Just as Champagne only comes from France’s Champagne region, Cognac only comes from Cognac, a region that produces some of the world’s best brandy. The Cognac region is divided into 6 sub-regions (Cru) which outline where the grapes must come from to be classified as “cognac”. These regions are the Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires, listed from best to worse.
The Grand Champagne region is home to over 100 distilleries, while the medieval town of Cognac itself is home to big brands such as Hennessy, Remy Martin, Camus etc.
What classifies a brandy as “cognac” is not only the region that it’s grown in but also the grapes used for the distillation, a process that lasts about 5 months beginning in November. The Ugni blanc grape must make up at least 90% of the wine whereas the other 10% can come from another list of grapes including Semillon, Montils and Jurancon Blanc.
The area surrounding Cognac (Grande Champagne region) has many picturesque vineyards and medieval towns, making it ideal leisurely tours down the Charente River in a traditional gabare (flat-bottomed oak boat). It’s also a great area for cycling; numerous operators offer rental bikes, and some companies deliver them to your accommodation. While there is no established bike route, you can easily hit a number of distilleries in the area on two wheels, all along the shady trails of the scenic Charente River.
You can cycle a circular route (about 40km) starting from the town of Cognac, following the Charente River eastward towards Jarnac where you will find two distilleries located along the river.
Thomas Hine & Co offers free tours and tastings (open weekdays, reservation recommended), while the bigger Courvoisier offers a number of different tours from May to September.
As you head south from Jarnac past countless vineyards, you’ll pass the family-run Michel Forgezron vineyard and distillery (free entry) on the way to Segonzac, a town with numerous restaurants and accommodation where you can spend the night.
In this heart of the Grand Champagne region is the family-run J.Painturaud vineyard & distillery, which has been operational for just under 100 years. J.Painturaud offers a free tour of the distillation process and vineyard (Mon – Sat, reservation needed). From here, a 13km (45mins) bike ride north will bring you back to the town of Cognac.
Cognac is accessible from Paris by car (5 hours), or via the TVG (high speed train) from Paris Montparnasse station to Angouleme, from where you take a local train to Cognac.