The Cognac Region of France; More Than Tasty Libations

- Philippe Kjellgren, Kiwi Collection President and CEO, visited over 100 countries before he was 25. He now splits his time between NY, London and Vancouver.

My job has led me to some magnificent places in the world. As President of Kiwi Collection, I have stayed in numerous luxury hotels and spas, dined at fantastic restaurants, taken in stunning sights, sounds and activities. I have become accustomed to the best of the best, and like most other luxury travelers, indulging in a marvelous meal, sinking into a sinfully-soft bed, or receiving perfect, personalized service are just some of the elements that make my travels everything I expect them to be.

At Kiwi Collection, we do whatever it takes to ensure that we can provide luxury travelers with the most comprehensive, invite-only guide to luxury hotels in the world… so when I travel, I make sure that the places we recommend are the real deal. Regardless of where they are located – be it a bustling metropolis, a tranquil countryside, or a historic landscape.

On that note, let me tell you about a region of France that is a perfect place to retreat to when the daily grind has become a bit too much to take… when your imagination starts conjuring up images of wide open spaces and the simpler, finer things in life. At times like these, there is no doubt that the rich, smooth and soothing flavors of a delicious cognac are often “just what the doctor ordered.”

A trip to the part of France that bears the name of Cognac and where this incredible creation is actually made is nothing less than food for the soul. Rolling hills, medieval buildings, fascinating architecture and intricate cobblestone streets are surrounded and cradled by acres of cognac vineyards. This is a place where time can stand still, your mind can wander, and relaxation takes on a whole new meaning.

The charming personality, energy and culture of the French countryside is unparalleled, and when you add a historic, treasured element like the finest French brandy one can ever hope to find, you can’t go wrong! Cognac, or as Victor Hugo called it, “the nectar of the gods” was born in this region of France. In the 13th century, the wine that was produced by the vines of the Cognac region was in high demand in the French court, but the wine would sometimes become impaired during the long trip. Different techniques were tried and tested in order to preserve the wine, but it wasn’t until the 16th century, when the “double distillation” process was discovered that cognac was created in all its glory.

Today, there are four main companies that dominate the cognac business: Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier. There are dozens of other smaller companies, of course, (some owned by the main 4) that produce their own distinctive cognacs. It will not come as a surprise, therefore, that one of the main things I recommend anyone must do when staying in Cognac is to visit some of these incredibly distinguished Cognac houses.

Cognac Courvoisier, or the cognac of Napoléon, is one of those must-see houses. On the banks of the Charente, the Courvoisier museum stands side by side with the original buildings. Moving from room to room enables the visitor to understand vine growing and the process of raising the eau-de-vie. The perfumed barrels convey the message of how intimate the relationship between the oak and the eau-de-vie is. Napoléon memorabilia throughout the museum illustrates the history of Courvoisier cognac.

The house of Hennessy is another destination steeped in history. In the 18th century, Richard Hennessy, a minor Irish nobleman, enlisted in the army of Louis XV. He fell in love with the Charente region when he was garrisoned there, left the army and settled in Cognac. Several years later, he founded the Hennessy company and set out to conquer the markets.

The Hennessy company buildings border either side of the Charente. On the right bank stands the 18th century storehouses; on the left bank the temple of light created in 1995 by the architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. Sounds, smells and images are used to reveal the secrets of cognac. The visit ends in the cooperage Museum with its collection of rare works and tools used in this art that is over 2000 years old.

And then there’s Cognac Martell. In 1715, barely twenty years of age and traveling from Jersey, Jean Martell founded what is now the oldest of the great cognac houses. Ever since its creation, the company has always placed great importance in having total control of the entire production process of its eau-de-vie. From distillation, to blending, ageing, bottling, and finally to manufacturing barrels.

The building rests on an ornamental lake set within the buildings’ floats an authentic 19th century “gabare” or flat-bottomed sailing barge that was used to transport barrels. In the centre of the domain, the Maison du Fondateur (founder’s house) still stands tall and proud, restored to its 18th century state and arranged as if it was still inhabited.

