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PREMIUM

Cognac for wine lovers

Strike out to the western French department of Charente, a region carved by a winding river, dotted with châteaux and rich with opportunities to experience the most illustrious of French spirits.

Sweeping from above the Atlantic ocean-kissed shores of La Rochelle, down the Gironde estuary towards the fêted vineyards of Bordeaux – and reaching far inland through forest, rivers and wheat fields – the Cognac region at first seems mind-bogglingly vast. But while this wide expanse may be one of France’s largest grape-planted areas, the good news for travellers is that there’s a clear first-timer’s itinerary to discovering its liquid treasures. Simply make for the heart of the action in the premium central sub-regions of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, and the twin spirit-soaked communes of Cognac and Jarnac, for a long weekend of tastings, cellar tours and laid-back exploring.

Covering some 13,000ha in the centre of the Cognac region – and bordering Cognac town – Grande Champagne has highly chalky soils relative to other sub-regions and picturesque vistas of low vine-lined hills. With its white stone buildings along the squiggling river Charente, Cognac town makes a fine base for your explorations, both for its proximity to major houses and its smattering of lovely sights, from half-timbered homes to old cloisters. Conversely, sleepier Jarnac, a 10-minute train ride or 20-minute drive away on the borders of Petite Champagne, has sun-flecked spaces dominated by the grand frontage of Courvoisier and unassuming corners housing the likes of Hine and Louis Royer. Beyond these two communes, countless other small villages radiate outwards with cellars and tasting rooms both big and small, ripe for discovery if you have the time.


Illustrated map of Cognac

Credit: Maggie Nelson

How to get there

The nearest well-served airport and major city is Bordeaux-Mérignac (130km south), but flights also go into La Rochelle (110km northwest, on the coast) and Limoges (140km due east inland). Or take a train to Cognac or Jarnac station from Paris in three to four hours.


Tasting experiences

The atmospheric ageing cellars of Delamain in Jarnac

The atmospheric ageing cellars of Delamain in Jarnac

Given the punchier nature of a Cognac tasting in comparison to wine, you’ll likely only want two or three stops a day – which means being selective among the 280 or so regional producers. Wherever your stylistic preferences lie, it’s almost mandatory to begin with the house that’s synonymous with the Cognac category: Hennessy (see ‘My perfect day’, below). Responsible for about 40% of all regional production, the LVMH-owned brand’s rambling facilities are set over a series of vast buildings in the heart of Cognac. Tours come in every shape and size: join a shuttle boat across the river Charente to discover Hennessy through a digital art installation, sampling the characteristically spicy VSOP on a two-hour group tour (€29 per person, times vary so check and book ahead); or cycle through the vineyards ahead of a superb picnic lunch from the kitchens of chef Thierry Verrat, owner of one-star Michelin restaurant La Ribaudière (€130 per person, €65 picnic supplement).

A 15-minute walk away from Hennessy, and somewhat more modest in scale, family-owned Bache Gabrielsen has its headquarters in a small townhouse on tranquil Rue Louis Dominique. In the historic offices where respected Master Blender Jean-Philippe Bergier works his magic, old wooden cupboards line walls and samples from local bouilleurs de cru (‘grower-distillers’) clutter desks awaiting consideration for future assemblages (‘blends’). Join a tour of the onsite cellar, spotting precious demijohns of old vintages and sampling through the smooth and complex range (free of charge). If you’ve the cash, you can even buy your own barrel for bottling when the time is right.

Over in nearby Jarnac, your essential stop is the highly respected Delamain, blending elegant, long-aged Cognacs from an elite selection of farmer-growers around the region with spirit distilled from its own vineyards. The time-warp ageing rooms, filled with barrels and demijohns, are among the most atmospheric to be found in all of Cognac, and private cellar dining experiences with tastings of signature Pale & Dry XO, as well as highly limited Pléiade collection bottlings, let you soak it up to the fullest.


My perfect day in Cognac country

Morning

After a quick spin around the morning produce market in Cognac town, kick off your introduction to the long-aged Cognacs at Hennessy, by far the region’s largest producer. Its 90-minute Initiation visit (€25 per person) is ideal for beginners who want to learn more about the spirit’s production process, but connoisseurs will be more enthralled by the four-hour Grape to Glass masterclass (€500). Afterwards, depending on time, visit Bache Gabrielsen for a brief tour and tasting or try the Château de Cognac, birthplace of François I and now a tasting room for Cognac Baron Otard.

Lunch

Nibble on market-fresh fare at Poulpette (see ‘address book’, below), a few minutes’ walk away across the Charente river. Concise seasonal menus of elevated bistro dishes are paired with wines from small minimal-intervention winemakers such as Languedoc’s Domaine Peyrus and Château Thivin in Beaujolais.

Afternoon

Hop on the train for the 10-minute ride to neighbouring Jarnac – whizzing past rows of grape vines – to get a view of the region’s other must-see centre. You should have booked ahead if you want to explore the atmospheric ageing rooms of Delamain; access is limited. But you will also find a newly renovated tour area in the grand Courvoisier building, set opulently on the riverside. Book the 1.5-hour tour and tasting, then enjoy a pick-me-up coffee in a quiet square in the sun and soak up the laid-back Gallic atmosphere.

