A couple of years ago, a friend suggested we must always watch England play a vital football match in Portugal. After some catastrophic schoolboy defending, England lost the sport and Nigel said: ‘I believe we want a cognac.’
So we found a snazzy bar, ordered something or other after which Nigel began swishing the amber spirit around his glass as if he were an actual connoisseur. Turned out he knew little greater than me about this famous spirit. Which is why we discover ourselves in Cognac, where we’re joined by Johnny, a mutual friend, who also doesn’t know his VSOPs from his XOs.
‘Lads on tour’ has never been my thing, but that is a wholly different experience.
Mature taste: Mark Palmer pays a visit to the French town of Cognac (pictured) to learn concerning the ‘history, tradition and craftsmanship’ of cognac through tastings and tours
‘The place to remain is Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa,’ Mark says of the town. Above are guests sampling cognac on the hotel
We’re sipping quite than gulping, with history, tradition and craftsmanship all thrown into the heady mix. And inside 24 hours, we’re fully signed up members of the cognac fan club.
The town is a cocktail of sixteenth and seventeenth century palaces; half-timbered houses from a century or two earlier; a castle where King Francois I used to be born in 1494 (and still very much an area hero); the twelfth century Church of Saint Leger (a former Benedictine priory) and an iron-roofed grocery store.
Cognac (population 20,000) is about 90 minutes from Bordeaux in south-west France. It rose to prominence on the back of the salt trade, but by the mid-18th century Cognac’s essential industry was, well, cognac.
Today, there are greater than 280 cognac houses, some huge similar to Remy Martin and Hennessy, others producing just a number of hundred bottles a 12 months. But all made out of the ‘ugni blanc’ grape, which, due to its high acidity and low sugar content, makes for the right ‘eau de vie’ (water of life).
Most of the houses offer tours for around £15 — and whenever you go on considered one of these, I promise you’ll never have a look at a bottle of cognac in the identical way again.
The eye to detail, ceremony and reverence for the product is sobering.
The place to remain is Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa, a former distillery founded in 1838.
While the unique distillery buildings have been preserved, there are all forms of modern flourishes, particularly to the rear of the property where a black glass structure rises into the sky, with rusted metal piping on its sides.
The spa and inside/outside pool is within the basement of this recent constructing, while the cellars have been transformed into restaurants, considered one of which, Les Foudres, already has a Michelin star. But perhaps the hotel’s most eminent feature is its roof-top bar, with terrific views of the town.
Bedrooms have a peaceful, Scandi vibe and the staff positively fizz with enthusiasm. Certainly one of them, Jean, offers to take us into the countryside to go to a small balsamic vinegar producer — and does so by the use of a lime-green 1978 Citreon 2CV convertible.
Johnny and I sit within the back with Nigel acting as co-pilot, regaling us with stories about his school French exchange 50 years ago.
Sometimes, he acknowledges admiring looks from other motorists with a regal wave. ‘Une belle voiture,’ shouts a pedestrian. And it’s tres belle, but perhaps not quite as beautiful because the rows of immaculately kept vines, broken up occasionally by fields of corn and sunflowers.
Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa is a former distillery that was founded in 1838. While the unique distillery buildings have been preserved, there are all forms of modern flourishes, Mark reveals
To the rear of Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa, a black glass structure rises into the sky, with rusted metal piping on its sides
The spa and inside/outside pool on the Nineteenth-century hotel is within the basement of a contemporary recent constructing
Le Baume de Bouteville vinegar distillery comes as a revelation to all three of us, especially after we’re invited so as to add a number of drops of ten-year-old balsamic to some freshly harvested oysters, accompanied by a gorgeously light chardonnay — all at 11am.
The vinegar is, just like the cognac, made out of ugni blanc grapes and aged in oak barrels but, unlike the cognac, is heated to a temperature that forestalls it from becoming alcoholic.
We express concern concerning the harvest this 12 months due to the acute dry weather, but a member of the team assures us that the vines have roots that go 15 metres deep. ‘Nature gives us what we would like,’ she says.
Later, we eat spectacularly well at Bistro de Claude within the old town, before wondering down towards the headquarters of Hennessy, where we join a bunch tour — and find yourself mesmerised.
Bedrooms at Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa have a peaceful, Scandi vibe, Mark reveals
Pictured is Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa’s Jazz Bar 1838. The hotel offers doubles from €260, room only
‘In some extraordinary way, Cognac has cleansed our souls,’ Mark says of his visit to the town
We learn the barrels are made out of French oak trees that have to be at the very least 80 years old and that no glue or nails go into their construction; the double distillation means of any harvest — which takes place in September and October — must, under strict appellation rules, be accomplished by March 31 the next 12 months, and we’re told that the black coating contained in the cellars and on the perimeters of buildings within the town just isn’t dirt but fungus attributable to evaporation from the barrels.
We also visit Martell, the oldest cognac house on the planet (founded 1715), which was bought by Seagram in 1988. We’re led through a warren of vaulted tunnels until meeting two ‘master tasters’, who usher us in to a dark cellar.
Slowly, a series of lights come on to disclose a super-modern structure which has at its centre a raised stage with an extended white table. We’re asked to sit in front of a series of small glasses full of different grades of cognac.
The senior master taster calls for silence and asks that we prepare ours senses for what’s to return. We observe the thinness of the glasses; we admire the wealthy color; we sniff the aromas and at last we taste.
‘We must respect the soil, the vines and the experience of past tasters. They’re all a part of the mixing process,’ he says.
I look across to Nigel and Johnny — and have seldom seen such concentration etched across their faces. It could be fleeting, but in some extraordinary way, Cognac has cleansed our souls.