The Weekender – Cognac
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Rod Gilchrist enjoys a glass or two or reviving cognac… in Cognac. Well, when in Rome and all that…
The Weekender: Cognac
An attractive riverside town tucked away in ‘hidden’ France, Cognac gave its name to the post-prandial brandy so beloved by bon viveurs such as Winston Churchill. It’s now finding favour with a new young crowd thanks to it being the fashionable drink of choice for American rappers Jay-Z and Fifty Cent, who recently launched their own labels. Perversely, the French have never taken to Cognac. Just two per cent is consumed in the country, the rest exported.
Just as Champagne cannot be sold as Champagne unless it is produced there, so it is with cognac. Indeed cognac is Cognac – from the truck drivers carting grapes from the remote vineyards to the famous names that adorn the most celebrated brands – Hennessey, Courvoisier, Remy Martin, Martell – where you can get happily tipsy just breathing the intoxicating waft from the many distilleries.
It was the Romans who began wine production on the chalky slopes under an Oceanic climate around Cognac, the Dutch who invented ‘brandywein’, as they called it in the 18th century, but British adventurers who really made the tipple a commercial proposition.
Some say it is in the strangely silent open landscape around this sunny town, a stop on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, that the South of France really begins. In summer the countryside is alive with a symphony of chirping cicadas, the air perfumed with the scent of lavender. The narrow, cobbled streets on the banks of the meandering Charente river, near Bordeaux in South West France, are lined with ancient thick stone walls time-blackened by tiny airborne fungi, a by-product of the spirits production the locals poetically call Angels Breath.
It’s the kind of self-assured, old-school French town where gentlemen play boules in quiet squares guarded by pleached limes and where boulangeries, patisseries and homely bistros proliferate, public gardens are well tended and everyone disappears at the weekend to enjoy the river. Ideal if you want to stop the world for a few days and escape the madness of modern life.
Exploring winding lanes, houses clinging together, attractive with their pastel-coloured wooden shutters, it’s a joy to discover unexpectedly a handsome arctic white Belle Epoque chateau set back behind elegant carved gates or to happen across the atmospheric, century-old covered market, selling fresh fish, fruit and flowers, designed by the architect of the Eiffel Tower.
Passing through stone archways into a five-acre park that leads to the river, it’s tempting to imagine what it must have felt like for privileged French aristocrats arriving in their carriages at what is now Hotel Chais Monnet. This is where Jay Z, his wife Beyoncé, and 50 Cent have all stayed while working out commercial deals for their own brand cognac with local producers.
Set in the heart of Cognac, among the town’s most beautiful heritage maisons, this pretty, pink walled former 19th-century trading house has been sympathetically restored at a cost of £60m, brilliantly harmonising classical architecture with cutting-edge contemporary design transforming it into a haven of Gallic elegance.
Its former cellars and winery, now a welcoming reception, are connected by illuminated walkways, flanked with narrow canals where white scaled sturgeons lazily drift, to two ultra-modern glass pavilions, the ochre iron latticework playfully designed to replicate vine branches.
A pampering wellness centre with 25 metre heated swimming pool, Jacuzzi, saunas and massage are the destination here, though they also house the majority of the hotel’s 92 rooms, private apartments with kitchens, and Les Foudres, a gourmet restaurant in the old cognac ageing cellars. This is a high-ceilinged cathedral-like space that incorporates polished giant wooden barrels that once contained 2,000 litres of the spirit.
Hold the diet for your weekend in Cognac! If you are in an adventurous mood the town boasts many charming intimate restaurants where the chefs make prodigious dishes of milk, cream and butter. Try the signature local meal of Mouclade (mussels in butter and flower), La Chaudrée (a robust fish stew) or Friture d’anguilles (fried eels).
For lunch, l’Atelier, a pleasant stroll across the bridge on the north side of the river, offers panoramic views of the water and town through picture windows as well as outstanding French cuisine.
But for dinner all roads lead back to Les Foudres (the name of the giant cognac barrels that decorate the restaurant infusing the space with so much atmosphere) at Chais Monnet. Foie Gras terrine, candied quince in Pineau des Charentes and sweet spices served with brioche sea salt and almonds is culinary heaven, along with ravioli stuffed with Jerusalem artichoke, black truffles from Chateaubernard and walnut kernels.
When in Cognac it’s a crime not to experience one of the famous houses where the producers show visitors how the colourless alcohol is distilled in copper pots then poured into oak barrels to mature (the wood imparts colour and flavour) before inviting you to taste samples. It’s great fun.
Maison Baron Otard, descended from Viking and Scottish nobility, was one of the town’s original producers in the 18thcentury. Now owned by Bacardi, it is housed in one of the town’s historical monuments, the forbidding 1,000-year-old royal castle, where King Françoise ruled, protected by its giant ramparts. Richard the Lionheart was one of the first guests to arrive.
Apparently, it takes nine litres of wine from the local Ugni grape to make one litre of cognac. The blend is then aged for at least two years or up to six for the more pricy XO (extra old). This is the house Jay Z has chosen to work with on his own brand cognac, D’Ussé, a bottle of which is prominently displayed for €50, popularising the drink with the young through spirited new cocktails. How did this happen? ‘The rappers have grown tired of $300 bottles of Crystal and have discovered cognac cocktails,’ explains the guide.
All the Cognac houses feature daily tours at reasonable prices but there is plenty of other things to do around the town and further afield. The landscape is attractive for walking, cycling or riding through woods along the riverside towpath and in summer everyone takes to messing about in boats, either at their ease on the white hulled Hennessey cruiser, water skiing, sailing or kayaking. It’s an easy stroll to the lovely gardens of the nearby Chateau de Bagnolet, a perfect exhibition of haute bourgeois pomp, while a little further afield is the idyllic village of Bourg-Charente with its castle and Romanesque church.
Alternatively make tracks the other way to the hamlet of Richemont, three miles north of Cognac, where you can swim in the pools of the tiny river Antenne below an ancient church. The more adventurous follow the road 90 minutes north to the Atlantic and lovely Ile de Ré. This chic hide away where wealthy Parisiennes have their second homes, is a retreat of golden beaches, sweeping dunes and sweet-smelling pine forests.
Visitors return home laden with Cognac flavoured goodies: jam, vinegar, shortbread, caramel sauce, even cognac-flavoured crisps! All available at the Cognac Museum.
Nightly rates at Hôtel Chais Monnet start from €230/£207* per room, room only. Flights from London to Bordeaux. For more information please visit chaismonnethotel.com
*Prices correct at today’s exchange rate