Evening 

Take the train back to Cognac for dinner at restaurant Les Foudres, set among 100-year-old barrels in the centre of town at Hôtel Chais Monnet. Afterwards, the hotel’s 1838 Jazz Bar awaits with its unrivalled selection of Cognacs – there are more than 220 pours to choose from. Ask the knowledgeable bartenders to put together a tasting flight for you to sip while you enjoy some live music.


And beyond

Frédéric Bourgoin pouring his estate's Cognac into a glass

Frédéric Bourgoin, whose family vineyards provide a friendly stop-off. Credit: Quentin Petit

Now, venture into the countryside. Set just outside scenic castle town Bouteville among spectacular, meandering country roads, Jean-Luc Pasquet is a small husband and wife set-up operating as both bouilleur de cru and blender. Working organically across about 15ha, mostly of Folle Blanche and Ugni Blanc, they encourage biodiversity on site and distil in their historic farmyard building. Settle into the tasting room sofa with American-born Amy Pasquet and savour the appley four-year-old L’Organic or spicy, leathery 10-year-old.

An innovator of another breed in the commune of Ars, Maison Ferrand was founded in its current form by Burgundian Alexandre Gabriel – the brain behind the refined and dynamic Plantation Rum range – in 1989. The focus is not only on quality but on crafting unique, consumer-friendly bottlings such as 10 Générations, aged partly in ex-Sauternes casks, and Double Cask Réserve, rested in barrels that formerly held Banyuls. There is not officially a visitor centre, but some visitors are welcomed by appointment; enquire via the website.

For one more boutique stop-off, consider Bourgoin Cognac, just outside Angoulême, a Charente city you may recognise for its starring role in Wes Anderson’s film The French Dispatch. The ‘micro barrel’ XO range produced from family vineyards is decadent, nutty and accomplished – and a first-rate bottled verjus (unripe grape juice) for cooking or cocktail making is also produced. Join a 90-minute ‘safari’ in the vines (€75 per person) for the most comprehensive experience.

Ultimately, wherever you choose to stop off in Cognac, you’ll discover a range of delicious – and often excellent-value – aged eaux-de-vie that show exactly why the spirit is held in such high esteem. And unlike many wine regions, Cognac can be an enticing prospect in winter – not only for the pleasure of sipping a fragrant VSOP by a roaring hotel fire, but because distillation takes place between October and March (Jean-Luc Pasquet, for example, is even known to invite some visitors to take part in the process if booked as a special package: contact directly to enquire).

Saying that, if you want sunshine, spring is the loveliest time. The leaves are green on the vines, the sun bathes walks along the Charente river and the mood is jovial. Even if you’ve never been much of a Cognac drinker, a few days in this fascinating region will quickly have you entranced.


Your Cognac address book

Domaine des Etangs

The luxurious towered Domaine des Etangs.

Accommodation

Domaine des Etangs

East of Cognac town, this luxurious, turreted château hotel is nestled on rambling farmland with lakes, cattle and large-scale sculpture. Decor is contemporary and art=forward, and an honesty bar stocks sublime, vanilla-noted Bourgoin Cognac.

Hȏtel Chais Monnet & Spa

Locations don’t get more prime: right in the heart of Cognac town centre. Set within former cellars reworked into a sculptural, contemporary vision of glass and steel, also ticking boxes for its Michelin-starred restaurant (see ‘Les Foudres’, below), elegant spa and list of local experiences, ranging from private tours to bike rides through vineyards.

Le Relais de Saint-Preuil

For a cosy traditional manor house atmosphere, coddled in vines in between Cognac and Angoulême. A suntrap pool awaits for post-tasting relaxation in summer, while roaring open fires warm in cooler months.

Restaurants

Le Verre y Table

A few steps from Jarnac rail station, this  modernist, conceptual dining space dishes up the likes of Charron mussels with pineau, or trout with squid ink and lemongrass. A €29 set lunch menu is great value, and any time of day the extensive Cognac menu is welcome.

Les Foudres

Located in a former ageing warehouse, this one-star Michelin restaurant has distinct local flair. Menus include the likes of caviar butter with seaweed brioche, asparagus with coffee and Martell Cognac creme, or stone bass with cream bottarga and potatoes.

Poulpette

With a concise menu and contemporary platings, this Cognac town restaurant, located a short walk from the Charente river, is a favourite with locals thanks to its regularly changing market menu. Wash it all down with a wine list featuring cult producers.

Things to do

Abbaye de Bassac

With more than a thousand years of history, this rambling stone abbey outside Jarnac gives insight into Benedictine lifestyle and French architectural styles from Romanesque to Baroque. Its wealth of delightful outside spaces are perfect for wandering around in the spring and summer months.

Le Baume de Bouteville

This artisan vinegar producer uses locally grown grapes in its production and ages its balsamic-style concoctions in ex-Cognac barrels. Join a tour and tasting (with fresh oysters, if desired) at its boutique headquarters under the shadow of Bouteville’s château.

River cruises

Tour the snaking river Charente aboard electro-solar boat Bernard Palissy III, setting off west of Cognac town and taking in cobbled settlements, farmers’ fields and sun-sparkled water


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