European Escapades

Cognac and Coke




lunch on the sun drenched terrace Lunch on the sun drenched terrace.

We left L’lle-d’Elle the next morning for Pons, which was the nearest we expected to get to Cognac our desired destination. The farmland of yesterday starting to turn into the fields of twigs, that Frances is always pulling my leg about. She often wonders why I get so excited seeing the rows of vines and trellis that greets us as we move from food farms to vineyards. It seems the only time I get to France is in the spring or just after the grape harvest when all there is are twigs. No leaves and definitely no grapes to gaze upon, so it’s a symbol really, to indicate where I am and not a concern on the time of year. These twigs told me I was near Cognac and as I had only a bottle of Tequila left, it was an opportune time to top up with a little of the ‘Eau de Vivre’.

We arrived in Pons and the campsite just outside at, yes you guessed it, lunchtime and as the sun was shining we decided have some lunch. The campsite was really a restaurant with a little side line of camping in a small field next door and the large imposing buildings, which was once a working mill, hugging the terrace attested to this fact. We sat on a sun drenched paved terrace, listening to the water from the river flow beneath us and under the building into the now disused water wheel. Ordering the ‘Plat de Jour’ and half a carafe of red wine we nibbled at some bread, watching one or two small lizards basking in the noon day sun. They were sitting on the old wooden beams that made up the disused gate that once shut off the flow of water from the river to the mill. We had arrived and as we spoke about our plans for Cognac for the next day, the Dutch waitress sagely nodded as if she knew something more. Seems she was a little disappointed with Cognac and the large trading houses that plied their trade there as well as the new, old part of town. But further info we couldn’t glean from her. We would she told us have to make our own mind up, but made us promise we would visit her friend in a nearby village to try some of the local cognac as well. We agreed and got down to planning for the next day.

François 1st, king of France between 1515 and 1547 François 1st, king of France between 1515 and 1547.

Well the next day came and we headed for Cognac, passing a small village and an industrial area on the way. It was of interest to me because of the large shiny things sitting in the outside store yard and in the large car showroom style building in front of the factory itself. They were stainless steel fermenting vessels and the very shiniest of shiny, and would have made really wonderful brewing vessels. Seeing them made me long for the ability to brew another beer, as I only have three bottles of my Old Peculiar left… But back to Cognac, we arrived and found a small Aires de Camping Car that would have been perfect except that there were already four vans parked and they looked like staying for the duration as they started on lunch. So we parked in the limited stay 2 hour space and went off to town to explore. We crossed the river and passed by the Cognac’s houses situated along the river edge up to central roundabout adorned by a statue François 1st, who was king of France between 1515 and 1547 and granted the town the right to trade salt along the river, almost guaranteeing its success. He looks a bit of a brute as the statue depicts him riding down a number of people, who obviously disagreed with his vision of the future. He is surrounded by cafés now and the paved area points us away from François to the main pedestrian route running through to the old part of town and back to the river front. It seemed a little disconcerting as we walk onwards trying to admire some of the old buildings, accompanied by U2 and ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ playing through the public sound system, that has been erected along the high street for the benefit of someone. I say someone as it was not helping us attempt to find some ambiance, which surely should still be in this world famous city. We dive for safety in the heralded new undercover market to get back to a French feel, only to be thwarted by memories of the outside markets in Nice, or of the undercover English market in Cork City in Ireland.

the undercover market in cognac The undercover market in Cognac.

This being a pale facade in comparison as we arrive to market stalls of which half are empty and bare. The echo in the voices of the one or two patrons within, adding to the emptiness we feel. We managed to find some fish for our evening meal and I look longingly at the closed ‘Foie Gras’ stall as we depart looking for the church that is meant to be here somewhere. We spot ‘Église St-Léger’ in front of us, as we step out of the covered market and decide that our flight from U2 had blinded us to it. As we stand to take a photo of the church, because it is quite majestic compared to its surroundings, a large delivery truck decides that this spot is perfect for parking. View obscured we hunt for another avenue of escape from ‘Vertigo’ which is now playing over the loud speakers. A small Cognac shop seems to fit the bill and I’m happy to say that the side step was worth it as I mange to find a local bottled conditioned brew for our Beer reviews in our perusal of the shop’s wares.

The last vestige of the town wall and gate The last vestige of the town wall and gate.