For those looking for something a little more off the beaten path or “out of the ordinary,” a visit to Rémy Martin is in order. The Martins were a family of wine growers in the Charente area at the end of the 17th century. Their son Rémy discovered a taste for business and enterprise and founded his own cognac house in 1724. The Rémy Martin house is now known throughout the world, but it is still independent and remains faithful to its origins, its soil and its traditions.

This excursion will involve a train ride. Visitors discover all the stages involved in producing cognac, from the cooperage to the vineyards, from the ageing storehouses to the blending house. In the largest cooperage in Europe, craftsmen make the barrels by hand using the heat of the fire to bend the wood. Depending on the season, as the visitors pass through the vineyards, they see the vines being pruned, the leaves being thinned or the grapes being harvested. When the train enters the storehouses, smells of wood, spices, flowers mix and change over time, and 230,000 barrels lie within sight. For those seeking a little something special, exclusive visits in the setting of the symbolic family estate can be arranged.

Now on to my favorite topic – where to stay during a visit to Cognac! I could create a list of luxury accommodation in the area, but each description would probably end up being as long as this entire article, so I’ve decided to simply highlight 2 outstanding hotels.

Between the vineyards of Cognac and the shores of Bordeaux lies the Chateau de Mirambeau. This gorgeous, Renaissance style chateau will take anyone’s breath away – even the most worldly, well-heeled and experienced luxury traveler. Stepping inside, you feel as though you’ve been sent back in time, to a place where pristine linens and perfect lines blend with marble, finely polished wood and ornate details. With just 16 rooms and 3 apartments, this place is truly fit for any prince or princess, king or queen. Heavy curtains and luxurious fabrics are staples in every room, lending an air of royalty and beauty to the atmosphere of each one. Guests are always greeted with a welcome but perfectly professional smile, and it is not difficult to trust those who work at this ancient place with your life – or perhaps more simply, your happiness!

The Chateau’s garden and park occupy eight hectares of languidly beautiful land. Go for a stroll or lounge in the shade of the huge trees that line the path, protecting all passers-by. In the summer, lunch on the terrace is an event to remember, and the hotel restaurant does justice to everything you’ve ever heard or expected of French cuisine. Did I mention that there are several dining lounges to choose from? There are indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts on site and golf nearby. Horseback riding, water sports, a sensational spa, mountain biking and even a hot-air balloon are just some of the other activities the hotel offers. And for art lovers, the region’s architecture is a source of enchantment and inspiration.

As I walked the grounds on a particularly bright and sunny day – surrounded by perfect, picturesque French countryside, I couldn’t help noticing how effortlessly the Chateau de Mirambeau took me back to another time entirely – one long gone by the time I was born! Somehow, in this gorgeous, vast and magical place, life seemed a bit simpler, nobler, and altogether much more fascinating than usual. The wind rustled the leaves of the proud, ancient trees standing guard along the path, and the light seemed to strategically hit certain angles of the hotel’s walls, windows, peaks and towers as if sent straight from a heaven we can only dream of.

That evening, in a dining room of such unique and opulent beauty I could have simply sat and stared at my surroundings for hours on end, I dined on exquisitely plated and flawlessly prepared local cuisine that would put any Parisian restaurant to shame. It seemed the richness and beauty of the hotel’s surroundings infused the taste of its food, the humor of its inhabitants, and the astounding attention to detail that was paid to every part of the establishment. After a delicious dinner washed down by a bottle of France’s finest, walking into my room was like entering a haven of peace and calm. Candlelight danced on the walls, my pillow-laden bed had been turned down and all was well in my world. Indeed, it was difficult for anything to seem amiss in a place like the Chateau de Mirambeau.

La Baronnie, another favorite, is set in Saint-Martin de Ré. Walking towards this building is like walking into a bouquet of honeysuckle, mint, lavender, jasmine and oleander. The courtyard’s cobblestones have been polished to a perfect shine throughout the many years of the building’s existence. Built on the foundations of the original 12th century castle, La Baronnie has stood its ground since the beginning of the 16th century. Louis XVI acquired it in 1785 but it became National Property during the French Revolution. If only its walls could speak – this is one hotel that certainly has many stories to tell!

