After spending one long weekend in Cognac, it surprises me that it has slipped under my radar for so long. However, after years of lockdown, when so many of us are looking closer to home for a getaway, our European neighbours could really be the first port of call. True, staycations and UK hidden gems can be just the remedy – but, sometimes, a slight shift in temperament (et la gastronomie) is what’s needed.
Cognac is neither extravagant or showy, but quietly proud. And regardless of whether you class yourself a Cognac drinker (I didn’t think I was, but then Cognac proved me wrong), the story and history of the Charente region, with Cognac at the heart, is one to inspire and delight.
Some history: During the early part of the 19th Century, Cognac counted few buildings and warehouses, but there was a growing pressure to keep up with the increasing demand for its stocks of ‘eau de vie.’ This incredible new growth in the market was then eradicated by the phylloxera crisis from around 1875, which wiped out much of the crop across the region. Throughout this challenging period, it was through innovation, cooperation and collaboration – all of which thriving today – that the Cognac and Cognac-related industries could survive as they did.
Now, world-famous brands such as Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Camus and Martell fly their flags in the town, but it is also worth exploring the much smaller, family run houses, including the wonderful Raison Personelle, run by husband-and-wife team Sabine and Bertrand de Witasse. After moving from Paris in the 1990s, they created their Cognac from scratch, combining modern charm with age-old methods. With just two copper stills, one wood-fired, their production is a true labour of love, such that they only release one cask at a time – an output of fewer than 500 bottles a year.
And it isn’t just Cognac that is made in the region – products such as the Baume de Bouteville stand out as markers of this very special, uniquely collaborative ecosystem. Since the nineteenth century, the Bouteville has been produced exceptional condiments, aged in old cognac barrels, and their frankly delicious balsamic vinegar is made from mature grapes in order to achieve its authentic flavour.
So, where better to stay to explore all this than the Hôtel Chais Monnet & Spa? Created at the site of Maison Monnet, a huge industrial production complex with buildings existing from 1838, the hotel has – with the help of architect Didier Poignant – brought back to life a magnificent site of cultural significance, transforming it into a haven of peace and elegance.
One of its most stunning architectural wonders is also now the place to find a restaurant of Michelin-starred acclaim. ‘Restaurant les Foudres’ is located in the former ageing cellars of the Monnet cooperage, listed as part of France’s industrial heritage, and the restaurant pays homage to its industrial past and former function. Enter the restaurant through the impressive “Chai Cathédrale” (Cathedral wine cellar), almost 9 metres high, and dine amongst the ancient Cognac barrels in the building’s historic ‘chais’ (cognac cellars) for a 7-course tasting menu extraordinaire. New Head Chef Paolo Boscaro, previously at the two-star Anne-Sophie Pic at the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, combines sensitivity with technicality in all his work, paying respect to the produce to reveal its textures, fragrances, flavours and colours in dishes both exquisite and exciting. After dinner, within the old vault of Maison Monnet, jazz bar ‘The 1838’ offers an extensive range of some 220 Cognacs, from more than 40 producers.
Layered with the architecture, it is Javad Marandi, proprietor of Soho Farmhouse, who has transformed the site into a luxurious 5* hotel. Decorated with fine fabrics and natural materials, The Chais retain all the charms of a historic building alongside the rich cultural heritage and modern aesthetic. Each room, suite and apartment is a tranquil haven, and guests can also enjoy the gym, spa, hammam, indoor/outdoor pool and treatments. Special thought in every detail, the buffet breakfast includes both a Full English and make-your-own acai bowls – or why not have a luxury breakfast ‘treasure chest’ brought to your room? And if you would like to explore the vineyards en plein air, the hotel provides the XO Madame experience – including a Citroen 2CV drive through the region and a picnic, carefully put together by the hotel chefs.
Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa is Cognac’s only 5* hotel currently but having opened just 4 years ago it sets the bar high for any who dare to follow. A true renaissance masterpiece.
Nightly rates at Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa start from €260 per room, room only. Flights from London to Bordeaux or La Rochelle. For more information, please visit www.chaismonnethotel.com/en/