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Cognac

The angels' share


The town of Cognac owes its fame to the world’s most famous brandy of the same name, prized everywhere as a symbol of fine living and French style, and regarded by many -along with a fine Havana cigar, in less enlightened times – as the finest way on the planet to end a fine meal. Evidence of its production pervades the town; the air is redolent of cognac vapour, given the poetic name “the angels’ share”, and the tiny black fungus which thrives on it gives the stonework and tiled roofs of the buildings of the town a dark velvety texture. The origin of this fine liqueur is itself distilled from the history of the town.

The River Charente has been a commercial waterway from ancient times. Of Gallo-Roman “Condate” little survives, except the remnants of vineyards in the area of Haute-Sarazinne. In the Middle-Ages, the town of Cognac grew out of settlements and fortifications between the 10th century château, where François I was born in 1494, becoming king in 1515, and the 11th century Benedictine Priory of Saint Léger. It grew into a prosperous river port mainly through the production and export of salt, and like most of the rest of France was fought over by the French and the English through the centuries.  Cognac survived the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion, and during the Renaissance was part of the Comté of Angoulême, and a favourite retreat of the court.

In the 17th century the trade in salt went into a decline, partially due to lack of support by the Bourbon royalty, so the resourceful villagers immersed themselves headlong into wine production, and developed a lively commerce abroad with expatriate friends and family members, who as Protestants had taken refuge in England and Holland. As the wine did not travel well they took to distilling it, thus calling into existence the “liqueur des dieux”. Today, cognac is produced to strict guidelines, double-distilled in copper stills from the ugni blanc grape, and aged in oak barrels. The grapes themselves must come from strictly-defined areas which are graded according to the quality of the soil, the best being the Grande and Petite Champagne areas. The major producers – Hennessey, Martell, Rémy Martin, Camus, and in nearby Jarnac, Courvoisier – all welcome visitors with guided tours and tasting sessions. However, dark clouds now hang over the cognac world, according to purists. It has long been the tipple of choice in the milieu of ostentatious luxury inhabited by US rap “artists”, and “Ludacris” is the latest of the orthographically-challenged colleagues trying to launch his own brand onto the market, a blend of 40 different varieties (stylishly represented on the label by 40 nude female silhouettes).

Back in the real world, the town of Cognac is a pleasant day’s visit, with its narrow medieval cobbled lanes winding among half-timbered houses; don’t miss a stroll down Rue Grand, which has been Main Street Cognac since the Middle-Ages. The St-Jacques Gate, a bridged gate forming part of the old town wall, the Convent of Recollects, with its fine vaulted gallery, and the 12th century Saint Martin Church, with an ancient cemetery from the Merovingian and Carolingian periods, are all worth visiting. The town marina has berths for 40 boats, and there are barge cruises along the Charente: ask the Tourist Office: office@tourist-cognac.com. The Cognac Festival, in July, features jousting, fireworks, concerts, and fine dinners with local specialities by the riverside, and for an educational and enjoyable day out, try one of the Vineyard Trails, information on www.cognacetapes.com: the different Trails take you back in time to experience the history of the region and its people.

 


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Paradis, 'chai' in Cognac
© OT Cognac - J-L. Clavel

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Village of St-Preuil
© OT Cognac - J-L. Clavel

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Gabare in Cognac on the Charente River
© OT Cognac - P. Chaillot

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Maison de la Lieutenance, Cognac
© OT Cognac - J-L. Clavel

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Jardin public, Cognac
© OT Cognac - J-L. Clavel

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