Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Cognac France

May 2019 - Cognac France

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St. Emilion

On May 12th, we left for the Loire region with a planned stop in Cognac for a tasting at the Royal Chateau de Cognac where Baron Otard cognacs are distilled.

The history of Cognac stretches back to the 1600s. Story has it that wine exported from the region to Holland was deemed unsatisfactory. The Dutch had already begun distilling gin, so they began distilling the wine they were receiving, too. As they took notice in France, winemakers then shifted to distillation themselves.

This is really two tours in one, there is the drink, cognac and then there is a history lesson on the chateau and times of King Francois I of France, with some Scottish and English sagas as well.

We entered the lobby and waited briefly for our guide. Shortly thereafter our guide appeared and brought into a courtyard for a welcome and brief overview.

The Otard family traces its origins back to the middle of the 9th century to a Norwegian warrior named Ottar. From the 11th to 17th century, the descendants of Ottar lived in Dun-Ottar castle in Scotland. Great supporters of the Stuart cause, they followed King James II of England when he moved to France in exile after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

There is sculpture and art scattered everywhere.

Francois' personal emblem was the salamander and his Latin motto was Nutrisco et extinguo ("I nourish [the good] and extinguish [the bad]").

Battle of Marignan, (Sept. 13–14, 1515), French victory over a Swiss army in the first Italian campaign of Francois I of France. Fought near the village of Marignano (modern Melegnano), 10 miles (16 km) southeast of Milan, the battle resulted in the French recovery of Milan and in the conclusion of the peace treaty of Geneva (Nov. 7, 1515) between France and the Swiss Confederation. It was a classic clash between Swiss shock infantry—halberdiers and pikemen—and French artillery and heavy cavalry. The French won, though only by a narrow margin, despite a heavy numerical advantage.

The Royal Château of Cognac that dominated the Charente was initially a 10th century fortress designed to stop invasions by the Normans and then in the 15th century a seignior dwelling where one of the most famous French kings, François I, was born.

The medieval castle has a history of the most famous royal visitors, starting with Richard the Lionheart, who married off his son Philip with the heir of the Chateau, Amélie de Cognac. During the Hundred Years’ War, which lasted from 1337 until 1453 (actually over 100 years!), the owners of the castle changed numerous times.

Baron Otard, who had established his cognac business in 1795, realised very quickly that the thickness of the building’s walls was perfect and unique for the aging of his eaux-de-vie. He acquired the château, thus saving it from total destruction.

The Royal Château of Cognac, now a listed monument, is a witness to the history of France and a major cognac house.

The tour begins in the historic part of the Château where visitors explore sumptuous rooms such as the State Room, where King François I once received guests. This room is characterized by Renaissance architecture, very different to other parts of the Château which date back to the Middle Ages.

There were numerous carvings on the wall, inside the castle which apparently had been used as a prison at some point during the cruel French war history. The prisoners carved their names and images of boats and other objects into the limestone of the walls. Almost reminiscent of cave paintings, or some kind of ancient graffiti.

The tour then moves on to the Château cellars, which offer exceptional ageing conditions for the Cognac. Here, we are given a detailed explanation of how BARON OTARD Cognacs are made. 

As with French wine regions, Cognac has an appellation d’origine contrôlée or Appellation of Origin (AOC) designation divided into six regions/crus, the latter three being the smaller appellations, thus growing the most costly, revered grapes: Bons Ordinaires, Bons Bois, Fins Bois (this area yields the largest production, making up 45% of all Cognac grapes), Grand Champagne, Petit Champagne and Borderies. Before it is aged, the base spirit is called eau de vie (“water of life”, a term also applied to other types of brandy, like fruit brandies). It is not called Cognac until it is aged.

Our guided tour proceeded to teach us everything there is to know about how cognac is made, from the growing of the vines, to distillation, aging, and blending.

What is Cognac exactly? Cognac is a specific type of brandy produced from distilled white wine. It must be distilled twice, using copper pot stills, and aged in French oak barrels for a minimum of two years.

Cognac's distillation season lasts from October 1 through March 31, a five-month annual window. For most producers, distillation lasts for even less time, though. It cannot begin until after the grape harvest and the wine production which ensues. Therefore, distillation in earnest does not begin for most until closer to the start of November. 

The cellars of the château, are still used for storing and ageing the casks of cognac.

There are limitations on the amount of Cognac that can be produced in one distillery so most of the major houses have a few distilleries, then contract with hundreds, even thousands (there are nearly 5000, though dwindling), of small Cognac winegrowers and distillers, called bouilleurs de cru. Many bouilleurs grow and distill for numerous houses simultaneously.

Nothing shouts history more than centuries-old, spider web and moss covered barrels stashed away in the recesses of a castle's nooks and crannies.

They store almost 20,000 barrels in cellars tucked away in countless wings of the castle with each Cognac released containing some portion of castle-aged eaux de vie.

Following the visit to the cellars, we walked through a hallway depicting various forms of advertising materials for his Cognac advertisements over the years to today.

Some of my favourites:

 The tour ends with a guided tasting of BARON OTARD VS and VSOP.

VS Cognac stands for "Very Special" Cognac. VS is an age category that guarantees a minimum aging of 2 years. It is also referred to as "Sélection", "De Luxe", or simply ***. If you see three stars on a Cognac bottle, it means it is in the VS age category. This means that the youngest eau-de-vie that was used to create the blend was aged in oak barrels for at least two years. A VS Cognac will have the typical brandy color, it may be a little lighter than a mature blend. It can be a little punchy on palate, but a young Cognac can boast lovely fruity aromas. If you enjoy a rebellious spirit, it's absolutely fine to enjoy a VS neat or on the rocks. It's safe to say that VS is the suitable Cognac to use for making cocktails, long drinks, or any other kind of mix drink.It should be noted that a VS or *** designation simply tells us the age of the youngest eau-de-vie in the product. This does not prevent a master blender from using older eaux-de-vie in the blend.

VSOP Cognac  stands for "Very Superior Old Pale" Cognac, which is interesting considering that it comes from France. VSOP ia an age category that guarantees a minimum aging of 4 years.  In 1817, King George IV asked the House of Hennessy for a "Very Superior Old Pale", which would become a benchmark for all Cognac houses from then on. Some use fullstops after the letters, V.S.O.P., which is nothing else than a stylistic preference. Old and pale refers to a Cognac mature in age but not colored or sweetened for that special aroma, one of superior quality. This age designation is also labelled "Very Superior Special Pale", "Very Old", or simply "Réserve" or "Vieux", and indicates that the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is four years old. As in any other age category, this does not prevent the master blender from using much older eaux-de-vie in order to achieve the perfect harmony for the final Cognac blend.


  1. ...many areas of Europe must be very stoney, everything is built with stone! Beveraries sure are taken seriously. Thank Jackie for sharing these treasures from your trip. I hope that you are enjoying your week.

  2. Oh, this looks absolutely lovely. I once went port tasting in Portugal and loved that. I'd really like to know more about Cognac.

  3. What an interesting tour! Would have loved to sample the different Cognacs! Would also love to learn more about Cognac!


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