Words: Kirsten Durward Photos: Monica Tindall
Monica and I delighted in a petit sejour in Cognac and the surrounding countryside courtesy of H Mounier and Hardy Cognac. Our journey here began one afternoon in Rendez-Vous, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur where we met the irrepressible Anthony Perera, representative for the group in South East Asia. What had been initially a calm two hour lunch, turned into a traditional French country afternoon of Cognac tasting, boules and more. Our enthusiasm for tasting Cognac Prince Polignac led to an invitation to visit the Cognac region as a side trip during our planned trip to Bordeaux. Never being ones to turn down an opportunity to explore, taste and learn, we eagerly accepted and were generously hosted for two days of ‘bon temps,’ leaving only sadly and with a host of new friends.
Cognac is a small town on the banks of the Charente River in rural France. Despite the grand and ‘luxe’ reputation of the Cognac product world wide, the overall impressions of the area are very rural and sleepy. A fabulous way to gain an impression of the area is to take an afternoon barge trip. We had a wonderful afternoon on the river between meals and you may enjoy reading the full account of a relaxing time on the Dame-Jeanne via this link.
Cognac experts consider there to be seven ‘big’ Cognac Houses; Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Camus, Hine and Frapin. But as we are to discover, small is beautiful, and very, very interesting. Our first stop in Cognac is at the Hardy House for a Cognac tasting. With a history dating back to 1863, Cognac Hardy is well known for quality Cognacs and traditional production methods. Founded by a 19th century English gentleman Anthony Hardy who fell in love with the Charentes region and eventually relocated there to found Maison Hardy in 1863. Today, despite being part of the larger group H Mounier Cognac, Hardy is very much still run as a family business. Unfortunately we were unable to meet current company head and great granddaughter of the founder, Benedict, but we were amply greeted and entertained by Natalie, director of the group who took us through the range of the brand, including our first taste of the Pineau wine of the area. To say that we were enchanted by the presentation and taste is a great understatement. Anthony Hardy may have fallen in love with Charentes, but I have surely fallen in love with both Cognac Hardy and Pineau.
Our dedicated host, Gontran ensures that we shall discover all that is Cognac, from the beginning to the end of the product, to help us understand the commitment and work that goes into creating what we purchase and enjoy in such a range of ways and countries around the world. As he puts it, ‘When you taste the product you don’t think of the beginnings or what happens along the way but what we discover is that there is passion at each stage. The farmer, the grower of the wines, the production even the coopers, but particularly on the blender and then all the way up to the sales, everyone has a deep belief in the product and they say it flows through their veins.’ In order to learn we are privileged to experience glimpses into this fascinating world that are usually reserved for industry experts and buyers.
Barrel making is an art I have never considered, but our extended tour of the Tonnellerie-Doreau opens my eyes to the importance of the barrel in the development of the Cognac flavor. All Cognac barrels are made from French Oak, and simply selecting and preparing the wood takes a minimum of eighteen months alone. Barrel making is an intense and hands on production method, which relies on the hard work and precision of a vast array of skilled workers. For me the most interesting part of the discovery was to learn that each Cognac maker gives specific instructions as to how ‘toasted’ the barrel should be, as it is the toasting which gives distinct flavor notes to the eau de vie that matures within.
Cognac aficionados will know that eau de vie (Water of life) is the distillation of alcohol from grapes which is the basis which is developed with loving care over time to create the delightful liquor which has warmed so many tongues over the centuries and that we love to enjoy after dinner or in a cocktail. Monica and I enjoyed an afternoon with master blender Mickaël Bouilly and come to understand more about the production of this great spirit. What continued to impress us most though, was the passion and commitment each person has to the region, the product and the company they work for.
During our visit, H Mounier group hosted us at the charming Hotel ‘L’Yeuse, a bijou establishment high above the banks of the Charente River. Fresh local produce charmed us, particularly when enjoyed in the fresh air of the hotel’s enchanting terrace. My reflection on the hotel experience can be found in this earlier post.
Of course our first great love is discovery of where to eat in a region and it seems that out host Gontran fully understands this, and like many Frenchmen, loves his food too, for we are hosted at the three best restaurants in the Cognac area. Our first dinner is enjoyed at La Table de L’Yeuse, the signature restaurant of our delightful hotel. It is a hearty, fulsome repast, which has been particularly created by the chef to match the wines and Cognacs we taste. We start our meal with a selection of fresh Cognac cocktails, the beginning of our discovery of different and fresh ways to enjoy Cognac not as an after dinner drink.
Our culinary adventure continues the next day with an elegant lunch at the Michelin starred restaurant La Ribaudiere on the banks of the river and finishes with a relaxed dinner under the night skies on the cobbled streets of Cognac at Le Bistro de Claude. Escorted by charming French gentlemen, dining on the specialties of the region and plied with a seemingly never ending selection of new beverage tastes, Monica and I could quite happily stay here for weeks. But duty calls and we must return to wine region, to explore the mysteries of some Bordeaux Chateaux and seek out more interesting stories and experiences for you lovely readers to enjoy. If you are not able to visit the region in the near future, you are always able to taste a sensation of the history and charm of the area through the delightful Cognac produced. And we tempt you to try a little out of the ordinary. Rather than reaching for one of the big seven, charm your palate with the elegant yet resonant notes of a Hardy Cognac, or the structured classicism and depth of a Prince Polignac.
More information about Cognac can be found from the Cognac Tourism Board.
Contacts for individual establishments we visited are available on the individual posts.
We remain in sincere gratitude and affection for our wonderful host Gontran from H Mounier and Hardy Cognac for the organization of this trip, which can be summed up in one word: Perfection.
Reasons to visit: A charming part of France; home to a delicious and unique selection of food and beverage.