Situated on the banks of the river Charente amid vine-covered countryside, Cognac is surely one of France’s most idyllic towns. Today it remains famous for the production of the double-distilled spirit that proudly bears its name, and upon which Cognac’s prosperity depends. Indeed, most visitors to Cognac head straight to the legendary Cognac houses, perhaps unwisely overlooking the town’s other attractions, namely its splendid architecture and a surfeit of delightful cafés and restaurants.
Cognac’s history dates back to the Neolithic period – the Charente was a vital source of food for the surrounding populace, and it’s likely the town’s early origins were as a river settlement. However, after Julius Caesar conquered Gaul in 52 BC the Charente region remained under Roman control for several centuries; Cognac was known as Condate and was an important strategic outpost in Gaul. Sadly, little evidence remains from this period, although historians are certain that the Romans introduced vines to Cognac, as indeed they did across France.
In 406 AD Roman control over Gaul collapsed as northern tribes such as the Vandals repeatedly attacked the Western Roman Empire. After the so-called Dark Ages in which the Romans left a power vacuum in Western Europe, France fell under the control of the Frankish Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties, who ruled France from the 5th to the 10th centuries.
By the Middle Ages Cognac had become a thriving and prosperous town: a port was built to allow the precious salt cargo to be transported out of the region – this became a major source of wealth in addition to Cognac’s burgeoning wine industry. Moreover, the town was granted tax privileges which favored its rapid development and many fine houses and public buildings were constructed during this period. However, the outbreak of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) would put an end to Cognac’s prosperity, as English and French forces battled to control the region’s lucrative salt and wine trades.
In the 16th century, King François l ascended the French throne; the monarch was born in Cognac’s castle in 1494 and today the town’s main square is named after him. Yet despite the arrival of Italian Renaissance culture, this would prove to be a very turbulent century for France, not least during the outbreak of The Wars of Religion (1561-1598) between Huguenots (Protestants) and Catholic loyalists.
The catalyst for the conflict was the Reformation ideas of John Calvin, an intellectual born in Noyon who fled to Geneva to avoid persecution. The Bourbon King Henri IV only added fuel to the fire, with his controversial Edict of Nantes which guaranteed Protestants many civil and political rights. However, Cognac was designated one of the four places of safety granted to the Protestants by the peace of Saint Germain en Laye.
It is also during this period that the region started to become renowned for producing brandy – in the 16th-century Dutch settlers came to Cognac primarily to purchase salt, although the intrepid explorers also started developing a lucrative business trading local wines. However, the perilous sea journey would often render the wine rancid, and so the settlers needed an effective method of preserving it. They started by distilling the wine into eau-de-vie, which was a good solution for preservation, but eventually, they realized a second distillation made for a finer product. Voila – brandy, or rather Cognac, was born. Indeed, the word “brandy” comes from the Dutch word “brandewijn” which means burnt wine.
In the 17th century Cognac’s salt trade declined in importance as the brandy trade prospered, partly driven by the Huguenots who had strong ties with Holland. In addition, the Sun King, Louis XIV granted the town several privileges after Cognac stood against his enemy the Fronde, an alliance of princes, the nobility, the law courts (parlements), and most of the French people. As a result, British and Irish families arrived in ever greater numbers, keen to take advantage of this new lucrative brandy trade.
Social and economic upheaval marked the 18th century, not least the outbreak of the French Revolution which claimed many lives during the reign of terror and put a temporary halt to exports of Cognac, hurting the town’s prosperity greatly. However, by the late 19th century Cognac was the most important export for the Charente region – many merchants built fine townhouses at the end of this century, although the outbreak of phylloxera affected many wine-growers livelihoods. In 1888, in one of the merchant families, the famous politician Jean Monnet was born, a man partly responsible for the creation of the European Union.
The 20th century would, of course, be marked by the outbreak of two world wars; as in the rest of the country, following the First World War, the population of Cognac declined significantly. Yet the post-war years were relatively prosperous for Cognac, the development of the French railroad system made exporting far easier, and Cognac became the drink du jour of the European upper classes.
Sadly, the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 would bring more suffering to the people of Cognac; by June 1940 the nation had capitulated and was divided into the Nazi-occupied north and the puppet Vichy regime in the south.
Yet despite these hardships, any visitor to Cognac today cannot help but notice the town’s prosperous, confident air, which is largely due to the monumental global success of its signature spirit. But even if you’re not a fan of the local firewater, there are plenty of other attractions to keep you interested. Not least the charming village of Saintes, which is merely a short drive away from Cognac and was the former Gallo-Roman capital of Aquitaine. Its cobblestone lanes, markets, cafés, and medieval buildings are fit for a king, just like the fine Cognac made today in this gorgeous part of captivating France.
Gastronomy & Wine
While not every person in Cognac is a walking Larousse Gastronomique, eating and drinking well is of prime importance to the citizens of the Poitou-Charente region. Local gastronomy is based on two things: fresh, seasonal ingredients and considerable skill, which is often employed in the region’s leading Michelin venues, where world-class cooking is presented in an extremely elegant, refined setting. Highlights include fresh oysters and Charente lamb; the rich, thick grasses and a temperate climate are ideal for grazing sheep, complemented by an enviable selection of delicious local cheeses.
However, don’t suppose for a moment that this great culinary tradition means that all restaurants in Cognac are formal – the town offers a variety of options, from chic to the delightfully rustic. La Courtine is one of our favorites – set about 2km west of the center in lush parklands, La Courtine serves divine creations such as roasted duck with a raspberry sauce in the most convivial of surroundings. The service and wine list are top notch too! Another great choice is La Belle Epoque restaurant, situated in the classy Hotel Heritage. It specializes in reintroducing long-lost regional dishes and boasts the finest setting in Cognac, perfect for sipping rare bottles of this majestic spirit.
Which, of course, is an obligatory part of any visit to the Charente region. Made of grape eaux-de-vie of various vintages, cognac is aged in Limousin oak barrels and blended by an experienced cellarmaster – top Cognac is aged for many decades. Today, the best-known houses are Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin, and Otard, producing brandies of incomparable finesse, elegance and complexity.
Situated in the pretty Jardin Public is the Musee de Cognac, which showcases the town’s fascinating history and is packed with interesting exhibits. As a bonus, admission also covers La Musee des Arts du Cognac, which guides visitors, step by step, through the production of Cognac, from vine to bottle.
One of the most picturesque villages in the region, Saintes is a short drive from Cognac and was the former Gallo-Roman capital of Aquitaine. Dating from the 1st century AD, its Roman legacies include a double arch that served as the town gate and an amphitheater built during the reign of Claudius.
Cognac house tours
Many of the top cognac producers welcome visitors, offering unique insights into this celebrated and historic drink. Cellar Tours will organize a bespoke and unforgettable visit to parts of Cognac that most other tourists can only dream of.