If it’s a languid countryside retreat with a gentle walking tour around one of the big houses then right before harvest in the summer is sublime. But if you’re a die-hard fan of the liquid itself then January is when the stills are fired up and the true work of Cognac begins.
The taxi, pulled over to the side of the road, still has its engine running as its driver is pacing the wet footpath. It’s 4am and he won’t have another chance to stretch his legs until we reach the airport. What time is your flight, he asks, as I slide into the car, checking just how heavy his foot needs to be. Not till 7, I reassure him. We don’t exchange another word until he pulls up at Gatwick’s South Terminal.
By 10am another taxi driver is waiting for me and three others off the flight in Bordeaux. This one is much happier, with a big beaming smile and an armful of coffee and flaky pastries – there’s no rush now, just a smooth drive from the city centre into Cognac. There’s even wifi in the taxi, I discover, chomping down on a buttery croissant. When our Gallic neighbours get it right, they really do find the sweet spot.
I’ve done the drive twice before from Bordeaux to Cognac, at first grey and dominated by the highway before the countryside creeps into the picture, vines growing right along the roadside as every bit of the appellation’s land is put to use. Dotted in among this foliage are pale sand-coloured stone houses, ramshackle farming sheds and petit tired-looking villages. Even in the winter, however, this trip feels exciting because it’s the first time I am making the journey specifically for the town’s eponymous brandy.
Cognac, the town, is older than its spirit, and was founded on the wealth of its salt trade up and down the river Charente. But those days have long disappeared and today life here centres around the alcohol it makes and the money from its biggest houses.
As we pull up in front of our hotel I am reminded of the pockets of beauty that exist in the town. The buildings are all pale and bright, the roads are cobbled and wide and there are remnants of history, from the old town walls by the river to the picture-perfect gardens. Moments from the hotel is a large fountain flanked by renaissance-styled houses and cafes with chairs scattered along the pavements. It’s a good thing I remember the town in summer though, for we’ve come in distillation time, and while the stills may be working through the night the vineyards are barren and sleeping and Cognac itself is chilly and grey.
When you come to visit Cognac will depend on what you’re most interested in. If it’s a languid countryside retreat with a gentle walking tour around one of the big houses then right before harvest in the summer is sublime. But if you’re a die-hard fan of the liquid itself then January is when the stills are fired up and the true work of Cognac begins.
After a light lunch (vous êtes végétarien? Oh, je suis désolé pour vous) we head off for the Merlet distillery. Our beaming taxi driver is back, arms regrettably bereft of treats this time, to drive us out into a damp countryside as water pools in sodden fields and the river laps at the pavements once lining its now broken banks. Merlet is one of the older houses in the region, even though you may not be familiar with the name. As a cognac (note big C for the town, little c for the spirit and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise) producer this maison has been distilling since 1850, however every last drop was sold on to other brands. Eight years ago the family finally decided to bottle their brandy under their own name and it’s this we’ve come to see, pulling up outside the old expansive family home which has been turned into offices, and further down its steep drive, the distillation warehouse.
Like Scotch’s iconic pot stills, cognac has its special Charentais still with is bulbous boiler and cylinder-shaped condenser. Wine destined for a life as cognac, made from grapes within the appellation and typically of high acidity, arrives here at the distillery and is heated until its alcohol turns to vapour and travels up the still’s swan-like neck where it hits cold pipes and is condensed back into liquid, known as brouillis, at around 30% abv. The brouillis is then put back into the still and heated again, this time reaching alcoholic levels over 60%.
As we wander the still room, six boilers working hard to turn wine into spirit, we’re able to see the process in all its many stages while Luc Merlet, son of the current owner of the maison is guiding us through, talking animatedly as the work ticks on. Distillation may be a science but each time I see it in person, in the hushed and cavernous warehouses, the word alchemy seems much more appropriate as master distillers decide where the heart of the spirit lies, separating out its volatile heads and tails to capture a liquid destined to age into the famous cognac brandy.
Over the two nights in Cognac we sample this spirit in all its guises, from a new-make spirit with fresh green notes not yet tempered and softened by barrels to different blends that marry fruit-driven palates of apricot, quince and peach with oaky flavours of vanilla, cinnamon, spice and hazelnut. Neat cognac is almost too easy to knock back – this has none of Scotch’s rough edges, rye’s bold spice or rum’s funky sweetness. Instead it’s smooth, gentle and aromatic. And luckily for us, this town of not quite 20,000 people has bars of a quality places triple its size cannot boast.
The gem in Cognac is undoubtedly Luciole, a bar opened by London’s Tony Conigliaro, (owner of 69 Colebrook Row, Bar Termini and Untitled) and his business partner Guillaume Le Dorner. Situated on the town’s less populated right bank this stunning bar brings together the rustic feel of its surroundings with the luxury of Cognac’s spirit and all the comfort of a top London bar. The night we visit a pianist is belting out hits in the corner as drinks circulate the room, filled with local couples, a few winter tourists and visiting bartenders from Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Paris and, of course our contingency from London. The big maisons are always bringing guests over to Cognac which accounts in part for its quality restaurants and nightlife. Where Luciole stands above the rest is in the innovative flavours of its drinks. My favourite is the Avignon, a deceptively simple cocktail of VSOP cognac and chamomile syrup served in a frankincense-smoked glass. The subtle additions of aromatic smoke and herbaceous sweetness lifting and playing with the already-present oak and fruit in the brandy.
On our last day we drive out to Luc Merlet’s family home where his father and mother still live and where the company’s fruit liqueurs were first produced before a much bigger, more industrial site was needed. It’s a misty day and the gnarled vineyards which surrounded the old chateau are barely visible through the bleak weather. The ground is verdant and damp and the vines really look like they’re hibernating as we creep past and into stone warehouses filled with barrels of resting spirit. I can’t imagine living across a courtyard from all this cognac and not developing some kind of dependence, for with the bleak countryside beyond the frosted windows and the fire crackling, a small measure of brandy seems entirely appropriate.
Despite Cognac’s modern approach to drinking and dinning, this town is very much a rural and traditional spot, governed by a body obsessed with protecting the agricultural practises and style of brandy made here. When you think of the international images this spirit has – rappers, club serves and bottles worth thousands of pounds – it’s at a complete juxtaposition to its roots and origins as a product families like Merlet spend generations perfecting. Roots and origins you can experience with a speedy flight to Bordeaux and a night luxuriating at Luciole – which will probably set you back less than a bottle in Mayfair.
Getting to Cognac:
Flights go daily to Bordeaux from several London airport, with a flight time of 1 hour 40 minutes.
Gatwick to Bordeaux with British Airways
Luton to Bordeaux with easyJet
Stanstead to Bordeaux with Ryanair
Trains to Cognac from Gare de Bordeaux require one change at Saintes. The total journey is usually 2 hours.
First train departs Bordeaux at 05.46
Last train departs Bordeaux at 20.12
Driving takes 1 hour 30 minutes.
DrinkUp.London’s Best Places to Eat & Drink in Cognac
BAR - Luciole, 14 Place du Solençon, 16100 Cognac, France
BAR - Louise Bar à Cocktails, 1 Place François 1er, 16100 Cognac, France
RESTAURANT - Restaurant L'Atelier des Quais, 1 Avenue de Lattre de Tassigny, 16100 Cognac, France
RESTAURANT - Le Coq d'Or, 33 Place François 1er, 16100 Cognac, France
RESTAURANT - Le Bistrot de Claude, 35 Rue Grande, 16100 Cognac, France