| COGNAC, France, April 27
COGNAC, France, April 27 In the 18th century,
one Richard Hennessy fled his native County Cork in Ireland to
serve in the armies of Louis XV of France before settling in the
southwestern town of Cognac.
Once the alarums of battle had faded, he shipped a few
barrels of the local tipple home. The rest is history and the
Cognac house still bearing the Hennessy name is a world leader.
For visitors to the region, discovering the secrets of its
famous double-distilled spirit aged in oak casks is essential to
the Cognac experience, but there are other charms.
Following are some tips from a correspondent with local
From Paris, Cognac is a roughly three-hour train journey via
Angouleme, around 20 miles from Cognac. You might want to hire a
car either from Angouleme, to cut out the slow-train section, or
on arrival in Cognac.
From Cognac station, it's a brisk walk or a short drive to
the old town centre.
10:30 a.m. - Drop off your bags and restore yourself with a
coffee and perhaps a "pain au chocolate", known as a
"chocolatine" in the Cognacais strain of French.
The Cognacais themselves are affectionately nicknamed
cagouillards after the juicy snails that patrol the vineyards.
The main square Place Francois I, named after the French
Renaissance king born in Cognac, has a cluster of cafes. It also
houses the grand, newly restored Hotel Francois I and a statue
of the mighty monarch on horseback.
11 a.m. - Walk down the cobbled streets to the sleepy
Charente, the river once used to ship Cognac. Some of the main
cognac houses, Hennessy included, line the banks.
Take your pick of which one or ones you would like to visit.
Hennessy has a state-of-the-art visitor centre and throws in
a short boat trip, Remy Martin offers a train ride and Otard is
housed in the chateau, where Francois I was born at the end of
All give seductive accounts of the rich history and romance
woven around one of France's most prized products.
France's luxury conglomerates now dominate ownership, but
generations after they were founded, members of the original
families still work in the cognac houses and are proud,
aristocratic ambassadors of their brands.
They can narrate how "appellation controlee" cognac, which
according to strict French laws, can only be produced from the
Cognac growing area, owes its taste to the "terroir" and to
The freshly harvested grapes are distilled not once, but
twice in gleaming copper alembics to extract the very soul of
the wine - "eau-de-vie" (water of life).
This clear, intensely alcoholic spirit is then aged for long
years - which lowers the alcoholic degree, gives flavour and the
distinctive cognac colour.
Aged eau-de-vie can be sold as vintage cognacs. More
usually, a selection is blended by the "maitre de chai", or
chief-taster, the most revered of the cognac house employees.
The oldest and most valuable eaux-de-vie are locked away in
an area of the cellars referred to as the "paradis" or paradise.
As they age, heady fumes escape, which the Cognacais call
"la part des anges" (the angels' share). In the hot summer
months, the smell hangs heavy in the air.
Tours, which can be booked in advance, end with a
degustation (tasting) and a trip to the gift shop, where the
finest, most beautifully packaged cognacs sell for hundreds of
1 p.m. - Lunch options include a picnic on the river bank or
a snack in one of the many cafes along the cobbled streets.
2 p.m. - As you mooch around, you might take a look at Saint
Leger church, at the junction of the two main pedestrian
streets. Dating back to the 12th century, it is in the
Romanesque style characteristic of the region, and has a
massive, arched doorway.
3 p.m. - Drive or take the train to Saintes to discover a
refreshingly different town. If Cognac is about old money,
discretion and let's face it, a certain snobbery, Saintes has a
more diverse, younger vibe, but, founded by the Romans, has
Roman remains are scattered near the river and at the top of
the town is a spectacular Roman amphitheatre.
6 p.m. - Head back to Cognac in time for an aperitif. Cognac
houses have heavily promoted cognac, not just as the classic
digestif, but as an aperitif, served with tonic water and ice.
If that's too shocking, pineau des Charentes, made by adding
grape juice to eau-de-vie is an alternative.
8 p.m. - Cognac's restaurants range from pizzerias to
top-end dining. Regional specialities include chevre chaud
(goat's cheese on toast) and mouclade, mussels cooked in a
creamy, wine sauce. An affordable option is La Courtine in the
Parc Francois I, popular with locals. For balmy evenings, it has
Head to Jarnac, around 10 miles from Cognac, for a different
take on the cognac theme.
Trains are available, but they are intermittent and driving
will give you more flexibility.
One of Jarnac's claims to fame is as the birthplace of
former French president Francois Mitterrand. It also has a
smattering of cognac houses, including Courvoisier and Hine.
Hine specialises in relatively small amounts of rare, old
cognac and offers a contrast to the scale of the bigger houses.
11:30 am - The market can provide provisions for lunch by
the River Charente, which flows through Jarnac, as well as
Cognac and Saintes.
The region is good for oysters and you could supplement them
with local white wine and round, peachy Charentais melons.
Otherwise, if you're feeling flush, the Restaurant du
Chateau offers gourmet dining.
2 p.m. - Provided you resisted the temptation of a boozy
lunch, a car would now be a huge advantage for exploring the
undulating countryside and its rows upon rows of vines.
Rouillac has another impressive amphitheatre (Le theatre
gallo-romain des Bouchauds), while nearby Segonzac, in the part
of the Cognac vineyard considered to yield the finest
eaux-de-vie, is home to one of the world's smallest
It hands out qualifications in, you've guessed it, the
management and marketing of spirits.
The ruined, atmospheric Chateau de Bouteville is also worth
a short detour.
If you don't have a car, take the train back to Cognac for
Alternatively, whether or not you have a hire car, spend a
happy few hours in Angouleme and dine in one of the restaurants
near the town hall before the train home.
The capital of the Charente department, Angouleme sits high
on a plateau and is known for paper-making and an annual cartoon
festival. If you think comic strips are just as much fun as
cognac, Angouleme could merit its own 48-hour visit.