Seeing as we were driving from the Loire Valley to Bordeaux we thought this was a great (and rare) chance to do some tastings in Cognac. Yes, Cognac is a place; like many French products which are named after the place they are made. We had two fabulous, but different, experiences at Rémy Martin and Hennessy.
I am fascinated by the polar worlds that spirits like Cognac straddle. I think it’s the marketer in me coming through. We’ve all seen Cognac advertising and general consumption involving rappers like P. Diddy and Jay Z. Clearly these Cognac houses know their audience. Cognac sales are heavily skewed to the US and China, with only 3% being consumed in France. In the US, brands have embraced the hip-hop community and found ways to connect the grape-based spirit with popular culture. As we were passing long stretches of vineyards driving into Cognac I couldn’t help be reminded what the other world for Cognac involves: historic, simple farming communities made up of small family growers that have sold their grapes (actually made into a spirit) to the large Cognac houses for generations.
All of the big Cognac houses offer tours. At Rémy Martin we booked their Classic Tour. Our guide spent two hours in this private tour covering the production, history, showing off the grounds including the historic tank room designed by Gustav Eiffel, and the centuries-old aging cellar. We were ushered into a small salon and had a hold of their pièce de résistance, Louis XIII. A magnum of their most expensive bottle goes for 6,200 Euro and is considered a status symbol in China. The crystal bottle itself is handmade by Baccarat. Talk about high class packaging! After photo ops with Louis we were treated to a tasting of three Cognacs with “gourmet accompaniments”. Paired with VSOP and XO Cognacs, the gourmet pairings included smoked salmon and creamy cheese, foie gras, blueberry macarons and a petit chocolate muffin with orange candied fruit. I didn’t know that much about Cognac, certainly how to pair it before we started but all of this was definitely a great education!
Onto Hennessy where we experienced a more commercial mainstream tour. Hennessy has created a modern, high tech experience geared to a large volume of visitors. We were running terribly late, and I’m thankful that the hospitality team was so accommodating for their last tour on a Friday and took us over to where the tour was happening by boat. The presentation of the distilling process, barrel making is all very high tech. It is enough to keep those with short attention spans entertained. The tour goes on to show a slick club-like marketing video, followed by a visit to one of their 65 (!!) huge aging cellars. Then it was back by boat to do a tasting. The tour itself seemed less natural and a lot more scripted than the Remy one. But I get it, they have a lot of people visiting and need to keep it consistent and still a high quality experience. No pairings with this one. We tasted the entry level VS Cognac and the VSOP. The gift shop has many bottles where you can see the slick marketing and packaging at work with silver and colored bottles. Both of these tours gave us a good understanding of this unique and interesting industry. I did enjoy the Remy tour the most with the pairings and personalized approach. Of course, I like expensive bottles so hanging out with Louis XIII was a treat!
Make sure you pre-book your visits:
Maison Rémy Martin
Classic Visit: 30 Euro
20 rue de la Société Vinicole, Cognac
Rue de la Richonne, Cognac