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It’s surprising how easy it is to open a barrel of prized brandy. Cognac maker Roger Prisset stands in his storehouse next to a barrel promisingly chalked up “1962”, and lifts off the wooden stopper with one hand – a tenth of the effort you’d need to uncork a weeknight wine.
He sticks his nose as far as it will go into the barrel, then encourages our little party of cognac tourists, shivering in the damp November chill, to do the same. An instantly warming vapour of sweet, deep honey and cigars shoots into the head.
Prisset does not want an airtight seal: cognac needs to breathe through its oak cask to take on the colour and flavour of the wood. The 1962 smells good but then, he admits, it was an uncommonly good year, and anyway not something he can take credit for. This vintage was made by his father, who like his grandfather, was a cognac master. For really good cognac, you have to wait.
In all there are about 4,000 producers of France’s famous spirit but more than 90 per cent of what they make is tankered away for blending at the “big four” cognac houses – Rémy Martin, Hennessy, Courvoisier and Martell. These powerful businesses have successfully chased new markets in the Americas, Singapore and China, pushing global sales of cognac to around €2.35bn last year, according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac. What the independents keep behind, they sell under their own labels, taking a tiny 2 per cent of the market.
I’m here to try a new weekend tour of independent cognac makers such as Prisset, something started this month by Nick Brimblecombe, an Englishman who runs the Logis du Paradis, a boutique hotel 20km south of the town of Cognac. It’s surrounded by Grande Champagne, an area of villages and valleys that is the premier cru, the most prestigious, in the Cognac region.
The trip begins on Friday evening at Bordeaux airport, where a 7ft claret bottle by the luggage carousel announces the good life just as clearly as Brimblecombe’s generous frame. Over the next two days we will taste more than 20 cognacs, attend a workshop on blending and visit four independent producers.
Brimblecombe (he books as “Monsieur Nicholas” at local restaurants to spare the French pronunciation) and his wife Sally moved here from the UK in 2005 when they bought a then crumbling heap of 18th-century buildings in the hamlet of La Magdeleine. Set around a large courtyard, the estate includes an old cognac distillery (its copper stills now polished up around a bar), cellar-turned-garage for his vintage cars, three cottages and a main house shaded prettily by lime trees. The Brimblecombes’ spaniel, Bramble, keeps watch in the courtyard for something to happen, though as in so many French provincial outposts, nothing much does.
Winter is the ideal time to visit, and not simply to stock up on Christmas supplies or to test the drink’s warming properties. With the grape harvest complete, the copper stills in the distilleries are lit (with gas these days, rather than coke) in November and kept alight until March, meaning visitors can see cognac production in process. It begins with the simple, low alcohol white wine (largely made of ugni blanc grapes), which is distilled in solid, handmade copper stills to make “brouillis”. A second distillation, called la bonne chauffe, is when the floral notes of the terroir are supposed to be coaxed forward, and the clear eau de vie that results is transferred to French oak barrels for ageing.
On Saturday morning in sleepy Jarnac, François Mitterrand’s birthplace on the banks of La Charente, we visit the Tiffon/Braastad distillery (it uses the latter name in Scandinavian markets), where 10 stills are at work, a medium-sized operation. We begin in a warehouse by the riverfront next to a giant cask holding cognac more than 100 years old. It is left untouched – it can only increase in value.
After propping up the bar in the tasting room, where a succession of ever darker, ever older cognacs is poured, we drive on upstream, through the rolling valleys to lunch in Saint-Simon. We pass châteaux, fields of sunflowers and staves of Limousin oak drying in the sunshine (only particular forests can be used for cognac coopering). It’s a pretty, pastoral scene but soon we begin to notice the pale Charentais brick walls and terracotta roofs of many of the cognac storehouses, or chais, are stained sooty black, making them look burnt and abandoned.
In fact, the black marks are proud signs of the cognac makers’ industry: as the drink ages, some evaporates – la part des anges or the angels’ share – which feeds a fungus that thrives on the walls and turns them black.
Saint-Simon is the village where the gabarres, the flat-bottomed barges that used to transport the cognac barrels, were manufactured.
After a simple lunch at the local café (much-needed after the standing tasting at Tiffon), we move on to visit Patrick and Maria Brillet’s Domaine Breuil de Segonzac, an estate that holds a rare “bio organic” certification. Seemingly every cognac producer in the Grande Champagne has an elderly dog guarding their property; here an old Spanish mastiff patrols the beautiful grounds, set around a gorgeous 18th-century house.
The Brillets spent almost a decade turning their cognac and wine fully organic but, even so, still sell most of it to the big four. They also make the classic Cognac aperitif, pineau, a rather syrupy-sweet mix of unfermented grape juice and cognac eau de vie, but nicely done here.
At the back of their modern distillery is its disused 19th-century counterpart: a tiny room crammed with tarnished copper stills with a brick lean-to in the corner, where the distiller would have slept through the night, keeping the fires going.
Celebrity endorsements and the marketing efforts of the big four have given cognac associations of excess and conspicuous consumption. Jay-Z celebrated his recent Grammy award by drinking D’Ussé cognac from the trophy. Meanwhile, prices have soared – two years ago, a single bottle of Croizet cognac sold for Rmb1m (£101,000) in Shanghai.
“The past four years have been the most prolific in 40 years,” says Jacques Denis, another nearby producer. “Small guys are buying nice cars and getting their roofs mended.”
Nevertheless, as the afternoon cools and the autumn mists roll in through the woods, the antics of high-rolling rappers seem a long way away, the marketing hype stilled by the sense of centuries-old tradition. It’s dark by the time we leave Domaine Breuil de Segonzac, exiting through another cellar that smells of damp earth, mixed with the scent of coffee and honey.
Natalie Whittle was a guest of Grape Escapes (grapeescapes.net), which offers two-night cognac tours at the Logis du Paradis on several dates during the year, from £499 per person, or from £365 per person staying at the Château de l’Yeuse
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