Thursday, December 16, 2010

Checking Out Cognac -- the Town and the Drink

We were quite an entourage. Journalists specializing in spirits (and/or travel); members of DISCUS, and representatives from the major cognac manufacturers. As we sat in the lounge of British Airways, I had no idea what I was in for. But everything seemed to go according to the plan.

The flight on Open Skies (an all-business class airline) was great with comfortable seats and excellent food. Though I didn't get much sleep, I finally got to see Slumdog Millionaire. We arrived at Paris' Orly airport 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

Orly would have to be described as the total opposite of Charles de Gaulle. It's much smaller and therefore things went a lot quicker. We were out of there within the half hour, holding our bags and ready to board a bus to Montparnasse train station in Paris.

Montparnasse could easily be (if you take away the French signs and the charges to use the toilettes) Penn Station, but it's hard to find a Pan au Chocolat that will match the true French one in Manhattan. You also won't find the TGV, France's high speed train, that was our transportation to the southwest corner of the country. Three hours, a delicious cucumber/cheese sandwich, yogurt and chocolate later, I left my comfortable first class seat on the train and walked out into Angouleme for a scenic 30 minute taxi ride to Cognac.
Our first night was at Chateau de L’Yeuse, which was quaint and beautiful. We had tea on the terrace, overlooking the rolling hills and beautiful greenery of Cognac. It wasn't long before we were downtown exploring on the cobblestone streets. This quaint city lies on the banks of the Charente River. Like a picture postcard, the shops and cafes line the streets. We walked through with a guide (you can get a tram through the Tourist and Information Office instead of a walking tour) up Vieux Cognac and past the beautiful architecture of the Musee des arts du Cognac (Art & History Museum); the Chateau and Saint-Jacques Gate (the town's walls); and the river that leads to the Gabare and Marina. The statue in the middle of town is King Francis I, who was born in Cognac in 1494. Two churches, Saint Leger's and Saint Martin's date back to the 11th and 12th century. It is a beautiful town, fitting to its namesake beverage, which I was about to discover.
After my welcome to Cognac the town, there was only a quick change for dinner at Chateau de L’Yeuse before my introduction to cognac the drink. A representative of BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac), an organization compiled of 5,000 cognac merchants, began to hit us with the cognac facts, many of which took us by surprise.
Cognac, which was first produced in the middle ages, supports 50,000 people. It is only second in vineyard size in France -- where 96% of the world's cognac is made -- to Champagne. And 80% of the cognac made comes from the four major distilleries that we would be visiting -- Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier. I also learned in my introduction what those letters on the bottle mean: VS-Very Special; VSOP-Very Superior Old Pale; and Napoleon XO-Extra Old.
There were, of course, many more lessons in the days to come, but by the time we went over the four regions (Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fin Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires), I didn't feel like I still needed a copy of "Cognac for Dummies." The basic process was actually simple: starting with wine, turning to eau-de-vie and blending to cognac. There was only one thing that shocked me, and it was a happy surprise.
Confession time… I am not a huge cognac fan (though I found I was alone in this thought as most people seem to drool at the sight of the bottle). At least I wasn't before the trip. It was definitely not my drink of choice. That is why I perked up when I heard the, "70% of cognac is used for mixed drinks, even though most people think you should drink it neat." With visions of cognac cocktails* in my head (and soon in my hands), the adventure suddenly got more exciting. And it was to begin the next day with a visit to Hennessy.

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