November is proving to be particularly miserable. The sky is a constant dark grey and the persistent rain is causing the rivers to flood. I’m in need of some warming up so visiting the town of Cognac is just what I need.
The origins of the town can be dated to 1030 when it was known by the Latin name of Comniacum. It soon became a developing commercial town on the banks of the River Charente, trading in sea salt and wine. The old town retains a medieval character with crooked stone and timber houses, as well as cobbled streets which prove rather treacherous in the wet weather.
But what Cognac is really famous for is Cognac. As I entered the town I was bombarded with boards advertising the familiar names of Martell, Hennessy and Remy Martin. However, I’m not just interested in the alcohol. So I decide to visit the Chateau de Cognac, now owned by Baron Otard (another cognac producer. In 1494 the Chateau was the birthplace of King Francois I and hosted other royalty, including Richard the Lionheart. After the 7 years’ War it was used as a prison, evidenced by the British names carved into the walls which could be mistaken for modern day graffiti. Then at the end of the 18th Century it was bought by Baron Otard who used the damp, dark cellars to age his best eaux-de-vie. Barrels of 50 year old cognac are still stored here, the oak casks darkened with age and the walls darkened with some kind of mould. About 3% of the content is lost through evaporation and it’s known as ‘the angel’s share’. Given the amount of cognac being stored in the town, I’m guessing the angels here must be pretty happy.
I’m being guided by a serious young woman called Liliia, who seems inconvenienced by the only client on the 2pm English tour – me! She reels off names and dates with disinterest as we wander through the stark stone rooms, bare except for a few stone busts of the royal family and stone friezes depicting battles. When I question her accent, I discover that she’s Ukranian and has only been working at the Chateau for 2 months. She warms up a bit when we reach the boutique, telling me about the cognac production from vine to bottle, and offering me a snifter. As I’m planning to drive I only take a small sip but I instantly feel the warmth as it slides down my throat and inside my belly.
I ask Liliia what she would recommend as a Christmas gift and she directs me to a shelf that is lined with teardrop shaped bottles filled with soft amber liquid. The price is a sobering €200 and I suggest that maybe I should look at something smaller, but the smallest is a 50cl VSOP which is still an eye-watering €50. As I wander back through the old town I pass some cafes and the smell of cigar smoke assails my nostrils. I expect to see the local Frenchmen sipping a glass of cognac but instead they are quaffing beers. Maybe they can’t afford the cognac either.