A tour of Cognac: ‘There wasn’t an electronic gimmick in sight – the product is still made by hand and tongue, same as it ever was’

John Lewis-Stempel visits the village of Cognac to learn how the eponymous digestif and the local wine, pineau, is made.

We drove down to Cognac yesterday. Road signs on the 25-mile journey to the capital of brandy manufacture were hardly required. We just followed the sun and the increasing congregation of vineyards. On the D731, outside Cognac, the vineyards reach the horizon.

In winter, Cognac’s viticultural flatland is a sort of hell – endless, pierced with stakes, tied with lines of wire. In winter, the regimentation of the yards brings always to mind war cemeteries. Yesterday, the vineyards were draped along in summer’s green leaves and young growing grapes, which softened the scene – somewhat.

The production of wine, regular or distilled into brandy, is not always a pretty process. Before I moved to France, I fondly imagined the château on the bottle label was exactly that, a dreamy confection of a French country house, the refinement of which was only outdone by that of the baron-owner, as he walked his vineyard in September’s dewy dawn, cashmere cardigan loosely wrapped over his shoulders. Actually, château in vinification is but a prefix attachable to any old vineyard, the building on which can be a breeze-block shed and often is.

The day out in Cognac was a bit of a busman’s day trip; my wife and I intend to produce pineau, a local fortified wine made from fermented grape must and cognac. In the cave of our Charentais house, all the kit of pineau-manufacture lies about – stone vats, a giant screw-press, bottles, a barrel ramp – although unused for five or more cobwebby decades.

To re-start pineau production in the cellar would be pleasingly authentic, perhaps profitable. At the very least, we’d have a drink of guaranteed provenance and ungainsayable purity; as our neighbour Georgette Roban says: ‘You know what’s in it if you make it yourself.’ The Robans have a two-acre vineyard solely for DIY wine for the family.

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Barrel cellar house Baron Otard, Chateau Francois 1st, Cognac Charente France

Anyway, we thought a tour of the Hennessy plant in Cognac would be worthwhile. Catching sight of the grey, blocky factory, topped by a giant red Hennessy flag, on the quayside of the Charente, my daughter said: ‘Looks like something from Stalin’s Russia.’ As I say, not always a pretty process, wine-making.

The juxtaposition of the Charente was cruel to Hennessy – the Charente, chartreuse and elegant, is France’s most beautiful river.

The first stop on the Hennessy tour was a former ‘cellar’, which, contrary to definition, was an above-ground pebble-dashed warehouse. Inside was a slick light show (‘digital immersion’) demonstrating Hennessy’s history since its foundation by Irish strong-arm mercenary Richard Hennessy in 1765. A rap star would have loved it. Indeed, the American rap scene seems a target market for the brand.

When I was a child, cognac was an after-dinner drink, taken with a Romeo y Julieta cigar, by gentlemen of a certain girth and age. Today, apparently, it’s quaffed by Drake and other rappers with attitude.

Next, we followed Gwen, our impeccably gamine guide, to a working ‘cellar’ and into a state of beatitude. The cellar was long and wide and high with rows of oaken barrels, each filled with eau-de-vie, the distilled grape juice that’s the basis of brandy. The barrels are permeable: they let air in, the vapour of eau-de-vie out. Oh, the smell of it! Fruity. Intoxicating. Heavenly. About 3% of each barrel evaporates: ‘the angels’ share’.

In that immense, shadowy cellar, we witnessed and we nosed the beauty in brandy-making: the craft of the cooper, the know-how of the cellerman, the exquisite palette of the taster. All of them human things. Savoire-faire, you might say.

There wasn’t a single electronic gimmick or gauge in sight. At Hennessy, the product is still made by hand and by tongue, same as it ever was. We came away enthused.

France, Charente, Cognac, Cognac vineyard

As a result, this bright summer’s morning, I’ve stepped out into our vines, as keen as the razor edge on my pruning knife. This year, our most productive vines will be the mature folle blanche we inherited, which grow, their trunks as thick and gnarled as old dockers’ wrists, along the stone wall of the garden.

Another of my misconceptions before sojourning in La Belle France, was that vines were low-maintenance fruit; in the growing season, they’re as needy as children, constantly requiring tying up to the trellis, trimming and, like today, thinning the leaves and shoots so the grapes get adequate sunlight and ventilation to preserve their health.

Vines are delicate wards. Ours have survived the Great Cold of May, when the thermometer plummeted to break regional records 50 years old, but who knows what weather awaits next week, next month?

Last year, the Charente department endured a May gale that left the vineyards, in the words of local paper Sud Ouest, ‘un triste spectacle’. After the storm, drought. Growing grapes is a game for optimists, for dreamers.

In the spirit of hope, I carry on working the healing knife deep among the folle blanche foliage, rampant and wild. A steady pile of vine leaves accumulates beside me. At lunchtime, wholly in touch with my inner transnational peasant (‘waste not, want not’), I will use these to wrap and bake feta cheese.

There was a shower in the night and the nubile clusters of hanging miniature grapes, wet and green, are luscious in the rising heat. The naked earth around the base of the vines has the sweet warmth of baby’s skin.

A red admiral butterfly fixes to the wall to dry its wings. A skylark rings silver notes above me. A 22-spotted ladybird walks over my hand. If Dionysus himself were to emerge from the vines, it would be Arcady.

Twice crowned victor of the Wainwright Prize for nature writing, for ‘Where Poppies Blow’ (2017) and ‘Meadowland’ (2015), the author was the 2016 British Society of Magazine Editors Columnist of the Year