Escape London: Summer Holiday in Cognac France
With fields full of glorious sunflowers, great gastronomy, grand old chateaux and dozens of ways to experience its eponymous spirit, a trip to Cognac in France makes a delightful short break just a couple of hours from London, writes Judith Baker…
Lead Photo: Remy Martin
Being driven through sunbathed fields and tiny villages in a vintage 2CV with the wind in my hair was the perfect way to head for a picnic lunch in the Grande Champagne vineyard, Cognac.
The region of Cognac in south west France has more stills than Scotland and the largest white vineyard in France, from whose grapes cognac is made.
This fruitful region is full of stunning scenery, warm people and interesting traditions, and despite an image of old boys with their brandy and cigars, cognac the spirit us now appealing to a wider market.
Cognac pairing with food, cocktail-making classes, cask making demonstrations and an electric bike ride though a vineyard, not to mention that spin in the gorgeous 2CV, are just a few of the ways to savour cognac in every sense.
In the depths of the dusty historic cellars of Bache Gabrieleen with its rich aromas, I undertook the cellar master’s challenge to recreate his blend of cognac by sniffing, tasting, looking and mixing.
The result didn’t taste half as good as the glass of Remy Martin I sipped later at a windmill in the famous producer’s vineyard accompanied by a pineapple macaron after an invigorating buggy ride through the vines in the sunshine.
There are 200 cognac producers in the area including big names such as Hennessey, Martell and Remy Martin but increasingly smaller houses. Each cognac house has a tour which explains the process of making cognac and it diversity.
By contrast to the slick modern distillery I saw at Remy Martin, the rustic Les Frères Moines vineyard is a family business created in the 1980s, in Chassors, in the heart of the Charente vineyards. Their tour included a demonstration of barrel making techniques which hasn’t changed for centuries.
It is part of the charm of Cognac that my guide, Yann, who escorted me round his country distillery here, appeared the following night as the smooth DJ at the chic rooftop bar Hotel Chais Monnet.
The pretty town of Cognac with it narrow cobbled streets, lovely 11th century church of St Leger and 17th century buildings, boutiques and covered market is small enough to walk around in an hour or two.
Don’t miss the Chateau de Cognac on the river Charente, the birthplace of Francois 1.
The town may look sleepy but its springs to life in July with the Cognac Blues Passion Festival, a four day event which has seen the likes of Ray Charles and BB King over its 29 year history.
Crowds fill the streets as music from the festival in the Jardins Publique fills the air.
Cocktail Bars in Cognac
Germain, the owner of Bar Louise, in central Cognac leads cocktail making sessions which allows visitors to create their own cocktails such as Sidecar (cognac, Cointreau and fresh lemon juice) or Sazerac (made with cognac, Absinthe, sugar and bitters).
Cognac mixologists like to tell you that Sazerac was one the world’s first cocktails, first sipped in New Orleans in 1838. You are never very far from a Cognac or a cocktail throughout the region, but for great vibes and panoramic views head to one of the rooftop bars in Cognac town such as Indigo Bar by Martell at the top of the Gatebourse Tower or Le Rooftop at the Hotel Chais Monnet.
Restaurants in Cognac
Cognac is full of delicious places to eat from small cafes to Michelin-starred restaurants such as Poulpette, an intimate town centre gem with a set local food menu and gluten-free option.
Cosy Chez Aristide is found down a narrow street and La Maison is a modern, airy space serving contemporary French cuisine
Situated on the Charente River with view over historic chateaux, the Bistro Chateau Ribaudiere is an ideal spot for a leisurely Sunday lunch.
Where to Stay in Cognac
There are some good hotels in central Cognac such as the elegant new Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa and the traditional four star François Premier. Or stay in the countryside nearby at characterful rural converted properties such as Hotel Karina in Jarnac, 20 minutes from town.
Gites, self-catering holiday cottages, are always popular with UK visitors and you will find in Cognac some charming and affordable houses perfect for families or groups of friends.
Things to Do Around Cognac
Cognac is ideally situated to explore other parts of western France including the city of Bordeaux, approximately two hours away, with its sophisticated shops, restaurants and hotels.
Fifty miles from Cognac the medieval coastal town of La Rochelle is known for its sea food and the neighbouring islands of Ile de Re and Ile de Oleron have charming villages, tiny ports and sandy beaches.
EasyJet flies to Bordeaux from London Gatwick.