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Cognac offers heady aromas, centuries-old views

Visiting four major makers of the brandy -- Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin or Courvoisier -- offers a blend of delicious sips and an appreciation of taking the long view.

October 18, 2009|Rosemary McClure

COGNAC, FRANCE — The sunlit French landscape sliding by my car window captured my attention: crumbling stone walls, tidy farmhouses with red-tile roofs, mile upon mile of low hills and rolling ridges covered with leafy green vineyards.

"You know what you're seeing?" my guide asked. "The real thing; what Napa and Sonoma wanted to be."

I laughed at the smugness of the remark. As much as I love Northern California's wine country, he had a point: The original wins, hands down. Visiting our wine country can't compare with spending a few lazy days exploring the back roads of France. In fact, a traveler with unlimited resources could while away years getting to know the republic's wine regions: Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Loire valleys.

Because my resources aren't quite boundless, I visit one at a time. This trip took me to western France and the Cognac region, where the world's most famous brandy originates.

I once thought Cognac appealed solely to aging British army colonels who wore monocles and dressed in tuxedos. But singer Kanye West's obvious affection for the beverage during last month's MTV Video Music Awards -- you remember his onstage outburst about Beyonce, of course -- made me reconsider.

The U.S. accounts for more than 50% of Cognac shipments worldwide. We drink about 50 million bottles a year, no small matter, considering that Cognac ranks as one of the world's most expensive beverages, costing as much as $28,000 a bottle.

Regardless of price, Americans seem to enjoy the amber liquid, from the Beverly Hills Hotel, where patrons sip Remy Martin sidecars, to midtown Manhattan's Brasserie Cognac, which features nearly 100 varieties. Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Busta Rhymes and Devino Fortunato like it so well they rap about it.

The drink's mounting popularity seemed a good reason to visit Cognac's homeland. The only thing better than visiting France for its scenery and cuisine: visiting it for its wine, scenery and cuisine, in fall at harvest.

Brandy and a view

Technically, Cognac is more than a wine. Its grapes begin their long journey to the marketplace as unfiltered white wine. After being doubly distilled, the liquid ages, sometimes for many years, in oak casks before being blended with other vintages or eaux de vie (French for "waters of life").

All of this takes place in or near the town of Cognac, on the banks of the Charente River, about a three-hour TGV train ride southwest of Paris. The region may be known for its brandy, but I also tried to focus on its other charms.

I didn't have to look far. The pace is enjoyably slow, the climate pleasantly mild. The river winds through the countryside, its tranquil waters reflecting images of vine-covered hillsides, small towns, well-tended farms and weathered chateaux framed by geraniums, pink roses and oleander bushes.

My visit began in Cognac, where I spent an afternoon visiting its old town (Vieille Ville). Half-timbered 15th century to 17th century houses line steep, winding streets, and I wandered the cobblestone lanes, shooting pictures of the Romanesque church of St. Leger and the sprawling Chateau de Cognac, the birthplace of the 16th century King Francois I. Then I wandered by a museum that focuses on Cognac and its history. (Musee des Arts du Cognac, www.ville-Cognac.fr, 011-33-5-45-32-07-25)

But the thought of merely reading about the rich, smoky liquid made me impatient. I had come nearly 6,000 miles to drink Cognac. Why wait any longer? With single-minded purpose, I inquired about touring one of the great Cognac houses: Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin or Courvoisier. Each has tours, and the price -- from about $10 to $25 -- includes tasting.

I was so close I could have thrown a cork and hit Hennessy's tour center and warehouses, on both sides of the Charente (Hennessy Cellars, www.hennessy.com, 011-33-5-45-35-72-66).

A small boat delivered me to the tour site, where I joined a group of visitors. As I walked through the well-landscaped grounds, I noticed stonework that was black with mold; I'd seen the same thing on many of the buildings when I walked through the town of Cognac. "The angel's share," I was told. The mold, called black velvet, feeds on the alcohol vapors that escape through evaporation as the liquid ages.

Does divine intervention play a part in the manufacture of Cognac? "Definitely," the guide said. "God still decides whether a year will be great or not."

We entered a warehouse cellar, and I was struck by the heady fragrance of Cognac. The angel's share takes credit for this too, my tour group was told. "About 2% to 4% of the alcohol evaporates through the pores of the oak barrels," the guide said.

No wonder angels always look contented.

Soon I was in the tasting room and looking contented too.

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