A trip to Cognac

France is home to so much specialist produce and products. In the culinary and drinks world it is a destination second to none. This trip I was in the South-West of France, just under 2 hours from Bordeaux, to discover the world of Cognac.

Cognac

The sleepy region of Cognac is quiet and charming, and makes a wonderful weekend getaway. Ahead of April’s Cognac Show in London I was here to learn about this special, historic spirit with The Whisky Exchange.

Cognac

Cognac is a variety of brandy, made exclusively in the Cognac region of France, it is a protected product and can only be made here under strict production methods and legal requirements. The spirit is made from distilled white wine, mainly made from the Ugni Blanc grape (often better known as Trebbiano) although a few other grape varieties are allowed. The soil structure in the Cognac region is said to be very similar to the Champagne region.

The wine must be distilled twice, using copper pot stills and then aged in French oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Many Cognacs are aged for much longer, creating more complex, rare spirits.

During our three days in Cognac we visited four Cognac houses, each with a different approach to the spirit.

Our first Cognac experience was at Hine, a boutique Cognac company founded in 1763. Both the spirit and branding of Hine is refined and stylish, and the striking bottles immediately grabbed my attention.

First we visited the vineyards, which have had a hard year due to the unusual weather conditions. After seeing the impressive pot stills at work we sat down for a detailed tasting.

Cognac

Most Cognac houses produce blended Cognacs, with some choosing to also make single estate. It is interesting to also consider the grading of a cognac.

The current legally defined categories of Cognac include:

V.S.: a minimum age of two years. Also known as Very Special or Three Stars.

V.S.O.P.: a minimum age of four years. Also known as Very Superior Old Pale or Reserve.

X.O.: a minimum age of six years.

Trying the Hine Cognacs was an interesting and tasty experience. I found the younger spirits had flavours of vanilla and fresh fruits, with older Cognac tasting more of red fruits, with some spice notes.

We were lucky to be staying the night in the Hine house, a luxurious home with lavish bedrooms and a grand dining room, where we enjoyed a great dinner and typically French pastry breakfast!

Cognac

It is a common misconception that Cognac is an older person’s drink. I discovered this couldn’t be further from the truth… this spirit is so varied depending on company and age and blend. It is also more popular with mixologists as a great cocktail spirit, I loved drinking it topped with ginger ale.

Cognac

Founded in 1858 AE Dor was named after house founder Amédée Edouard Dor. Like Hine they are based in the centre of Cognac town, and are open to hosting tastings.

We had a brilliant morning at AE Dor with one of the brilliantly knowledgeable and enthusiastic team, trying everything from their entry level VS Cognac (approx £40 a bottle) to the very rare and special ‘Sign of Time’ Cognac dating back to 1893 and costing a staggering £11,000 per bottle.

Cognac

(At the Whisky Exchange you can also get miniatures of some of these bottles, the perfect way to try a Cognac before investing.)

Cognac

Maison Ferrand has a big range of spirits in its collection, from Caribbean rums to artisanal Citadelle gin. But their Cognac is one of their most distinctive products. This cognac proudly uses grapes planted on the Angeac terroir in the heart of the Grande Champagne region. Maison Ferrand was founded in 1989, making it one of the newer houses, but they use traditional methods to make their Cognac.

Cognac

After visiting some of the Ferrand properties we were treated to an indulgent dinner at newly opened Chais Monnet Hotel in the centre of town. Here we feasted on local delicacies all accompanied, of course, with wonderful complementing Cognac.

Cognac

Stepping foot in the Vallein Tercinier caves felt special. Immediately the sense of passion and history was apparent and our group revelled in the story of this house’s Cognac. We sat at the tasting table while the wind howled furiously outside and warmed our bodies with divine cognac.

Cognac

Foodies will love the food and drink options in Cognac town. While in the area don’t miss Bar Luciole, a great cocktail venue to try perfectly mixed Cognac drinks… our group particularly loved the Butter Kir Royal. I also highly recommend lunch at Poulpette in town. A relaxed modern eatery serving inventive French food using the best local ingredients.

Cognac

Cognac is such a lovely destination, ideal for foodies and drink fans. I loved wandering round the town, soaking up the authentic atmosphere and learning about Cognac, a unique and special spirit.

You can learn more about Cognac at London’s Cognac Show which will be announced later this year. You can learn more about Whisky on the Whisky Exchange website here.

I was a guest of the Whisky Exchange.

São Lourenço do Barrocal

São Lourenço do Barrocal is a hotel that had been on my wishlist for years, an idyllic escape in the Portuguese Alentejo region. Just a few hours drive from Lisbon, this hotel works perfectly as a second stop after a few days enjoying the excitement of the capital city.

São Lourenço do Barrocal

The hotel has a special history… the atmospheric property has been in the same family for over 200 years and feels very much in tune with its beautiful surroundings. The hotel has a 780-hectare estate that includes olive groves and vineyards (you can taste the olive oil and wine on site), and also boasts an orchard and wall garden.