Money spent and beer purchased, for fourteen euro according to his English, which we bartered down to the four it was meant to be. I’m glad my French was better than his English. We were ready to visit one of the Cognac houses. We had chosen to visit Hennessey, not because of the Irish connection. Seems Ireland is the third largest purchaser of Hennessey Cognac, behind the USA and China. But because it was open and there was a tour at two thirty that day in English. We arrived in the plush offices of Hennessey and awaited our English speaking guide; our French is not that good. The first thing was a trip by boat across the river to the tour exhibit and Cognac cellars on the other side. Very reminiscent to the ‘Passage du Backs’ and the purported shortest ferry route in Concarneau. I guess as this was not a public service we can forgive them, but this one was definitely shorter in my opinion and one that spoke of luxury rather than necessity. We entered a very well designed and well presented exhibition area as the guide ushered us around each phase of the Cognac making process. I can only make a few criticisms of the exhibit itself. One was the multiscreen presentation of the harvest, where we were greeted by a long curved canvas on which was projected the short film. If I had asked someone to align the six individual projections that made up the screen and he had done it as badly as this was set up, I would not have been happy. The other issue was the film itself which showed many shots of the hand harvested grapes for the making of Cognac. However when questioned, the guide pointed out that most was done by machine now days and only a small fraction was handpicked. It smacked to me of marketing and perception, rather than the reality. The rest of the exhibit was delightful with the discussion of the black mould on the buildings that feed off of the vapours from the Cognac and rows upon rows of aging oak barrels.

look at all that lovely cognac Look at all that lovely cognac.

However as we walked around and back to the Customer relations area and shop to taste the supposed delights of Cognac, I became more and more disillusions with the product and what it represented. From the machine picking to hand picking discussion, to the way in which the Cognac is distilled using old technology and the blending process used to make sure that taste of the product is consistent, rather than highlight the taste of the individual distillations and the qualities they possess. My expectations on Bordeaux wines and Single malt Whiskeys may hold the truth as to why I rebelled against all that the guide from Hennesey told us, as she extolled the virtues of the process and final product.

Hand picking is still used by the finest wine producers as they suggest that the machine picking can bruise the grapes. It is not a problem it seems in the case of Cognac.
The roughness of the VS, which the guide suggested would be better with a little ginger beer or coke. How can a producer suggest this is the way to go for such a luxury product? The roughness in my mind is because of the antiquated distillation processes that have to be used, to be able to class it a Cognac. If innovations using fractionating columns in the process was used you would get a finer product that maybe palatable to Joe public without the Ginger ale or coke. But then it wouldn’t be Cognac, would it?
The storing and blending of the Cognac’s seems to be one of the reasons to get around this precise problem and as you taste an XO, you can see the subtle smooth complexity of the final product as the Oak aging creates its magic. But then what do these people do. They blend it to produce the same tasting XO Cognac that they have produced year after year. Throwing away the chance to sample all of those beautiful and individual crafted barrels of Cognac they have in storage. Seems the only ones who have this experience are the master blenders themselves and the panel of faceless tasters that dictate how the Cognac should taste. Oh and those really heavy consumers of the cognac the black mould.

One of the pot stills still required to be used One of the pot stills still required to be used to call it cognac.

But then do Hennessy who purport to have 40% of the Cognac market, and the other Cognac houses really make Cognac. Seems not, as they only own a small percentage of the vines that they use to produce the Cognac they sell. With all the rest coming from an abundance of local producers that actually own the vineyards, either as grapes or even after fermentation and distillation. Overlooked very carefully by the major Cognac houses of course, that’s what the guide told me anyway.

Whilst I want consistent quality from my fine wines and whiskeys, I do not expect a consistent taste from year to year. It would undermine the reasons why I want to buy the product in the first place. I want to experience and taste the subtle nuances of the wine from a particular area and the terroir as the French say, and also the skill of the winemaker or the whisky distiller. If I want consistency I would buy a Paul Masons Californian carafe rather than a Bottle of Chateau Palmer or a Famous Grouse Whiskey, rather than a single malt from Glen Turret. In fact to take the process to its logical conclusion, You might be better saving your hard earned money and go by a bottle of Coke or ginger ale, The consistency would be spot on from year to year and it would be a lot cheaper as well.

To finish off the rather long blog, Cognac is in my opinion an empty facade of a mass market product, built on a perception of exclusivity, quality and luxury that in fact does not exist. It is therefore pleasing to note that there are now a few small artisanal Cognac producers that are moving away from this practice and giving us real single vineyard Cognac’s that we may taste the pleasure of their wares and the subtle differences that it brings. In my mind that’s a luxury product…

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 at 4:57 pm and is filed under Travel Stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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