Given its name by the eponymous French brandy, cognac, the city of Cognac is an off-the-beaten-path destination waiting to be discovered. Although the city is mainly associated with cognac manufacturing houses along with tours and tastings, there’s enough to see and do to warrant a two- or three-day stay.
Things To Do In Cognac
In between cognac tastings, there’s plenty to do in Cognac, including scenic bike rides, museums, an indoor food market, music festivals, and a historic chateau.
Art Museum Of Cognac
Discover the fascinating history of cognac making in the newly designed Musee d'Art et d'Histoire. Vintage cognac making machines, old labels, smell tests, films, and interactive activities are just some of the fun things to explore. There are also children's activities, a gift boutique, and a cafe.
King Francis I proclaimed the Charente River as the most beautiful in France. You can experience the king’s claim by renting a paddleboat, kayak, canoe, or motorboat or taking a ride on a cruise boat. There’s a small beach, and you can swim in the river, plus there’s an aquatic center with an outdoor and indoor pool.
There are five designated bike paths in and around Cognac that take riders past the Charente River, vineyards, stone formations, and the city of Cognac. There are also bike routes to the surrounding towns of Cognac, including Jarnac, Chateauneuf-sur-Charente, and Segonzac. There are also electric and mountain bike itineraries.
Royal Chateau Of Cognac
Dating back to the 10th century, the Royal Chateau of Cognac is a great history lesson about Cognac. A combination of Gothic and Renaissance architecture make up the impressive structure. The chateau was the home and birthplace of King Francis I, and in 1795, Baron Otard realized the thick walls were ideal to age his eau-de-vie, the essential ingredient of cognac, and started his cognac house. The chateau offers four distinct tours that are just over an hour in length. Note that the tours are limited to people of legal drinking age.
Cognac City Hall And Public Garden
A mansion that dates back to the 19th century was converted into Cognac’s City Hall in 1892. Encompassing the Hotel de Ville/City Hall is a 17-acre English-style garden with waterfalls, a duck and swan pond, an orangerie, ponds and streams, and an outdoor amphitheater. The Musee d'Art et d'Histoire is located inside the park.
Blues Passions is the annual blues festival held in Cognac for six days in July. It is recognized as one of the most prestigious blues festivals in Europe. Past musicians, singers, and groups who have performed include Sting, Tom Jones, Hugh Laurie, and Lou Doillon.
Cognac House Visits And Tastings
The main activity of visiting Cognac is to tour the various cognac houses and factories along with tastings. Here are some recommendations.
Remy Martin is one of the oldest and most respected cognac houses. It was founded by Emile Remy Martin in 1724. They offer a long list of tours and tastings including a mini-train tour of the estate, From Vineyard to Distillery, a cocktail workshop, and a tasting of three cognacs with chocolate. If you are a super fan of cognac, Remy Martin has an exclusive Louis XIII tour during which you’ll visit the production estate, have a gourmet lunch or dinner in the old distillery, and, finally, enjoy a ceremonial tasting of the premium Louis XIII cognac, which costs 3,400 euros and comes in a handmade crystal bottle.
I personally took this tour last week and was impressed with the informative experience. The tour was in English and the expert guide shared the history of the brand and the family that started it. She explained in meticulous detail the arduous, many-step processes of making cognac, which starts with a particular type of designated white grape that is made into eau-de-vie, the main ingredient of cognac, which is distilled twice. Scores of stacked barrels store the cognac and are made with a special type of wood that’s carved in a specific way to ensure the barrels don’t leak.
An interesting surprise is that 99 percent of their cognac is exported, with the U.S. and Asia accounting for their biggest markets. In France, cognac is usually offered as an after-dinner drink, which nowadays most French people don’t serve. A special spicier blend is manufactured and sold exclusively to the Asian market, where people prefer to drink it with their meals. In recent years, cognac has been marketed as a cocktail mixer.
At the end of the tour, the guide taught us how to taste and savor cognac by slowly sipping it and holding it for a few seconds before swallowing, to fully take in and appreciate the fragrance and taste. On the next try, we were given a bite-size chocolate cake and instructed us to take a sip of the cognac, then a morsel of the cake, and then another sip of the cognac for a different taste sensation.
