While planning our 6 week trip to France in the Spring of 2018, we hadn’t considered visiting a Cognac House – in fact, it was not even on our minds. Three weeks into our trip, we were sitting down in a great little bistro in Bordeaux – Le Cochon Volant – across the street from the Marché des Capucins (Bordeaux’s largest food market), bantering with the restaurant host and another regular guest – neither of whom is originally from Bordeaux. The host asked if we had been to Cognac yet, while serving a glass to the other guest. When we answered we had not and were not considering the trip, he immediately poured us a couple of small samples.
Thus began a lively and lengthy discussion with the host and our new friend about Cognac, and its importance to the region. “Cognac is life!” shouted our new friend, and together we raised our glasses! It was truly a magical evening, and a seed was planted: we have to visit Cognac.
So what is Cognac? Beyond being life, it is essentially the double distillation of predominantly “ugni blanc” grapes. Once the grapes have fermented in stainless steel vats for 2 to 3 weeks, it is then distilled in an Alembic Charentais copper still. After two distillations, the resulting product is a clear liquid containing roughly 70% alcohol.
It is basically brandy, but to be called Cognac it must be produced in the region of Cognac (which is further subdivided into several different sub-regions or crus). As with everything in France, tight regulations control every aspect of the production of this beautiful product. Following distillation, the product is then transferred to oak barrels and aged a minimum of 2 years. If you are interested in learning more about the distillation process, we highly recommend the following blog:
Cognac is the second largest wine region in France following Bordeaux. There are various grades of Cognac which are simply based on the age of the product. Typically, Cognac is a blend of various production years – which the producer attempts to adjust the proportions to maintain a similar flavor profile each year (just like blended scotch and whisky). As mentioned, the minimum time required in the barrel is 2 years. The Cognac now has the designation of VS (or Very Special). VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale – also known as Reserve) must have product that has been aged a minimum of 4 years (nothing less than at least 4 years of aging is in the bottle). If the youngest brandy in the bottle has been aged 6 years it qualifies as Napoleon. If the youngest brandy has been aged 10 years, it can be called XO (Extra Old). You may also find the designation Hors d’age – which is basically XO with a fancier name.
Surprisingly, the United States is the largest consumer of Cognac in the world – roughly 35 million liters per year. China is a close second at 28 million liters annually. The next three countries – UK, Germany and France – consume about 13 million liters combined. There are approximately 200 producers of Cognac, not to mention all the various brandies and Armagnac (brandy produced in the Armagnac region) producers. You probably have heard of some of the biggest names in Cognac – Remy Martin, Hennessy, Martell, and Courvoisier. They make up the bulk of the production – nearly 90 percent of all Cognac is produced and sold by these 4 companies (or houses). But our goal was to find a couple of small producers and get a personal tour of the facilities – since this is what we prefer: to research and discover truly unique experiences. Our research began with what nearly everyone does these days – we asked Google to find us information on small Cognac houses. And Google did not disappoint. We found this very helpful website (imagine that – same blogger as above) that had a list of several houses to choose from – and we chose two. (A link to the web page is below.)
Our first stop was to Michel Forgeron (https://www.cognacforgeron.com/ ). Since we were unfamiliar with the roads (and it was the first day we had been in a car in about a week), it took us a little longer to get there than anticipated. Hence, we arrived just as the tour was beginning. Our other tour companions consisted mainly of a group of infants to 4 year olds (and their parents). Obviously, Cognac is important to the French considering this early induction into the nuances of the spirit.
Thankfully, by now we were starting to have a better understanding of the French language, since the bulk of the tour was presented in French (with the occasional check-in from our guide in English to be sure we understood what was being said). After about a 40-minute tour on the history of Michel Forgeron and the facilities itself, we finally got to the tasting room! Oooh la la! We were able to sample several different blends – ranging from VS to XO with different blends within each Cru. It was a difficult decision to choose a favorite, but we ended up with a couple of bottles of Vielle Reserve. But wait – there is more. Our tour guide then pointed out a product that we had never seen – Pineau des Cherantes. It is basically Cognac blended with either red or white wine. OMG! How have we never heard of this before? Why are they keeping this from us? What a delightful little fortified wine – a perfect aperitif or digestif (or both)! If you can find this in your liquor store, we highly recommend you try a bottle. Or better yet – travel to the Cognac region of France. We think they keep the best for themselves, and since we had never seen this in a store in the United States, well – we had to bring home a bottle of that, too.
Following the tour, we had a couple of hours before our next appointment. So off to lunch we went – because what else would you do with a couple of hours to spare? We found a little place called Le Chevalier de la Croix Maron (The Knight of the Brown Cross) in the town of Segonzac. A three course prix fixe meal for Euro 13.50 – an entrée, plat and dessert. Entrées were delicious in-house terrines with a small salad – very fresh and full of flavor. Plats of the day were confit of chicken with mushrooms, or fish with potatoes – prepared very traditionally. We ordered one of each. Dessert consisted of tiramisu or gateau basque – so we ordered one of each of those just to try them. Really quite delicious considering the small town and limited options. Once we finished lunch, we hopped back in the car and headed to our next Cognac tasting in Berniel.
Andre’ Petit & Fils (http://petitcognac.com/) is nothing like we expected. It is very unassuming – the office is extremely small and certainly does not have the ambience of a large Cognac house. We met with the office manager (who spoke very little English) as Jacques was traveling on business that day. We had scheduled an appointment ahead of time, and received a personal tour of the production space and aging room.
The tour guide gave us a bit of history about the brand – the original owner worked at the House of Hennessy learning the craft before starting Andre’ Petit in 1850. This is a very small batch house using hand harvested grapes. The production area is even more interesting – lots of dark cob-webby rooms with barrels aging and a large room with the traditional still. She showed us to a very small room lit by a single bare bulb and proceeded to offer us a sample directly from one of the barrels – a 68 year old barrel of Cognac. Holy Moly! The flavor was incredible – and so smooth. We then tasted 10 more varieties of Cognac products. From Pineau des Charantes, to flavored liqueurs (pear, almond and orange), to several grades of barrel aged Cognac. We ended up with a bottle of Pineau and a Napoleon. This Cognac is by far the best we have ever tasted. After comparing it with Michel Forgeron, the found the flavor to be more rich, complex, and smooth which must be due to the dark and dreary cob-webby production space! 😊
While this was the end of our day in Cognac, there is one more interesting little fact about Cognac that we learned. During the aging process, the alcohol evaporates (just like in any distilled liquor being aged). But with Cognac, the chemical makeup causes a black mold to form on the roof of the building – and since these roofs are predominantly red clay tile one can tell a Cognac barrel room from a distance by the distinctive black hue to the roof. But the story gets better – there is a spider that is attracted to the mold and so when you go into the barrel aging rooms of the Cognac houses you can expect to see LOTS of spiderwebs. While we didn’t actually see any spiders, where there are webs there are spiders (cue Indiana Jones music). But what great adventure didn’t have a bit of danger to it? And with a barrel of Cognac to be rescued, who wouldn’t risk an encounter with a spider? I mean, how mean can they be? Probably all mellow on Cognac fumes anyway…….