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There is one grape-growing region of France where producers have something other than wine on their minds. Hamish Anderson steers his Mercedes C-Class estate in the direction of Cognac and its noble spirit
Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.' It is hard to know how serious Dr Samuel Johnson was when he uttered these famous words, but I have an image in my head of him in later life, cajoling a youth who is the worse for wear after a long dinner. We can be pretty sure, however, that when he talks of brandy, he means Cognac.
The UK has had a long association with this most noble of beverages. Like many spirits, its fortunes have fluctuated over the past couple of decades, but it is in vogue again now, with after-dinner drinking right back in fashion. Prices for luxury brands and rare vintages have escalated dramatically and the Cognac region has a real buzz about it again.
I have been itching to discover Cognac for some time. It is an area that anyone who tours France regularly will probably have driven past, sandwiched as it is between the Loire to the north and Bordeaux to the south, both of which are major destinations for tourists and wine lovers.
And I can think of no better way to get there than in the stunning new Mercedes C-Class estate. I was driving the sport version, which naturally came with all mod cons and a comfortable interior. The in-built satnav had thoughtfully been loaded with the latest Michelin guide, a brilliant innovation that allows you to pinpoint a good pitstop for lunch while navigating the French autoroutes. One piece of advice: if the satnav tells you to go via Paris, ignore it; the route via Le Mans and Poitiers is quicker. The drive takes about six and a half hours after leaving the Channel Tunnel, and the C-Class consumed the kilometres.
Step back in time
It would be easy to drive past Cognac as you fly down the A10 towards Bordeaux city, further south. However, once off the main road you are immediately thrust into a landscape that is far removed from the glitz and glamour of Bordeaux's famous appellations. Most of the vineyards here are in the hands of small producers and this lends it a very different feel from most wine-producing areas.
The land is not a swathe of vineyards as far as the eye can see. Instead, small estates dot the landscape; they look as though they haven't changed for the past hundred years or more. Fields of cattle sit next to vines, as these are true 'estates', producing wine as well as other farm products. Roadsides are decorated with signs advertising tastings and Cognac for sale, yet even this commercial aspect seems low-key. The signs are hand-painted and there are none of the polished gates and grand driveways you might expect from such a renowned area.
I stayed on the outskirts of Cognac itself, a delightful town that is easy to explore on foot. A number of fine eateries are within walking distance and many of the big houses, such as Martell and Hennessy, have their headquarters here. These are great starting points if you want to get to grips with the finer points of Cognac production as both have excellent and informative tours. Tasting at the end is, of course, obligatory and the best way to explore the intricacies of the blender's art.
Go with the flow
Hennessy is particularly impressive, as its offices are on the river Charente. The river has played a key role in shaping the region's fortunes and it is no accident that many of the major houses have offices on its banks. Cognac's fame spread across Europe and found its way to Dr Johnson's table because the Charente allowed producers to export their products. Moored up along the quay you can still see the old barges or 'gabares' that took barrels of Cognac to Rochefort, from where they were transported around the world. Connoisseurs may debate the subtle, fragrant virtues of Cognac versus those of its more assertive and bolder competitor Armagnac, but the real reason Cognac established itself above its rival was its ability to transport its wares easily and cheaply to the rest of Europe.
Today, with its holiday barges and leisure boats, the river makes the perfect backdrop to a morning coffee or evening Cognac cocktail. You can take a boat trip, but for the adventurous and those like me, who need a bit of exercise to work off the previous evening's foie gras, there's no better way to explore the river than by canoe. Several operators run trips that take you through the sleepy countryside, stopping for lunch in one of the local villages.
From the quayside, stroll through the narrow, cobbled streets of the oldest part of town, with their extraordinary old houses decorated with gargoyles, Cognac barrels and even salamanders - the symbol of King Francis I, a patron of the town. Here you'll find the Musée des Arts du Cognac, dedicated to the history of the region and Cognac-making. The striking modern structure set within historical walls is an impressive sight.
Journey to Jarnac
Next stop was Jarnac, 20 minutes by road from Cognac and just a stone's throw from the Charente. The town, which is smaller than Cognac and has a laidback feel, is home to Courvoisier, Delamain and Thomas Hine & Co. Hine is the quintessentially English Cognac, named after Thomas Hine, a Cornishman whose colourful life included a spell in a French prison during the revolution for spying, before he married into a Cognac family and built up the business.
Most Cognacs are blended from across different vintages, but Hine specialises in vintage Cognac. It is also a major exponent of my favourite style, Early Landed. Spirit from a single year is shipped in cask at a young age to be matured in England; where the cool humidity produces a subtle, floral style markedly different to the more robust version of the same year matured in Jarnac.