São Lourenço do Barrocal

A main building hosts evening sundowners and cakes, and is also home to a charming bar for all your refreshment needs. The reception here are on-call to help make your stay at São Lourenço do Barrocal as memorable as possible. Guests have so many options to fill their daily itinerary with… from horse riding, to hot air balloon rides over the region.

The hotel prides itself on being incredibly family-friendly with activities to suit all age groups. But for those needing some alone time, the Susanne Kaufmann spa is the perfect refuge.

São Lourenço do BarrocalSão Lourenço do Barrocal

There are 40 rooms including courtyard, winery and farm rooms, and cottages for accommodating families. The rooms are all decorated in a similar style – laid back and luxurious. The courtyard room we called home was spacious and comfortable, with a generous living area and outdoor terrace.

The bathroom felt lavish with underfloor heating and dual sinks, bath and separate power shower, and best of all… mini Susanne Kaufmann toiletries.

Our room felt like a suite and it was a lovely oasis to come back to at the end of the day.

São Lourenço do BarrocalSão Lourenço do Barrocal

The hotel restaurant, Alentejo, is a homely dining room for feasting on the finest local produce. In the morning, a huge buffet offered fruit and cold meats, pastries and cereals. A cooked menu offers all the hot dishes you might desire, and I was impressed by the thoughtful service, particularly when the waiter remembered my coffee order on the second morning.

I looked forward to dinner at Alentejo both days. The menu was full of enticing farm to table recipes and I particularly loved the slow cooked meats, which were incredibly flavoursome and delicious when paired with the São Lourenço do Barrocal wine.

São Lourenço do BarrocalSão Lourenço do Barrocal

In the long warm days we lazed by the pool, with the scent of citrus fruit in the air. On our second day we were treated to a picnic in the grounds, prepared specially for us by the hotel. It was wonderfully relaxing to be able to spend all our time here, there is so much to see and do on site that I didn’t get my usual itch to explore further afield.

São Lourenço do BarrocalSão Lourenço do Barrocal

For a sunny and calm European getaway I would highly recommend São Lourenço do Barrocal. The design-led but traditional interiors made this hotel a pleasure to spend time in, and the authentic friendly service ensured every detail of our trip was perfect. Waking up to the birdsong and falling asleep under a sky full of stars are two memories I will always remember from our short stay at this magical hotel.

More information and book a stay at São Lourenço do Barrocal here.

I was a guest of the hotel.

Clues to the Neighbourhood at Hotel Indigo, Stratford

Whether I travel for a day trip or a two-week holiday, I always like to truly discover the best of a destination… from speciality coffee shops and wine bars, to unique local designers and the finest foodie establishments. So when I heard about Hotel Indigo’s ‘Clues to the Neighbourhood’ experience in Stratford-upon-Avon, I was immediately interested.

Clues to the Neighbourhood

This special campaign aims to introduce guests to the most individual and interesting parts of the destination that the hotel calls home. The concept kicked off at the Hotel Indigo Berlin and continues in Stratford-upon-Avon and Brussels. In the Hotel Indigo Stratford-upon-Avon library, you will find 20 clues – a collection of beautiful items and artefacts – each a clue to a special place, venue or excursion in the town. The clues have been chosen by artists, musicians and historians who all have a connection to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Clues to the Neighbourhood

The clues lead you to a range of itinerary options, from local perfume makers to museum exhibitions, cute historic pubs to talented hairdressers. There are a few clues that relate to Shakespeare, but the collection of 20 showcases a great deal of other ideas too. There is something to suit guests of all ages and interests, and the hotel staff are trained to help with any bookings or tickets. Every clue tells a story worth discovering.

Clues to the NeighbourhoodClues to the Neighbourhood

During the launch day we were all treated to experiences from one of the clues – a trip to the Butterfly Farm, a gin tasting at Shakespeare Gin Company or a Perfume Workshop with expert Rebecca Tracey. I headed to Rebecca Tracey’s studio for a lesson in essential oils. After smelling 16 different oils and hearing about all the qualities and properties of each, we were encouraged to mix our favourite top, middle and base notes to blend our own bespoke oil. It was a brilliant few hours picking up some great perfume tips.

Hotel Indigo

Before heading back to London, we were treated to a feast at the Hotel Indigo Stratford-upon-Avon’s celebrated restaurant, The Woodsman. This cosy eatery is known for its menu of wholesome recipes, in particular its deer dishes. The whole group sat round a grand table and tasted an array of wonderful local delicacies. The main course was my favourite; platters of perfectly cooked Venison Wellington, roast roe deer, the creamiest mashed potato and flavoursome vegetables. The meal concluded with freshly made, piping hot, strawberries and cream beignets.

Clues to the Neighbourhood

After 10 years of writing about and visiting hotels I’ve never witnessed a destination experience quite so bespoke and exciting as ‘Clues to the Neighbourhood’. I just hope this inspired idea will be on offer at more of the Indigo hotels in the future.

‘Clues to the Neighbourhood’ continues at Hotel Indigo Stratford-upon-Avon for the next three months. Book here to stay and experience the best of the city.

This is a sponsored article in collaboration with Hotel Indigo, see more from the video here.