The spirit of the location flavors its infamous liquor.
By Hope S. Philbrick
This cognac smells and tastes like almond blossoms, orange zest and porcini mushrooms.
I’m standing in a paradis—what the French call the storage room found in most cognac houses where the oldest eaux-de-vie sit in glass demijohns until they are blended together to become cognac—sipping what was distilled from white wine in 1848 then aged in oak barrels for 40 years before resting in this room. It is tasty, but will transform into something divine with even greater depth and complexity when blended into cognac.
My mission in Cognac, France—which is 290 miles southwest of Paris and 75 miles north of Bordeaux—is to learn about cognac the liquor. But each tasting and tour reveals that French history, traditions and culture are crucial ingredients to what is discovered inside each bottle.
For evidence that the town and its liquor are intrinsically linked, look no further than the walls: A black microscopic fungus, Torula Compniacensis, feeds on the evaporating alcohol vapors. Though quite harmless, it coats the town’s white stone buildings with a layer of black velvet and gives the area a distinct look.
“Cognac is not just a product, it’s a way of life,” says Claire Coates, who worked for the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac before launching the So Yang label. Indeed, it takes a village to make cognac: The efforts of generations of grape-growers, winemakers, distillers, barrel-, glass- and bottle-makers, packaging designers and marketers, to name just a few, go into every bottle.
A visit to The Musée des Arts du Cognac provides an overview of the industry from the 16th Century to modern times. Dedicated to the art of making cognac, the new museum showcases over 1,000 objects to tell its story.
Most cognac houses host tours and each one offers unique perspectives into the craft. Displays at Martell depict life in 1715, the region’s distinctive terroir, traditional transportation methods and barrel making. “A barrel’s life is sometimes 100 years,” says tour guide Sophie Bourgeat. Consider that Martell uses only French oak barrels made of trees that are at least 100 years old from Tronçais or Limonsin forests and it becomes clear why she says, “the story of making cognac is a long story.”
The two-hour Master Blender Program at Camus offers the opportunity to create a signature blend of cognac under the guidance of the Cellar Master. The Flavor Workshop invites guests to join the Camus family for lunch or dinner at their private family home, the Château du Plessis. From the moment the white-gloved butler opens the door, I know this is an experience that I’ll never forget.
At the House of Rémy Martin I sample cognacs paired with savory and sweet dishes. The goal is to prove that food pairing is not the exclusive domain of wine. “When we say a ‘perfect match,’” says tour guide Lucile Babin, “we want something to happen beyond the reaction, ‘oh, that’s nice.’” The intense aromas and flavors are a revelation.
While the larger cognac houses are within walking distance of the center square, it’s worth renting a car or hiring a driver to visit some smaller producers. (Call ahead to make a reservation and to verify that someone speaks English, if you’re not fluent in French). The reward is the chance to discover the unique flavors of artisan spirits that aren’t readily available throughout the United States.
Detailing his production process, Oliver Blanc of Léopold Gourmel says, “If you respect nature, nature will give back to you.”
Paul Giraud, who operates the cognac house that bears his name, agrees, “You don’t add qualities; you work with the qualities you have.” Listening to their descriptions, it becomes clear that making cognac is a labor of love.
After a day exploring Cognac, I savor cognac alongside the gourmet cuisine at La Table de l’Yeuse, housed in a 19th Century castle overlooking the Charente River. The menu blends Mediterranean with Champagne, Charente and Gascogne regional influences with award-winning results.
It is said that the very best cognac can never be made in an individual’s lifetime. Fortunately, it is possible to experience the vacation of a lifetime in Cognac, France.
– Photos © HSP Media LLC
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