Visiting Cognac city in France is like taking a trip down history lane. With famous cognac houses tucked right next to each other the city provides a perfect set up for connoisseurs to indulge in this liquid gold.
As we drove past neatly manicured vineyards in the outskirts of Cognac I was looking forward to a day at Maison Hennessy with Ambassador, Fabien Levieux and Head of Distilleries & Tasting Committee member Olivier Paultes.
A bit of history
Did you know that the number one cognac company in the world, Hennessy was actually created by an Irishman? Richard Hennessy an Irish aristocrat left his hometown and joined Louis XV’s army for a while. In 1765 he founded Hennessy in Cognac, which later turned into a legacy. Presenting itself as a modern cognac house, Hennessy has actually managed to keep the long history of cognac making for more than 250 years now through the art of great story telling. Located on the bank of the Charente River, like many other cognac houses, Hennessy’s visitor center is today thriving with tourists from all over the world.
Connection between Cognac & Grand Champagne
The chalky and limestone rich terroir of the region serves as the perfect place to grow that one very special grape variety used in the making of cognac – Ugni Blanc. However, it’s only Ugni Blanc from the area defined as Grande Champagne that makes for the best cut followed by the area Petit Champagne. As described by Fabien Levieux, “the grapes shouldn’t be too small or too ripened that’s when the farmers have the instructions to pick them. By representing more than half of the cognac business, Hennessy is bound to depend on a number of grape growers partners who supply grapes to the company. That way we won’t have to buy more than 35000 hectares of vineyards to meet the demand”.
After a short vineyard tour we went back to the swanky visitor center to experience the tour offered to the regular guests, of course, with Fabien accompanying us there had to be some exceptions. But before that there was a delicious lunch waiting for us at the Chateau de Bagnolet belonging to Maison Hennessy.
Chateau de Bagnolet & a refreshing Hennessy Cocktail
The charming Chateau de Bagnolet has been with Hennessy family since 1841. Some part of the chateau is still private and only used by the family members; the rest belongs to Maison Hennessy. Currently, mostly used to entertain only private guests and special visitors. A refreshing glass of Hennessy cocktail welcomed us as we took a tour of the magnificent property with beautiful lounges and green houses all in one place. We tried to soak in the green expanse of the private garden in the backyard sharing a glimpse of the small pond in the middle of the garden while sunshine sprayed across the backyard offering a great view for a short lunch break.
Maison Hennessy Tour of the Cellars
Each cognac house has its unique way of showcasing the heritage and history of the place. Hennessy enjoys one of the best locations, right next to the river with the visitor center on one side and the cellars on the other side. Visitors are transported to the cellars on a private boat. As you enter the cellar doors a strong breeze brings to you the heavy wafting aroma of the timeless liquid aging inside the perfectly stacked barrels.
Now, with the advantage of having Fabien with us we got an access to the Paradis Cellar where some of Hennessy’s oldest eaux-de-vie are stored dating back to the year 1800.
The visitor area in the cellars also welcomes guests with brief description on cognac production through interactive audio visuals and showcases the strong connection between American rappers and popularity of the cognac culture.
Visiting Distillery de Bagnolet
Hennessy owns 3 distilleries. Distillery de Bagnolet, Distillery d’el Cua and Distillery de Le Peu. Totally these 3 distilleries have around 40 pot stills used for distillation of the spirit. Fabien explained that the company has 14 pot stills in distillery de Bagnolet, 16 in distillery d’el Cua and 10 in distillery de Le Peu. The distillation starts in the second or third week of October till end of March, which is the last legal day to distil an eau-de-vie, which will eventually end up becoming cognac.
About the Liquid
The reception area at the visitor center also houses a shop, showcasing a range of Hennessy cognac. And, an easy guide to understanding a cognac label is to know what words such as V.S., X.O., V.S.O.P. stands for. VS (Very Special), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) and XO (Extra Old) provide the guarantee that the cognac has been aged for. For example, VS indicates that the Cognac has been aged at least two years, VSOP at least four years and XO (Extra Old) at least six years. However, most of the cognacs including many labels from Hennessy are aged much longer with blends of eau-de-vie dating back even decades.
Tasting with Olivier
Cognac might just be brandy from a specific region in France but the identity of each cognac house is dependent on a team of extraordinarily talented distillers and master blenders. While some of them have spent their entire career in one single cognac house there are also a few who have mastered the art of tasting through their wide range of experience of working with several cognac houses. Head of Distilleries & Tasting Committee member Olivier Paultes probably hardly ever holds a private tasting of his cognacs in his office. We were privileged to have that opportunity to taste some of the rare eau-de-vie from his collection in a blind tasting. It is a multi-sensory discovery while nosing the aromas of the fine liquid and analysing the prominent notes of fruit, cinnamon, vanilla with hint of spices coming from the oak aging.
With the session drawing to a close we bid adieu to Olivier and Maison Hennessy. The moon was just rising above Charente River and next on our agenda was a visit to the Bar Louise, the first serious cocktail-focused bar to have opened in cognac city.