We took a day trip to Cognac country, wandering through field after field of sunflowers. They were everywhere, their happy faces spreading to the horizon, always gazing towards the sun. After the uncountable number of sunflower fields I had to whip out Google and figure out what the deal was. Turns out they are a gift from the Americas. Though France is number one in sunflower production in Europe, and all the other good stuff made from them, it was the Spanish who brought seeds back from the new world. Now they litter the landscape as far as the eye can see. At first, totally charmed, I would always stop to take a picture, but I realized pretty quick we wouldn’t get through Cognac if I continued.
The French don’t really drink Cognac, they prefer wine, and most Cognac is shipped out of country. The grapes in Cognac are more acidic and lend themselves better to making the sugars for hard alcohol. It was actually an Irishman who put this region on the international stage. Hennessey, popular in France for fighting against the English in the 100 Year War was decorated by the French and allowed to purchase and build his own plants. The process for making Cognac is very similar to that of whisky. Instead of grains, grapes are distilled. But once the distillation process is complete, much like Scotch or whiskey, the alcohol is moved to oak barrels to age for a minimum of 10 years. Once the Cognac is bottled it stops aging. So don’t get excited the next time you stumble upon a 10 year bottle in a relative’s basement. It doesn’t matter when it was bought, it is still only 10 years old.
Just like every other region you’ve got your grand cru and your lesser quality. The Chinese view Cognac as the ultimate luxury drink, probably how we view a superbly aged Scotch or Bourbon, therefore most of the high quality production heads to Asia. Americans use Cognac more for mixing or cooking, so we don’t really get the good stuff.
We visited a tiny family run producer, Guillion-Painturaud, who though has been growing grapes since the 1600’s only started to make their own brand in the 1980’s. Much like we discovered in other regions the smaller producers are all about the grape and product. They allow the fruit to express itself and don’t blend in order to maintain a particular taste. I have had the pleasure of touring several distilleries in Scotland and Ireland but this was unique. The ambiance itself was charming as they still use the old cauldrons from hundreds of years ago. The dark room that holds the oat barrels was smothered in cobwebs and it was particularly charming when our host uncorked barrels only marked by year and used a dipper to give us a taste. We were able to taste Cognac from its first distillation last year, 10 year, 20 year, 30 year, 40 year, and finally 50 years. It was amazing we kept our feet by the end.
After a brief jaunt through a Farmer’s Market in the city of Cognac we found the bank of the river Charente where we sat for a picnic lunch while gazing upon the beautiful city.
It was a brief visit but we thoroughly enjoyed our education and experience.
Tours anyone? You will not believe this crazy 300-year-old house we are staying in.