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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
(At the Whisky Exchange you can also get miniatures of some of these bottles, the perfect way to try a Cognac before investing.)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
As this year’s Cognac Show has had to be cancelled, you can experience all the Cognac fun from home with these great online sessions on the Whisky Exchange Facebook Page:
Friday 24th April, 5.30pm: Cognac 101 with Dawn Davies MW
Friday 24th April, 6.30pm: Cocktail masterclass with Guillaume Le Dorner, Bar Luciole
Saturday 25th April, 5,30pm: The Many Faces of Cognac with Dawn Davies MW
Saturday 25th April, 6.30pm: Calvados 101 with Dawn Davies MW
Order your virtual tasting set here and join in on the fun next weekend.
I was a guest of the Whisky Exchange.