14 AUG 2012: You’d think being nicknamed “cagouille”, a slang word for snail in French would be taken as an insult. Not so in Cognac where the populace defends their habitual tardiness – called the “le quart d’heure charentais”. They see this as a trait not a fault saying they take their time because it takes time to mature cognac.
I was in Cognac, the medieval town which bears the name of the region, for a second visit after about a ten year hiatus. The place was considerably spruced up with repairs on its narrow medieval cobbled streets beautifully completed and its elegant Renaissance facades cleaned of the grime of centuries. The town’s main hotel Francois Premier, which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, had just reopened after a complete renovation. I could still smell the fresh paint. Rooms had gone from the type that make you want to launder your cloths after a stay, to modern and upscale with free Wi-Fi, flat screen TV’s and fine amenities.
Getting to Cognac is quite easily done these days. The high speed TGV train from Paris to nearby Angouleme takes about two and a half hours. From there you can hop a regional train for the short journey to Cognac or grab a cab. It’s best not to drive as most visits to Cognac houses include samplings of the famous spirit.
There are about 200 cognac houses in the area but no one offers the tourist a better experience than the House of Rémy Martin. Rémy Martin is the sole great cognac house to use only eaux-de-vie from the two best crus of the region: Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. It also happens to be the most popular cognac in France.
Founded in 1724 they have four properties in the area. The Domaine de Merpins Estate has a dedicated train to tour visitors around the vineyards and extensive aging cellars (about 200,000 barrels). At the Rémy Martin House in the centre of town there’s a museum of historic bottles through the ages and private rooms for dining and cocktails. The Distillery of Touzac is where all the distillation takes place for Rémy. It also has a charming rustic-chic building for hosting luncheons. The family estate of Grollet in Saint-Même-les-Carrières in the Grande Champagne is where the top eaux-de-vie for Louis XIII slumber in cobweb thick warehouses. Also on property is a fantastic museum of ancient tools, wine presses and stills used throughout the ages in making cognac.
Heritage Communications Manager Pascale Rousseau is on a mission to develop visits that wow people going far beyond the standard tour and tasting. Starting in 2007 she has been creating the Rémy Martin Rendez-Vous experiences – fine tuning them every year in response to visitor comments. The simplest are train tours of the estate that finish with gourmet appetizers matched with cognacs. The most popular is “At Lunchtime” which feature cognacs matched with appetizers followed by a gourmet lunch in one of the private dining rooms of the House of Rémy Martin prepared by Chef Philippe Saint-Romas who worked in several Michelin starred Paris restaurants.
The most awesome and expensive (€1000 ($1,227)) is the Louis XIII Experience. It starts with a pastoral breakfast in the vineyards, proceeds to their distillery in Touzac for an education on distillation and tasting of young eaux-de-vie followed by a “sophisticated” country lunch by the fireplace. Then it’s onto the Merpins Estate where participants are introduced to the different stages of blending and aging of eaux-de-vie. Then there’s a tasting of the actual cognacs accompanied by gourmet appetizers at the Rémy House in Cognac.
In late afternoon there is a ceremonial tasting of Louis XIII. The evening proceeds with a tour of Grollet and then an elegant gastronomic candle-lit dinner on the property. It finishes with a special tasting of Louis XIII from the barrel. Considering Louis XIII sells for $2,800 a bottle in Ontario, this sunrise to moonlight experience might be considered a bargain.
I enjoyed a version of it – and can attest it’s a tour to beat all tours.
Rousseau has handled every type of visitor tour request from Granny’s birthday, to tête-à-têtes, to small conferences. “We want people to not only get a fair price - we want them to be so pleased they send thank-you cards,” she said. Not surprisingly she’s received a lot of those. www.visitesremymartin.com