Cognac for wine lovers

The Hennessy shuttle boat on the river Charente
The Hennessy shuttle boat on the river Charente.

Sweeping from above the Atlantic ocean-kissed shores of La Rochelle, down the Gironde estuary towards the fe?ted vineyards of Bordeaux – and reaching far inland through forest, rivers and wheat fields – the Cognac region at first seems mind-bogglingly vast. But while this wide expanse may be one of France’s largest grape-planted areas, the good news for travellers is that there’s a clear first-timer’s itinerary to discovering its liquid treasures. Simply make for the heart of the action in the premium central sub-regions of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, and the twin spirit-soaked communes of Cognac and Jarnac, for a long weekend of tastings, cellar tours and laid-back exploring.

Covering some 13,000ha in the centre of the Cognac region – and bordering Cognac town – Grande Champagne has highly chalky soils relative to other sub-regions and picturesque vistas of low vine-lined hills. With its white stone buildings along the squiggling river Charente, Cognac town makes a fine base for your explorations, both for its proximity to major houses and its smattering of lovely sights, from half-timbered homes to old cloisters. Conversely, sleepier Jarnac, a 10-minute train ride or 20-minute drive away on the borders of Petite Champagne, has sun-flecked spaces dominated by the grand frontage of Courvoisier and unassuming corners housing the likes of Hine and Louis Royer. Beyond these two communes, countless other small villages radiate outwards with cellars and tasting rooms both big and small, ripe for discovery if you have the time.

Illustrated map of Cognac

Credit: Maggie Nelson

How to get there

The nearest well-served airport and major city is Bordeaux-Me?rignac (130km south), but flights also go into La Rochelle (110km northwest, on the coast) and Limoges (140km due east inland). Or take a train to Cognac or Jarnac station from Paris in three to four hours.

Tasting experiences

The atmospheric ageing cellars of Delamain in Jarnac

The atmospheric ageing cellars of Delamain in Jarnac

Given the punchier nature of a Cognac tasting in comparison to wine, you’ll likely only want two or three stops a day – which means being selective among the 280 or so regional producers. Wherever your stylistic preferences lie, it’s almost mandatory to begin with the house that’s synonymous with the Cognac category: Hennessy (see ‘My perfect day’, below). Responsible for about 40% of all regional production, the LVMH-owned brand’s rambling facilities are set over a series of vast buildings in the heart of Cognac. Tours come in every shape and size: join a shuttle boat across the river Charente to discover Hennessy through a digital art installation, sampling the characteristically spicy VSOP on a two-hour group tour (€29 per person, times vary so check and book ahead); or cycle through the vineyards ahead of a superb picnic lunch from the kitchens of chef Thierry Verrat, owner of one-star Michelin restaurant La Ribaudie?re (€130 per person, €65 picnic supplement).

A 15-minute walk away from Hennessy, and somewhat more modest in scale, family-owned Bache Gabrielsen has its headquarters in a small townhouse on tranquil Rue Louis Dominique. In the historic offices where respected Master Blender Jean-Philippe Bergier works his magic, old wooden cupboards line walls and samples from local bouilleurs de cru (‘grower-distillers’) clutter desks awaiting consideration for future assemblages (‘blends’). Join a tour of the onsite cellar, spotting precious demijohns of old vintages and sampling through the smooth and complex range (free of charge). If you’ve the cash, you can even buy your own barrel for bottling when the time is right.

Over in nearby Jarnac, your essential stop is the highly respected Delamain, blending elegant, long-aged Cognacs from an elite selection of farmer-growers around the region with spirit distilled from its own vineyards. The time-warp ageing rooms, filled with barrels and demijohns, are among the most…

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