Cognac is a sleepy river town of 20,000 people in the Charente department of France, whose principal reason to visit, if one is on tour in the region, is the illustrious brandy made here. Were you to head south from Paris, 250 miles away, visiting Orleans along the route, stopping at Cognac is both requisite and a good place to use as a base to visit Bordeaux less than two hours south and La Rochelle ninety minutes east.
It is easy enough to visit the town’s attractions in one day, unless one seeks to visit several of the Cognac’s finest producers in the region, like Camus, Martell, Courvoisier, Otard, Hennessey and many more. There is also good food to be found in and outside of town.
Cognac’s most famous native son was Francis I, born here in 1494, the son of the Count of Angoulême and heir to the French throne only because Louis XII died childless. By 1515 he was gone from Cognac and living in Paris.
Parts of Cognac’s Old Town still evoke the king’s childhood home, with buildings from the 15thcentury extant and examples of later centuries’ architecture lining its cobbled streets. The center of town has a quaint charm, and strolling along the Charente River, dominated by the formidable St. Jacques Gate, is a mellow pleasure, with the river flowing slowly by, reflecting the old town’s landscape in its rippling water. There are boat cruises with basket lunches to book that provide fine views of the Cognac producers’ chateaus and the surrounding region from whose vineyards Cognac obtains its grapes. (Some waterway tours offer two or three day trips.)
Six principal vineyard areas surround the city (there are also vineyards two hours’ drive away on the Atlantic coast on the Île de Re), where they grow grapes of varying character and quality from which most producers blend different percentages of eaux de vie to make Cognacs in their own style: The best area is considered the Grande Champagne (no connection to Champagne to the north), then Petite Champagne, Borderies, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire.
There is a very humorous and very British scene in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger” when 007 (Sean Connery) gives his connoisseur’s opinion of a “disappointing” Cognac, explaining, in his deep Scottish burr, “It seems to be a thirty-year old fine indifferently blended, with an overdose of Bon Bois.” (A fine, pronounced “feen,” is an old term for brandy.)
Right next to the river’s quai is the Musée des Arts du Cognac, within a 16th century mansion, whose artifacts detail both the arts and artifacts of the city and region. Smaller but of some interest is the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, whose holdings largely come from antiques donated by the area’s wealthy families.
The St. Léger church, built in the 12th century in the Romanesque and High Gothic styles though altered over many centuries, has a splendid rose window and impressively long nave, wedged between mundane later buildings that seem to crowd the church out on an otherwise undistinguished block. Many old buildings in Cognac are in need of repair.
Up until just this year Cognac has not had a first-class, or what the Europeans call five-star, hotel, despite a significant spirits industry clientele. Most places to stay are quite modest, many are in former mansions. This summer, after the extensive rehab of what had been a storage facility for the Cognac trade, Hôtel Chais Monnet Cognac opened to justified fanfare. It’s a remarkable transformation, taking full advantage of the huge spaces where Cognac barrels were stored while revitalizing the beautiful archway entrance that leads to the very modern structures that house the hotel and two restaurants, pool and conference space. Rooms and baths are extremely well appointed, with all contemporary amenities and tech needs. The young staff is eager to help with any question you might have and can easily arrange for tours and visits to the Cognac estates.
I dined at the more casual, all-day restaurant on property, La Distilleries (Les Foudres is their “gourmet restaurant”) set in a spacious, rustic room of wood ceilings and beams, solid limestone columns and a wall of windows. The menu is good “brasserie contemporaine” fare, like a medallion of creamy foie gras with chutney and a Cognac gelée (€25); a light dish of crab with cucumber and mint and a dollop of yogurt (€19); delicious red shrimp with a risotto enriched with tomme cheese (€29); and on Saturday nights big slabs of côte de boeuf on a mound of crisp frites. There is a “menu tradition” of two dishes for €35, three at €42. (Service and tax included.)
Widely regarded as the best restaurant in town, the 20-year-old Le Bistro de Claude, run by Claude Vezin, is packed every night with locals and tourists within a lively, highly colorful series of rooms, with rough-hewn stone walls, antique cupboards and modern black-and-white photos. There are à la carte options, but the prix fixe menu is quite a bargain at €23, €28 or €35, and the choices the night I dined there included a cassolette of mussels with citrus; tournedos of duck splashed with a local balsamic vinegar; and a fig tart with yuzu cream. The wine list is excellent and rich in the area’s Cognacs. (Service and tax included.)
Outside of town by about 20 minutes is the area’s only Michelin star restaurant, La Ribaudièrein Jarnac, run by Chef Thierry Verrat. Flanking a quiet garden on the Charente River is a terrace where you can have cocktails or Champagne with amuses like mackerel on a potato wafer with caviar and quinoa. Inside, the restaurant is thoroughly modern, done in bright, vivid colors of red and violet, with wide, well-decorated tables (though the wineglasses are, surprisingly, not all of high quality).
The cuisine, which is pricey, can be overly fussy on the plate, but the quality of ingredients and preparation are superb, from mi-cuit foie gras with smoked eel nubbins (€42) to very tender snails on a crisp salad and carrot strips (€37). Local sturgeon caviar from Gensac-La-Pallue tops raw lobster in with a fish gelée (€55).
Among the main courses was an extraordinary soufflé of pike with rice flavored with shellfish and more caviar (€37). Filet of Saint- Pierre came with a concasse of oysters and beet risotto (€42), and tournedos of flavorful baby lamb were accompanied by asparagus of the season and morel juice (€43).
Most appealing was a cart of what must have been 30 cheeses in peak condition, well described and served with admirable dispatch.
Desserts encompass a refreshing salad of raspberries with honey, olive oil and meringues (€17) and a nut tart with praline-caramel-citrus (€17).
There are also bargain prix fixe menus at €50, €62, €72, €106 and €112. (Service and tax included.)