The current owners of La Baronnie, Pierre and Florence Pallardry, fell in love with the aging mansion on sight and bought it in 1996. They have lovingly restored it with the guidance of the Architect of the Batiments de France – understandable considering the fact that it is still, after all, a National Heritage site. Their loving restoration and rehabilitation of the original building is apparent in every nook and cranny of the place. From the vast, stunning garden to the cozy yet quintessentially French elegance of each and every room, nothing has gone unnoticed and no element left unattended.

A bountiful breakfast is served in the huge main dining room at the centre of the mansion, where guests at La Baronnie can revel in the peace and calm of their surroundings. You will run into Pierre Palladry often on the hotel’s grounds. He is a keen gardener and takes pride in keeping his masterpiece alive and well. Perhaps more importantly, as an osteopath and dietician, he also provides tailor-made treatments and wellness counseling. As for Florence, this former model’s touch is everywhere in La Baronnie. She made the transition to incredible decorator and “hostess with the mostest” seamlessly. The couple’s love for the haven they have created is evident to all who visit it. And I would highly recommend visiting it!

One morning, my tummy full of beautiful “petit dejeuner” delicacies, I chatted with the owners of this lovely place. Florence, a former model, seemed to emanate a certain restfulness that is reflected in the way she has decorated La Baronnie. It envelops you like a warm hug – full of light, laughter and fun. Florence certainly seems content with her current way of life, and her former career as a model has clearly left her with a heightened fashion sense that has made the place chic yet comfortable in an effortless, unpretentious kind of way. As for Pierre, he never seems to stop smiling! A best-selling author in his own right, he always has a kind word for those he meets, and I can’t imagine La Baronnie without him! I remember speaking with more than one guest who had sampled his wellness counseling (he specializes in back pain, slimming, stress, and sleeping problems), and all seemed most impressed! I may make use of his talents myself on my next stay at La Baronnie…

Cognac may be a tranquil and peaceful region, but it is also fun, magical and mysterious. There is no shortage of things to do or see in this land of rolling hills, rivers and lakes. There are gorgeous golf courses, freshwater lakes and rivers for swimming, sunning or fishing, walking trails, canoeing trips, or biking trails for anyone to explore. For those seeking real adventure, the valley of the Eaux Claires is the choice of climbers. Surrounded by tall white cliffs, the area is a perfect playground for those wishing to conquer those cliffs or fly through the air in an aerial adventure course.

Of course, the real magic and mystery of Cognac is most easily found in its ancient buildings, cobblestone streets, charming villages and glorious gardens. The history of cognac itself (the drink, that is) is irrevocably intertwined with tales of angels, men, sirens, and gods. And let’s not forget the Chateaus… de La Rochefoucauld, de François 1er, de Rochebrune, de Bayers, de Balzac, and more. The views from inside or out of these stunning structures is like nothing you can imagine, and it is difficult not to be hit by the gravity of the historical site you can simply reach out and touch. Bassac abbey and Abbey of Fontaine Vive are also worth a visit… hidden away amongst lush vegetation and protective forests, these places are not for the faint of heart.

If the outdoors are what you crave, the natural beauty of Cognac will restore your soul and please your senses within hours of your arrival. From the lakes of the Upper Charente, to the gardens full of ancient varieties of fruits and vegetables, to the simple, stunning beauty of the hedges, fields, lakes, woods and rivers, the wondrous and wild elements of this region will never cease to impress while instilling a sense of calm at the same time.

Cognac may be a small region of France – hidden well away from a world it almost seems to good for, but it is most definitely worth seeking out. Luxury here is easily found in its hotels, restaurants, mansions and chateaux, but it also resides in the sensation it bestows upon its visitors. Cognac is a noble, extraordinary place that will never disappoint.

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  1. John Nater says:

    I’ll be taking a 10 week trip to Europe and have plans to stay 10 days in Cognac. This article helped me tremendously, especially in regards to where to stay and which Cognac estate to visit.
    Thank you very much.
    John Nater
    Prince Albert, Saskatchewan,