booked, this time at Courvoisier at Jarnac, about 15 minutes outside Cognac itself, but as this was on the way to our next stop Bordeaux, we were doing this en-route the following morning. So this left us with pretty much a dead day. Cognac is home to many distilleries, lots of small local producers as well as the big names, but not a great deal else to do, with my tourist hat on. So, having packed our picnic rucksack, we went to the local supermarket, stocked up on du pain, du vin and du boursin, plus some florantines, and headed for the river, past the Hennesey factory which is right on the banks. There is a chateau there, you can do the tour, but guess what they make there too? You’ve guessed it!

The Hennessy factory

We crossed the bridge, great views of the river, and had a very civilised picnic.

View from picnic.
No wilted egg sandwiches on my watch!

When we were done, we found the Town Hall park, and laid out on the grass near the fountains for a couple of hours in the sun, terrible hardship I know. As it turns out, a day’s downtime, before hitting Bordeaux, wasn’t a bad thing.

The pretty Town Hall Park

In the evening, we ate at La Scala, a very heavily, but well themed Italian restaurant right by the river, which was fun.

La Scala
Complete with washing line full of clothes

Food was a mixed bag, my starter, a salmon tiramisu was fab, and the main, a risotto with pine nuts and super fresh mozzarella, was also great. The desert is where things went tits. We ordered Café Gourmand to share, the lemon sorbet served on crushed ginger biscuits was the star, but a mini tiramisu that tasted like off-milk, and a mint panna-cotta, that you could have bounced, eek! A real shame but otherwise, a great meal. Special mention to the 3 loud Brits, oh the shame of my fellow countrymen. Bellowing with no indoor volume control, all about how he was at a urinal in a strip club in Vegas….. Then, how I quietly judged as what I think was his slightly sheepish brother, told him not to order La Chouffe beer (one of my absolute faves) because it might be a bit too strong for him. Snigger. The textbook definition of all mouth and no pantalons.

Salmon Tiramisu
Pine nut risotto with super fresh Burrata mozzarella
Hubs pizza
Pretty as a picture, but sadly 2 of these things were not quite right.

Back to the hotel and then onwards in the morning for our Courvoisier tour.

We were sad to leave our ferociously air conditioned hotel room, it was the week after la Canicule (the first round, apparently we’re due the second next week), so getting a good nights sleep in a lovely cool room was heavenly.

A mere 15 minutes away, and a very pretty drive, was the town of Jarnac. Courvoisier has a picturesque position right on the river, and the town is a historic and charming one. The famous Remy-Martin bottles we’d seen for the Louis VIII were based on a cognac vessel found on the battlefields of Jarnac, which is pretty cool.

Such a pretty riverside setting for Courvoisier in Jarnac.

Again, the tour started in an impressive gift shop, with a little history of the brand, early advertising, and some gorgeous limited edition bottles. This time we had opted for a tasting tour which allowed us to sample their V.S.O.P Exclusif, and Napoleon, paired with chocolate for 20 euros per person.

The boutique
Some of the early advertising Don Draper would be proud of.

That was our reason for choosing this particular tour really, the historic Napoleon connexion. The tour group was a little larger this time, and the presentations, very slick and well put together. Our guide was really knowledgeable, and we started with the Napoleonic story and some excellent exhibits. Napoleon’s hat, donated by the man himself took centre stage, plus a manuscript containing a lock of his hair, and our favourite, his cabinet of secrets, a locking bureau that he would leave all his important documents when he was off doing Napoleony things. On an unrelated note, we have also seen Napoleon’s death mask, it’s in the Louisiana Museum, the very museum where the Louisiana Purchase was signed. But I digress….

Napoleon’s Hat
Document containing a lock of Napoleon’s hair

Much of the tour and manufacturing process was identical to Remy Martin, it is Cognac manufacture after all, but I enjoyed Courvoisier’s link to Paris’s golden age, and to the opening of the Eiffel Tower and Moulin Rouge. I also liked that the classically shaped Napoleon Cognac bottle is knows as “the Josephine” because of it’s thin neck to a tiny waist, and then ballooning out into a skirt reminiscent of the ones she would have worn.

Can you spot the Josephines?
The impressive cellars, each stamped with the Courvoisier logo “the Shadow of Napoleon”

Our tasting was a little less impressive than Remy-Martin, standing at a bar at one end of the shop, but fun none-the-less. We were given a little booklet of Cognac cocktails to take away, my favourite of these was this one.

Midnight in Paris.

Fill a high-ball glass with ice, pour in 2.5cl Courvoisier VSOP, top up with ginger ale, stir gently and garnish with half an orange slice.

I couldn’t tell you which tour I preferred, the tasting element at RM was far superior, but the Napoleonic exhibits and cellars were great at Courvoisier, I’m glad we did them both.

Our tasting with chocolate to finish our tour.

Hope you enjoyed our Cognac tour, you can also check out La Rochelle, and coming soon, Bordeaux and Sarlat.

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