Cognac is an attractive medieval town famous for its high quality brandy. It is situated in the second sunniest region in France, on the banks of the River Charente and is made up of narrow cobbled streets and elegant Renaissance facades. The inhabitants of the town are known as Cognaçais and are nicknamed ‘Cagouillards’ (meaning snails) because they enjoy a slow pace of life.
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Cognac is situated between the towns of Angouleme and Saintes in the Charente Maritime region. La Rochelle airport (with low cost airlines to London, Bristol and Ireland) can be reached in 70mins.
The town began to make its mark in history from the Middle Ages, when King Francis I (who was born in the town’s castle in 1494 and was king from 1515 to 1547) granted the town the right to trade salt along the Charente River (a particularly navigable river that gave Cognac easy access to the nearby Atlantic ocean). The commercial success of this trade encouraged the town to take on the wine trade (grapes had already been brought to the region by the Romans) which in turn led to the discovery of cognac, a drink described by Victor Hugo as being “liquor of the gods” and which went on to guarantee the town world-wide fame.
As with many things, the discovery of cognac was not intentional. It was the 12 th century and merchants (mostly English and Dutch) were having trouble transporting the wine they purchased in the Charente region; the bottles were too bulky and the quality was spoilt by long boat trips. They eventually decided to distill the wine because it reduced the volume and made it more stable and soon found they could still drink it when distilled, just by diluting it with water. The Dutch called this discovery ‘Brandewijn’ (burned wine) which later got shortened to ‘Brandy.’
In the 18 th century, the Cognaçais took this development further by introducing double distillation. They concentrated the alcohol in oak barrels then waited to dilute it post-voyage until, purely by chance they realised that this ‘eaux-de-vie’ as they called it, improved with time and contact with the oak wood and did not need to be diluted upon arrival. This elegant, amber, aromatic brandy soon became known as ‘cognac’ and by the 19 th century it was being shipped in its own bottles, causing the town to quickly become a major trade and export centre, with factories being built to produce bottles, boxes, corks and labels as well as whole vineyards being dedicated to the production of the drink and requests coming from Holland, England, Northern Europe, America and the Far East.
However, world-wide success and domination was not easily achieved. The two World Wars halted commerce significantly, there were attempts at usurption of the Cognac name ( Cognac imitators, which still happens today) and numerous business feuds across the Atlantic. Two famous examples are the Phylloxera virus in the 1870s and the German invasion in WWII.
Phylloxera is an insect that attacks vines from above and below, laying its eggs on the leaves and causing the plant to die progressively and in the 1870s, the virus spread devastatingly across the region, destroying whole vineyards and causing land values to plummet. In 1888, the resurrection of these vineyards slowly began when a French scientist travelled to Dennison, Texas and found a long term cure using American vine grafts, which are still used today.
In WWII, the Germans gained control of the business. This could well have signalled an end to the future of cognac but luckily for the business, Gustav Klaebisch (a German lieutenant) was assigned to oversee the stocks and he managed to protect them from his own thirsty armies by creating a quota system.
Today, the four top-selling manufacturers, Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell and Courvoiser, control 74% of world cognac sales, which is now a multimillion-dollar business. Rue Saulnier (meaning salt trader) remains as a reminder of how it all began.
Famous people born in Cognac include: Ocatavien de Saint-Gelais (1468), a French poet, Jean Monnet (1888), one of the founding fathers of Europe, and Louis Delage (1874), the car constructor.
A good book to read for more information is: ‘ Cognac: the seductive story of the world’s most coveted spirt’ by Kyle Jarrad.
A guided tour of the distilleries, in a barge or a small train, is the first thing most visitors do in this town. The houses of Hennessey, Remy Martin, Martell and Couvoisier are all open to the public offering some, but not all, of their secrets of distillation. La Cognatheque should then be visited in order to purchase some cognac. Set in the center of the town, this shop offers the widest range of cognacs (400 cognacs and 50 pineaux) from the youngest, which are about 4 years old, through to virtually all the stages of the ageing process in 10-year steps, culminating with several cognacs which date from about 1870, before the phylloxera crisis.
The medieval quarter ‘Vieux Cognac’ is another sight to see as it contains many unusual buildings built between the 15 th and 18 th centuries with sculptures of the Salamander (Francis I’s symbol) as well as gargoyles and richly decorated facades. In particular there is: The Château des Valois (an important medieval trading post) which actually existed as early as the 10 th century and was the birthplace of King Francis I. It has superb Renaissace chambers, and an interesting Governors residence and helmet room. There is also the Saint-Jacques gate, which formed part of the town walls and used to command a bridge which has now disappeared, the Saint-Léger church, which has architecture ranging from the 11 th century to the 19 th century including an 18 th century portal decorated with the signs of the zodiac, Saint Martin’s church, a small 12 th century church which has preserved the remains of its ancient cemetery, and the Couvent des Recollets, which was founded during the Counter-Reformation in the 17 th century and contains a vaulted gallery, a well and a wrought iron handrail bearing the monogram of one of the monks. One way of viewing these could be with ‘Les Noctumbulations,’ which are evening tours of the town’s beautiful heritage.
Another sight to see is the Saint-Gobain glassworks and barrelworks. Mechanical glass-blowing was invented in Cognac in 1880 by Claude Boucher and as a result there was no longer any need to blow glasses by mouth.
Sports wise, the list is endless: fishing, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, ponytrekking, wind surfing, tennis, clay-pigeon shooting, go-karting, quad biking… There is also an 18-hole golf course (Cognac Saint-Brice), a horseriding centre (15 euros per hour) and hunting parties can be organised.
There are also numerous festivals throughout the year, a film festival in April devoted to crime thrillers and detective stories that shows Hollywood blockbusters alongside short independent films and holds competitions, a Blues and Jazz festival in July that has all the latest Afro-American music trends and is visited by artists from all over the world, a street theatre festival (Coup de Chauffe), a European literature festival that gives contemporary authors the chance to meet their readers, a harvest (vendage) festival, and a Grande Champagne exhibition.
La Musée de Cognac is another must see, museum of popular arts and traditions, it has regional ceramics, archaeology, fine arts, paintings, sculptures, furniture and items dating from the 15 th to 19 th centuries.
Seafood is very popular as the close proximity of the Atlantic coast ensures the seafood is delicious, Moules Marinière in particular. Other local recipes include: Prime beef with Cognac, Veal with Pineau, Melon with Pineau, Daube de Boeuf a la Saintongeaise, Pudding au Pain, Walnut Paté and La Galette de la Rois (a cake made especially for the Epiphany to celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings. Inside the cake is a small porcelain sculpture and whoever finds it in their portion is crowned King for the day)
Cognac, of course, and there is also Pineau des Charentes, which was discovered by mistake in the 16 th century when a winegrower accidentally mixed grape juice with Cognac eau de vie and ‘Vin de Pays Charentais,’ a table wine made with totally different grapes and methods to those required for cognac.
Château de L’Yeuse, 65 rue de Bellevue, tel no: 05 45 36 82 60, www.yeuse.fr, menu 30 euros for traditional French cuisine.
Le Bistro des Quais à Quais, 11 Quai des Flamands, tel no : 05 45 82 60 32, menu 25 euros for simple French cuisine.
Our team of sale advisers at Sextant Properties will be happy to help you to find a property near Cognac. We have a large network of partners in Cognac. All of them are registered French real estate agents and speak both French and English. Whatever kind of property you are looking for: farmhouse, longere, barn, gite, B&B, country house, mill, castle or chateau, we will do our best to find a property in Cognac matching your requirements.