I was lucky enough to meet with Bernard Hine, director and cellarmaster of Thomas Hine & Co. He's a passionate advertisement not only for Hine, but for the region as a whole, and deserves to congratulate himself - after years of fighting against the bigger players for recognition of vintage Cognac, this area of the market is now booming.
After a leisurely lunch with Bernard and a small glass of the haunting Family Reserve - a rare treat, as very few bottles leave the estate - I made the short drive back to Cognac, where I had time to make myself two promises, first to drink more of the wares from this wonderful region and second to come back again.
Château de l'Yeuse
65 rue de Bellevue,
00 33 5 45 36 82 60
Doubles from €98
The grandest hotel in the region, very close to Cognac town and set in a château on the banks of the Charente river. It has wonderful gardens.
Logis de Boussac
16370 Cherves Richemont
00 33 5 45 83 13 01
www.chateaux-france.com/boussac. Doubles from €82
There are only three rooms available in this late 17th-century house, but it's well worth the effort to secure one as the setting is stunning.
25 rue d'Angoulême,
00 33 5 45 82 01 26
Doubles from €65
The funky colours and sleek bar might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's good fun, excellent value and ideally located for wandering Cognac town.
00 33 5 45 81 30 54
The ambitious Michelin-starred food served here lives up to the sleek modern building
with its spectacular location on the river Charente.
Le Bistro des Quais
11 Quai des Flammands, 16100 Cognac
00 33 5 45 82 60 32
Located right on the river, next door to Hennessy and the Musée des Arts du Cognac, serving traditional bistro fare that is impeccably prepared and sourced.
Restaurant du Château
15 Place du Château,
00 33 5 45 81 07 17
A good place if you have visited Hine or Delamain in Jarnac. Seriously good, rich traditional French food.
Cognac is a spirit, distilled from white wine. The grapes used to make the wine must come from the Cognac region. The British term 'brandy' is usually used to describe the products of both Cognac and its southerly neighbour Armagnac. There are a number of different zones within the region, but the most important are Grande and Fine Champagne, where many of the finest Cognacs are produced.
The area is dominated by companies that own very little land, instead buying young Cognac from a network of small producers. These are then aged in cask for anything from two to over 50 years.
The alchemy and magic of Cognac is in the art of blending - taking spirits of various ages and/or regions and combining them. Various classifications will appear on the label giving an indication of the spirit's age. From youngest to oldest they are VS (very special), VSOP (very superior old pale) and Napoléon or XO (extra old). Cognac may also be released in exceptional years as a vintage.
Something that surprised me in Cognac was that no one drinks it out of a brandy balloon. Indeed, when I asked Bernard Hine about the best way to serve the spirit, he was adamant that the balloon is one of the worst vessels in which to serve fine Cognac. Instead you will find it presented in small glasses similar to a sherry copita or professional wine tasting glass, and having compared the two I see no reason to disagree with the experts. The smaller glass accentuates the Cognac's nose, while the larger balloon exaggerates the alcohol.
Temperature is another big issue for Hine, who sank exasperated into his chair when recalling an American sommelier who had served him with one of his finest blends in a balloon that had first been immersed in hot water. Rather like red wine, if you serve Cognac too hot the alcohol will become prominent and its subtleties lost; 16-18ºC is about right. Finally, Cognac will keep indefinitely unopened, but an open bottle will become flat as time goes by, so buy half-bottles or drink up.
1981 Hine Early Landed, Grande Champagne
Aromas of acacia flowers, a hint of vanilla and a long ethereal finish. The epitome of understated elegance.
£61.53, Christopher Piper Wines,
Delamain Pale & Dry XO
1er Cru du Cognac, Grande Champagne
A rich style due to the long ageing process. It is full of dried fruits and coffee, with a satisfying spicy finish.
£66, Fortnum and Mason.
Ragnaud-Sabourin Alliance No 4
1er Cru du Cognac, Grande Champagne
Run by three generations of women, this estate is a reference point for artisan Cognac. Refined, pure and complex.
£31.95, Great Western Wine,
0-62mph: 8.5 Seconds
Top speed: 139mph
On-the-road price: From £24,640
Hamish Anderson's verdict: I really enjoyed this new C-Class. Its sleek, comfortable interior and silent running make it a superb motorway cruiser. But it's when you get on the twisting French country roads that it really comes into its own. This is a fun car to drive, the handling is sharp and the 2.2 litre engine delivers excellent performance.
Bill Thomas, Square Meal's motoring correspondent adds: This diesel four-cylinder engine pulls the car along briskly and will return over 45mpg on a long run. A smart choice of engine.
The C-Class 220CDI Sport estate driven by Hamish Anderson and shown in these pictures costs £30,755 including optional extras: metallic paint £620; COMAND £1,995; Parktronic £605. The C-Class Estate range starts from £24,640.