Photos by Eric Martin - Text by Olivia Hoffman
When the amber light of the early autumn sun hits the rouging vines that drape Cognac’s rolling hills, it seems as though you can already taste the region’s famed brandy before it even touches your lips. Grape harvest season in France is a particularly magical time of year, as one of the country’s finest delicacies begins the laborious yet admirable transformation from fruit into spirit.
Nestled in the heart of the Charente department, a picturesque region in southwestern France, the enchanting city of Cognac boasts a deep-rooted history and holds intriguing secrets into one of the world’s most renowned elixirs. There is no shortage of activities to keep a curious visitor interested. Cognac offers a plethora of ways to explore the ins and outs of brandy production – from the grape seedling to the final bottled product – and discover the juicy history behind what made this iconic eau-de-vie (“spirit” translated literally to “water of life”) into a revered treasure.
A visit during the autumn harvest is guaranteed to be magical. During this time, travelers to the Cognac region can experience the grape variety – primarily Ugni Blanc, also known as Saint-Emilion – in its most ripe state. The grapes used for cognac are prized for their late ripening which is what gives the wine a high acidity level – optimal for natural preservation before distillation – and their low alcohol content, which is ideal for aromatic concentration. In October, the grapes are cut from the vines and pressed for their juice which will turn to white wine. Then, the wine gets distilled twice to begin the unique process of transforming it into brandy.
This process dates back to the 17th century when Dutch merchants first introduced the art of distillation to this fertile French land. It has since evolved into a dazzling symbol of excellence, craftsmanship, and refined taste. Cognac, with its ancient vineyards and meticulous traditions, has played a pivotal role in shaping the culture and economy of France. Tales of pioneering vineyard owners, skilled cellar masters and prestigious cognac houses weave a tapestry that spans centuries, ensuring that every sip of the golden nectar carries with it a legacy of passion and expertise.
And while the cognac brandy is surely the main attraction of this town of the same name, there is more than meets the… mouth. Stunningly well-preserved, the streets of Cognac are dripping with history among the charming medieval architecture and centuries-old royal buildings. One of the town’s most famous sons was King François I, who was born in Cognac and reigned from 1515 to his death in 1547. A prominent patron of the arts and a driving force behind the Renaissance movement (he was the first to invite Leonardo da Vinci to France) François was critical to the notoriety and popularization of this region and its produce.
In addition to its rich history, there are also plenty of decadent restaurants with delicious local cuisine that pairs perfectly with the region’s liquid delicacies. And lest you think it’s all about the grapes: If you happen to be in Cognac in October, the city also celebrates the Fête de la Courge to honor – as the name suggests – the harvest of the region’s delectable squash! Taking place this year from October 21st to 22, this event is a perfect opportunity to indulge in the bounty of the season.
Autumn may be when Cognac – less than two hours from Bordeaux – is at its most splendid. But there is no shortage of exciting activities to be found at all times of year in this charming city on the banks of the majestic Charente river. So raise a glass in honor of true French craftsmanship and embark on a voyage to where time-honored traditions converge with the promise of new discoveries.
Things To Do
Let yourself be guided by the enchanting cobblestone lanes of Cognac’s historic center, where you will marvel at stunning medieval architecture that traverses the centuries. The Château des Valois, for example, was destroyed in the 12th century and rebuilt in the 15th. Nearby, there is the historic Church of Saint-Léger, with a Latin cross structure and cupola that dates to 1130, while its Romanesque façade, built in the 1400s, features a marvelous rose window and doorway framed by the signs of the zodiac. La Maison de la Lieutenance, once the home of a prominent 17th century military officer, also shows traces of its medieval past.
No visit to Cognac would be complete without experiencing the taste of its world-famous brandy. We recommend booking guided tours at esteemed distilleries such as Château Courvoisier, Hennessy or Rémy Martin. Embark on a journey through time and craftsmanship to learn about the captivating process of cognac production, from grape cultivation to distillation and aging. At the end of the tour, immerse yourself in the aromas and flavors during a tasting session.
Indulge in a unique and memorable experience by participating in a hands-on workshop where you can create your own personalized bottle of Cognac. Learn about the different blends, select your preferred flavors and even take the opportunity to taste samples directly from the casks. This interactive and educational activity allows you to appreciate the artistry of Cognac-making while crafting a one-of-a-kind souvenir to take home. Find out more here.
Les Remparts, Place de la Salle Verte, 16100 Cognac, France
For a deeper dive into Cognac – both the drink and the place – the Musée des Savoir-Faire Cognac presents a full picture of the spirit’s cultural and historical significance. The exhibit also showcases the artistry and craftsmanship behind Cognac production. Discover the intriguing stories of the region’s vineyards and the families who have shaped the Cognac industry over the centuries alongside collections of antique stills, cooperage tools, and traditional glassware. Find out more here.
King Henri IV referred to the Charente as “the most beautiful stream in the whole kingdom.” Take in its majesty either with a leisurely stroll along the quai, enjoying Cognac’s picturesque riverside promenade, or hop aboard a river cruise like Le Bernard Palissy III to fully experience the serenity of the water and admire Cognac from a different perspective. For adventurous visitors, there are also many options to rent boats and equipment for water activities.
1 Place François 1er, 16100 Cognac, France
An architectural masterpiece of Gothic and Renaissance inspiration and birthplace of François I, the Château de Cognac offers a range of experiences to discover the regal history of Cognac and uncover the many secrets held inside the castle’s walls. Different options of tours allow visitors to see the cellars and renaissance rooms, venture into the King’s apartment, learn about cognac production and participate in a blind tasting of Baron Otard & D’Ussé Cognacs.
Where To Stay
3 Place François 1er, 16100 Cognac
Located right in the city center, the Hôtel François Premier is the perfect place to rest and recharge after a day of exploring on foot. The 19th century structure was completely renovated to achieve the modern luxury 4-star hotel that it is today. Featuring an extensive wellness area complete with a spa, swimming pool and garden as well as two gourmet restaurants and a cocktail bar, this is a great hotel for a romantic getaway.
15 Rue du Château d’Eau, 16100 Javrezac
The sumptuous La Nauve Hôtel & Jardin offers a tranquil respite just a few minutes outside of the city. This boutique hotel features 12 unique rooms filled with natural sunlight which look out into a serene garden that is perfect for wandering and relaxing. While close to the center, the hotel also features two restaurants, a cocktail bar and a terrace in case you want to spend a day in before adventuring out.
Where To Eat
45 Rue d’Angoulême, 16100 Cognac, France
In the heart of the stunning Hôtel Chais Monnet – classified as a French Industrial Heritage site – the gastronomic restaurant Les Foudres delights guests as they enter its cathedral-like chai (“cellar” in the local Charentais dialect), passing underneath hundred-year-old oak barrels to arrive at their Michelin-star meal. With local, creative, fresh and gourmet cuisine, each of the chef’s dishes is a journey to new horizons.