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In France, Savoring Cognac at the Source

By C.B. Heinemann
The Washington Post
Sunday, March 14, 1999; Page E04

What: Tour of France's Cognac region

Where: About 100 miles north of Bordeaux, 245 miles southwest of Paris

Why: I have long aspired to be a connoisseur of fine cognac, and on a recent trip to France I finally got my chance. While traveling from Bordeaux to Paris, my wife and I made a detour to the small town of Cognac, where distillers and blenders create the fiery, complex brandy that put Cognac on the map. Most of the houses offer tours and tastings. The two largest, Hennessey and Remy Martin, charge a modest fee, but most visits are free.

Why Cognac? Three hundred years ago, an anonymous winemaker tried double-distilling the mediocre wines of the region and came up with a remarkably smooth brandy. Victor Hugo later dubbed cognac "the drink of the gods." Only brandy made in the designated Cognac region is allowed to call itself cognac.

The tour: The first thing we noticed was that the buildings, walls and even trees of the town are covered with what looks like black soot. This discoloration is a fungus that grows because of the vast amount of cognac that evaporates during the aging process. This lost cognac, which amounts to about 23 million bottles per year, is known as the "angels' share."

The tourist office loaded us down with maps and brochures and helped us plot our tasting route. Luckily, most of the houses are near the small downtown area, within easy staggering distance of one another. We began at Hennessey, on the banks of the Charente River. After a boat ride across the river to inspect the cooperage, we toured the intensely fragrant rooms where the barrels of cognac--some more than 100 years old--are stored for blending. We were then ferried back across the river for a tasting.

The other houses offered variations on this pleasant theme. At Remy Martin, we took a train ride through private vineyards to the vast cooperage, where the company harvests oak for its barrels. Otard included a tour of the 11th-century chateau where it is housed (and where British prisoners were held during the American Revolution--their graffiti still covers the walls).

The tour at Camus was charmingly intimate. When our guide pulled the stopper out of one of the oldest barrels and allowed us to stick in our noses for a good sniff, the heady fumes nearly sent us floating to the ceiling.

Our last, and favorite, tour wasn't in Cognac at all, but in the neighboring town of Jarnac, home of Courvoisier. A young woman led us through a small museum and related the history of Courvoisier; it's billed as the cognac of Napoleon, and several of his personal items were on display, including a camp tent and his trademark hat. We then hurried through a labyrinth of angels'-share-mottled buildings to the vast storage room, saw a film and left with still more samples.

Our tour not only taught us much about the drink of the gods, but also gave us a peek into the French genius for creating something wonderful from almost nothing. No wonder they give the angels a share.

The round-trip rail fare for the three-hour trip from Paris to Cognac, with a connection in Angouleme, starts at $140. For more information, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 202-659-7779,

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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