Travel Postcard: 48 hours in and around Cognac, France

In the 18th century, one Richard Hennessy fled his native county Cork in Ireland to serve in the armies of Louis XV of France before settling in the southwestern town of Cognac.
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Apr 27, 2012, 09.28 PM | Source: Reuters

Travel Postcard: 48 hours in and around Cognac, France

In the 18th century, one Richard Hennessy fled his native county Cork in Ireland to serve in the armies of Louis XV of France before settling in the southwestern town of Cognac.

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Travel Postcard: 48 hours in and around Cognac, France

In the 18th century, one Richard Hennessy fled his native county Cork in Ireland to serve in the armies of Louis XV of France before settling in the southwestern town of Cognac.

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Travel Postcard: 48 hours in and around Cognac, France
In the 18th century, one Richard Hennessy fled his native county Cork in Ireland to serve in the armies of Louis XV of France before settling in the southwestern town of Cognac.

Once the alarums of battle had faded, he shipped a few barrels of the local tipple home. The rest is history and the Cognac house still bearing the Hennessy name is a world leader.

For visitors to the region, discovering the secrets of its famous double-distilled spirit aged in oak casks is essential to the Cognac experience, but there are other charms.

DAY ONE

From Paris, Cognac is a roughly three-hour train journey via Angouleme, around 20 miles from Cognac. You might want to hire a car either from Angouleme, to cut out the slow-train section, or on arrival in Cognac.

From Cognac station, it's a brisk walk or a short drive to the old town centre.

10:30 a.m. - Drop off your bags and restore yourself with a coffee and perhaps a "pain au chocolate", known as a "chocolatine" in the Cognacais strain of French.

The Cognacais themselves are affectionately nicknamed cagouillards after the juicy snails that patrol the vineyards.

The main square Place Francois I, named after the French Renaissance king born in Cognac, has a cluster of cafes. It also houses the grand, newly restored Hotel Francois I and a statue of the mighty monarch on horseback.

11 a.m. - Walk down the cobbled streets to the sleepy Charente, the river once used to ship Cognac. Some of the main cognac houses, Hennessy included, line the banks.

Take your pick of which one or ones you would like to visit.

Hennessy has a state-of-the-art visitor centre and throws in a short boat trip, Remy Martin offers a train ride and Otard is housed in the chateau, where Francois I was born at the end of the 15th-century.

All give seductive accounts of the rich history and romance woven around one of France's most prized products.

France's luxury conglomerates now dominate ownership, but generations after they were founded, members of the original families still work in the cognac houses and are proud, aristocratic ambassadors of their brands.

They can narrate how "appellation controlee" cognac, which according to strict French laws, can only be produced from the Cognac growing area, owes its taste to the "terroir" and to age-old traditions.

The freshly harvested grapes are distilled not once, but twice in gleaming copper alembics to extract the very soul of the wine - "eau-de-vie" (water of life).

This clear, intensely alcoholic spirit is then aged for long years - which lowers the alcoholic degree, gives flavour and the distinctive cognac colour.

Aged eau-de-vie can be sold as vintage cognacs. More usually, a selection is blended by the "maitre de chai", or chief-taster, the most revered of the cognac house employees.

The oldest and most valuable eaux-de-vie are locked away in an area of the cellars referred to as the "paradis" or paradise.

As they age, heady fumes escape, which the Cognacais call "la part des anges" (the angels' share). In the hot summer months, the smell hangs heavy in the air.

Tours, which can be booked in advance, end with a degustation (tasting) and a trip to the gift shop, where the finest, most beautifully packaged cognacs sell for hundreds of euros.

1 p.m. - Lunch options include a picnic on the river bank or a snack in one of the many cafes along the cobbled streets.

2 p.m. - As you mooch around, you might take a look at Saint Leger church, at the junction of the two main pedestrian streets. Dating back to the 12th century, it is in the Romanesque style characteristic of the region, and has a massive, arched doorway.

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