The Hennessy cognac house sits on the Charente River with its red flag proudly flying outside. Hennessy was actually launched by an Irish military officer, Richard Hennessy, in 1765, and it remained in the family until 1971. Today, Hennessy is part of the Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton group and the largest producer of cognac, turning out over 50 million bottles a year, 40 percent of the worldwide output of cognac.
Tours include the 90-minute Signature tour during which you’ll learn about the history, crafting, and a few secrets of the brand; the two-hour Exception tour during which you’ll discover the storage cellars and do a tasting in a private lounge; the half-day From Grape to Glass tour during which you are privy to the secret enclaves of the vineyard and distillery; and the Paradis Imperial, a private visit during which you can experience the rarest cognacs with the Master Blender and a visit to the Founders Cellar, where the most precious vintages are stored.
The one-of-a-kind, 3,000-square-foot boutique at Hennessy sells the complete Hennessy Collection along with limited editions and specialized packages.
Founded in 1905 by the Norwegian Thomas Bache-Gabrielsen, Cognac Bache-Gabrielsen is still a family-owned business run by the fourth-generation Herve Bache-Gabrielsen. Visits are available Monday to Friday by appointment. Bache-Gabrielsen has a unique program, where you can create your own cognac and experience the maturation along the way. The cellar master will work closely to match the right blend for you in your own barrel. Your barrel holds 30 liters and you are invited annually to taste your cognac as it ages. Finally, when the cognac is at its peak aging, you are invited to help bottle it. The barrel usually produces 50 to 60 bottles, and you can order a customized label.
Best Restaurants In Cognac
For a compact city, Cognac has an excellent selection of restaurants and cafes.
Le Chai is a well-established, family-run bistro that offers fresh, regional food and an excellent seafood selection. They offer the daily two-course menu for just over 20 euros during lunch and dinner. Specialties include jumbo shrimp with mango, steak tartare, house-made smoked salmon, and, for dessert, pears poached in red wine and lemon cream with a ginger lemon sorbet.
L’Arty Show is an organic restaurant with a creative menu featuring Moroccan tagine, soup, quiches, salads, couscous, and, for dessert, a cognac chocolate mousse. The restaurant is open Monday to Friday for lunch only.
Brulerie Marignan is a coffee roasting shop with a cafe that also serves a full range of herbal teas. Try their refreshing ice coffee, a rarity in France.
Best Places To Stay In Cognac
Chais Monnet is a recently opened five-star luxury hotel and spa, conveniently located walking distance to many of the cognac houses. It was formerly a family-owned cognac manufacturing plant that was built in the 19th century and sold to the city in 2018. Architect Didier Poignant, who has designed a number of luxury hotels in Paris, was put in charge of refitting the industrial buildings into a hotel, which was a first in France. The result is a smart and sophisticated hotel with a three-story, glass-and-steel outfitted lobby area with sleek, winding staircases and a striking new building of black glass with rusted metal beams wrapped around it, which houses rooms and suites, the spa and swimming pool, and restaurants.
Surrounded by vintage cognac barrels, Les Foudres gastronomic restaurant specializes in dishes prepared with local ingredients from the Charente region, which is known for its butter and superior dairy products.
Part of the spectacular indoor pool extends outside, and there are chaise lounges inside and out. An extended list of massages, facials, and other wellness treatments is available at the Codage Spa.
On the rooftop of the black glass building is an open-air bar and lounge, Guinguet. Here, you can enjoy panoramic views of the city, a drink menu with cognac cocktails, and a light food menu.
Chateau Pellisson is a former castle that’s been converted to an upscale bed and breakfast. They have five suites with full bathrooms and an outdoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi, and sauna.
When you do cognac tastings, remember that cognac has an alcohol content of 40 percent.
If traveling to Cognac from Paris, the fastest way is by train from the Montparnasse station, which takes approximately 3.5 hours and involves a switch at the Angouleme station, where you’ll catch the local train to Cognac.
You can reserve your cognac visits online through the various cognac houses’ websites. Make sure you check the schedules as they change seasonally.