France is, of course, known for wine. For spirits lovers, though, the country’s best destination is Cognac—the namesake town of the famous brandy. All cognac production happens in this area just north of Bordeaux. Manicured vineyards are seemingly everywhere just outside of Cognac and the surrounding Charente region (named for the river that flows through the center of town). The grapes are eventually fermented, double-distilled, and aged in French oak barrels.
The colder months are an ideal time to visit as the brandy is beloved for its warming flavors of vanilla, caramel, and honey. But it’s still advisable to make reservations for the below experiences ahead of time, especially during the winter.
Follow the Charente river east from Cognac and you’ll eventually reach the Chateau de Courvoisier in the nearby town of Jarnac. The palatial 19th century mansion houses both the company’s global headquarters and a museum. During the guided tour, visitors learn about Napoleon’s visit to the company’s warehouses in its early years outside of Paris. It concludes with a tasting, but serious gourmands will want to spring for the special cognac and truffles tour complete with a food pairing lunch in the chateau.
The world’s largest cognac producer was founded by Irishman Richard Hennessy in 1765. Visitors will inevitably learn how the brand favors barrels made of wide grain oak to extract more tannins and flavors of vanilla. Tastings and tours are currently available by appointment only, but a new visitors center opening in April will offer a range of options focused on the company’s history, how their cognac is produced, and how to taste it. Don't miss the high-end expressions like Hennessy XO and Paradis with bites prepared by their chef.
Baron Otard and D’Ussé
The eaux-de-vie (distilled wines used to make cognac) that fill Baron Otard’s bottles are aged within the walls of the Chateau de Cognac. The company was founded in 1795, but their castle on the banks of Charente river actually dates back to 950. The hour-long tour of the chateau, with stops in the aging cellars and the Baron Otard museum, ends with a tasting. Ask in advance to try D’Ussé, a combination of smooth honey flavors and aromas of fruit that was actually produced to appeal to Americans.
The oldest of the great Cognac houses was founded in 1715. Founder Jean Martell is so revered by the brand there’s a replica of his house on the property. The 75-minute tour also includes a step-by-step look into the process of making cognac and ends with a tasting. Great news as Martell only uses grapes from the Borderies growing area, a region known for grapes with round and floral aromas. The house style: cognac blended from clear eaux-de-vie that has been aged in fine grain oak barrels.
This cognac house offers a huge variety of tasting and tour options. Those with limited time can learn about the art of blending cognac during an hour-long visit that ends with a tasting. Learn even more about the spirit with a visit to their Touzac distillery. Bottled of the renowned Louis XIII de Rémy Martin go for about $1,000 but visitors can taste the spirit, which is blended from 1200 eaux-de-vie up to 100 years old, with a guided tour.
How to Get There
Cognac is accessible by train. The nearest airport is about 80 miles away in Bordeaux. The train ride from Bordeaux Saint Jean station takes about two to four hours and requires one change. The town can also be reached from both Paris Montparnasse Train Station and Charles de Gaulle Airport. The journey from the French capital takes three to five hours and requires at least one train change. Cognac’s SNCF train station is a 15-minute walk from the central square named after Francois I.
Where To Eat
For an upscale dining experience complete with white tablecloths, dine at La Ribaudière (the region’s only Michelin-starred restaurant). Dishes might include trout in a black truffle crust or escargot with duck fat and wild nettle broth. La Table de L'Yeuse is housed in an old home just outside the town of Cognac. The chef prepares dishes inspired by ingredients from his network of local producers. In central Cognac, Le Bistro de Claude specializes in French seafood dishes like scallop risotto and roast monkfish.
Where To Stay
Hotel Francois Premier, a hotel dating back to the 19th century, was renovated in 2012 and has an ideal location in the middle of town. The Hotel Heritage, located in a building that dates back to the 17th century building, is another central (but less expensive) option near the Charente River. For something with a little more atmosphere, consider Les Tilleuls Thia inn, which is housed inside a grand 19th century mansion is and just outside of town.