You can see vineyards in places like Bordeaux, France, and California’s Napa Valley. But only in Cognac, France, and its surrounding regions do grapes get turned into a liquid so precious it’s dubbed “the noble spirit.”
Driving through the outskirts of Cognac, a quaint countryside which has been compared to Italy’s Tuscany region, it would be hard to guess that this part of Southern France is tied to such a precious commodity — fine cognacs can fetch more than $100 per bottle, while the best retail for more than $1,000 per bottle. In fact, all the cognac production in the world takes place in these parts, at some 300 cognac houses.
Cognac, France, is world famous for its eponymous brandy. // (C) 2010 Chris Willis
As travelers near the city of Cognac, all the big names in the industry (Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell, Courvoisier) make themselves known, and their headquarters occupy massive historic buildings, many on or near the Charente River, which flows through the region.
The popular variety of brandy has been made in Cognac since the 16th century and, from my experience talking to locals, nearly everyone in town is somehow connected with the liquor. I had to wonder if the joviality in the city of about 20,000 was perhaps due to the spirit as well — they certainly like cognac in Cognac.
The creation begins with mostly Ugni Blanc grapes, grown in spring and summer and picked and pressed in the fall. Six crus, or growing areas, produce the grapes. In winter, distilling takes place in copper stills, and the air is filled with a sweet smell, similar to stewed fruit.
Then, the remaining heart of the wine is aged in oak barrels for quite some time: VS cognac ages at least two years. VO and VSOP take a minimum of four years. XO cognacs must age at least six years, while some fine cognacs will take more than 50 years to mature.
Many cognac houses are open to the public with tours and tastings, some of which are free, and the larger houses have museums. Clients can learn about blending, family histories and more. At the Courvoisier museum, for instance, you can view Napoleon Bonaparte-themed items, including a cornered hat and a lock of his hair. (Bonaparte’s silhouette is featured on the brand’s packaging.)
In any event, visits to cognac houses provide an intimate encounter with the people of the region. I had one of these experiences while visiting Chateau de Montifaud. The cognac house has been run by the Vallet family since the mid-1800s, and the family matriarch, Catherine Vallet, explained to me how her 32-year-old son Laurent is the latest to take up the trade.
“It’s not something you can be obliged by your parents to do,” she said. “You will only be successful if it comes from the heart.”
Keeping it Fresh
While Cognac has a storied history as well as a charming medieval quarter with cobblestone walkways, there’s a new reason to stroll its streets. Visitors on foot are likely to tread on the newly named B.B. King Street, a tribute to the blues musician.
One of Cognac’s claims to fame is its annual Cognac Blues Passions festival, held at the end of July (this year’s festival takes place from July 25-31 and features Jake Shimabukuro, the John Butler Trio and Xavier Rudd), when more than 80 free concerts take over Cognac’s streets and city parks. Last year, King was the headliner, and the city honored his presence with a street in his name. King, in turn, pronounced himself to be a fan of the city and the drink — the brandy fit for “kings.”
Cognac Tourism Office