La Rochelle: A U-boat harbor, a drive to Cognac, saying Bonjour to Messrs Hennessy, Remy Martin, and Courvoisier
Today we took a private tour with Bacchus Wine and Cognac tours, arranged by one of the folks on our Cruise Critic Roll Call. There were six of us, and Jayne and her driver Graham picked us up at the port of La Rochelle at 9:00 am. It was overcast and bit chilly, but that changed quite a bit as we drove about ninety minutes inland to the small city of Cognac. Jayne and Graham are both British transplants to this part of France.
As we were leaving the port area, we noticed a massive concrete structure with large portals or pens. This was the huge German U-Boat shelter at La Rochelle and was used as the backdrop for scenes in the movies “Das Boot” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. La Rochelle was the last city in France to be liberated during WWII. We were fascinated by this bit of recent history.
On we continued, first through flat countryside with many borages (marshes) and stork nests and then into more rolling countryside littered with vineyards. We left the main highway and entered the small city of Cognac. We knew next to nothing about Cognac (the brandy) before this tour, but certainly know a lot more now!
Our first stop was the boutique for the Hennessy distiller. We had about fifteen minutes here, long enough to try a sample of the VS (very special) cognac and look at the types of cognac for sale. The main Hennessy distillery is located across the River Charente (located right across from the boutique). We learned a lot more about the various appellations of cognac at our second stop. We bought a small flask of Hennessy VSOP (very superior old pale) cognac before we left.
After departing the Hennessy boutique, Graham drove us a short distance to Remy Martin. We had a two-hour experience arranged here with a private tour guide. A young Russian couple joined us and we met our guide Oksana, who was absolutely incredible. We started in a museum area in the historic buildings, hearing about the history of the family and the distillery.
Ok, now a little bit about cognac: This AOC (controlled and licensed) brandy must be created from grapes coming from specific growing regions, known as the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne near Cognac. These are not champagne grapes, but the growing areas have a similar name because of the limestone consistency of the soil. The grapes used for cognac are primarily Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano in Italy), with a little Folle Blanc and Colombard tossed in. The wine from these grapes is an acidic, thin concoction that is virtually undrinkable but is known after distilling as “eau de vie”, or the water of life. Using copper distillers, the wine is double-distilled, then placed in new French oak barrels to begin the aging process. The oak tree farming, cooper work and barrel makings are a whole cottage industry on their own.
The master taster at the larger cognac distillers tries to create a consistent product, so mixes of eaux de vie are combined periodically in large “marriage” vats. The product must be aged in the oak barrels at least two years before it is sold.
The appellations that are created include VS (very special), aged a minimum of two years, although many houses go a minimum of four years. This version of cognac is best enjoyed in cocktails or with mixers. VSOP (very superior old pale) is the “teenager”, aged for a minimum of 4 years, but often longer. XO (extra old) is a more mature product, averaging upwards of twenty years. The product is progressively moved into older barrels and the evaporation from the process is cutely described as the “angel’s share”.
Of course, these distillers also create ridiculously expensive, majestically blended and longer aged versions that sell for the price of a decent cruise or a good used small car. At Remy Martin, the Louis XIII cognac uses 1200 different eaux de vie blends aged at the end of the long process in oak barrels that are about as old as the United States, then bottled in exquisite Baccarat crystal. This extravagance sets one back a minimum of €2,000 for a small bottle. We smelled this Louis XIII concoction in the barrel and it was extraordinary.
After our tour, we had a tasting of VS, VSOP and XO cognacs accompanied by little exquisite bites of food. Oksana taught us how to properly drink cognac, which is not a drink for people that gulp their alcohol. The best method is to put a small amount on the tongue, which prepares the palate for the complex flavored cognac without brutally burning the esophagus.
We bought a very small bottle of Remy Marin XO and then continued to a park in the town of Jarnac, near Cognac, to quickly taste Pineau, a sweet common wine blend from some of the local grapes. Our final visit was at Courvoisier, located right near the park, where we had another interesting tour that included a collection of Napoleon stuff (coat, hat, letters, etc.), a couple of movies (one with smell-o-vision!) and more tastings. We also bought a collection of small bottles of various Courvoisier cognacs. It was gorgeous outside, about 80 degrees and clear. Boy, we are blessed.
Of course everyone fell asleep on the way back to La Rochelle, except me, for some reason. I chuckled as I watched the group with heads lolling back or forward, snoozing and snoring during the 90-minute drive. We got back to the ship about 5:00 pm and all felt that we had a great day.
We ate at Red Ginger tonight, the Asian-inspired specialty restaurant. It was exquisite, as usual. I had the tempura calamari, duck and watermelon salad, and claypot chicken; Steve has the same salad and entree but snarfed down the caramelized shrimp. Tomorrow, we have a private tour for six of us to the Medoc region of Bordeaux, with our buddy Henri Challau and Bordeaux Wine Tours. More yummy alcohol offerings and someone else drives!