There’s more to Cognac than cognac

AN OVER-SIZED model of a wine bottle greets visitors in the arrivals hall of Bordeaux airport but, less than 100km to the north, the timeworn town of Cognac is more understated about its own unique contribution to grape culture.

Besides, Cognac has other attractions: a discerning five-star hotel; gastronomic excellence; artisanal produce; and a beguiling domestic architecture essential to the mise-en-scène of French provincial life.

A glass of cognac at Cognac

The town’s renowned buildings are the cognac houses first built near the river Charente (Hennessey, Martel and Otard) and, later, those on the outskirts of town (Camus and Rémy Martin).

The visual charm in strolling around Cognac – semaphoring  non-metropolitan France in all its fading glory — lies elsewhere:  shuttered windows and walls with sedately crumbling plaster; small shops; neo-classical grand houses built in dressed stone; tatterdemalion  townhouses from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Chais Monnet’s glitzy aspect

An inconspicuous archway on a street by the river leads to the town’s modern masterpiece, Hôtel Chais Monnet & Spa, a luxury establishment that respects the past while looking with a flourish to the future. Its bar, all exposed beams and some 200 cognacs on display, was once a cooperage but the glass lift and spiral staircase in the hotel lobby bespeak stylish modernity.

So too do the details: Pierre Frey carpets and fabrics; lighting from the Netherlands (Eichholtz); coats racks from Le Laitonnerie. Throw in a Michelin-star restaurant, bicycles for guests, spa, sauna, pool – and the good life beckons.

Chais Monet’s glitzy lobby area

 Cognac’s covered market has a neat bar in one corner, shucking French and Irish oysters and serving them with a handcrafted balsamic vinegar produced in the nearby village of Bouteville, using the same grape variety, Ugni Blanc, that makes the town’s famous drink.

Picnic lunch in Cognac’s countryside

The grape, in more ways than one, becomes Cognac.

by Sean Sheehan

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