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Cognac is a famous drink, but it is also an intoxicating and charming medieval French city

A few years ago, a friend suggested we watch England play an important football match in Portugal. After a catastrophic defense from a schoolboy, England lost the game and Nigel said, “I think we need a cognac.”

So we found a hip bar, ordered some and then Nigel started waving the amber spirit around his glass like he was a true connoisseur. He turned out to know little more than I did about this famous ghost. Therefore, we find ourselves in Cognac, where we are joined by Johnny, a mutual friend, who also does not know his VSOPs from his XOs.

‘Lads on tour’ has never been my thing, but this is a completely different experience.

Mature taste: Mark Palmer visits the French town of Cognac (pictured) to learn about the “history, tradition and craftsmanship” of cognac through tastings and tours

“The place to stay is Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa,” Mark says of the city.  Above you can see guests tasting cognac at the hotel

“The place to stay is Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa,” Mark says of the city.  Above you can see guests tasting cognac at the hotel

“The place to stay is Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa,” Mark says of the city. Above you can see guests tasting cognac at the hotel

We sip rather than gulp, with history, tradition and craftsmanship in the intoxicating mix. And within 24 hours we are fully registered as a member of the cognac fan club.

The city is a cocktail of 16th and 17th century palaces; half-timbered houses from a century or two earlier; a castle where King Francois I was born in 1494 (and still a local hero); the 12th-century Church of Saint Leger (a former Benedictine priory) and an iron-roofed food market.

Cognac (20,000 inhabitants) is located about 90 minutes from Bordeaux in southwestern France. It rose to prominence thanks to the salt trade, but by the mid-18th century Cognac’s main industry was, well, cognac.

Today there are over 280 cognac houses, some huge like Remy Martin and Hennessy, others producing just a few hundred bottles a year. But all made from the ‘ugni blanc’ grape, which provides the perfect ‘eau de vie’ (water of life) due to its high acidity and low sugar content.

Many of the houses offer tours for around £15 – and if you go on one of these I promise you’ll never look at a bottle of cognac the same way again.

The attention to detail, ceremony and reverence for the product is sobering.

The place to stay is Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa, a former distillery founded in 1838.

While the original distillery buildings have been preserved, there are all sorts of modern embellishments, particularly at the back of the property, where a black glass structure rises into the sky, with rusted metal piping on the sides.

The spa and indoor/outdoor pool are located in the basement of this new building, while the basements have been converted into restaurants, one of which, Les Foudres, already has a Michelin star. But perhaps the most striking feature of the hotel is the rooftop bar, which offers great views of the city.

Bedrooms have a calm, Scandinavian feel and the staff is buzzing with enthusiasm. One of them, Jean, offers to take us to the countryside to visit a small balsamic vinegar producer – and does so in a lime green 1978 Citreon 2CV convertible.

Johnny and I sit in the back with Nigel acting as co-pilot, regaling us with stories about his exchange of French at school 50 years ago.

Occasionally he acknowledges admiring glances from other motorists with a royal wave. ‘Une belle voiture’, a pedestrian shouts. And it’s tres belle, but perhaps not quite as pretty as the rows of immaculately tended vines, interrupted occasionally by fields of corn and sunflowers.

Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa is a former distillery that was founded in 1838. While the original distillery buildings have been preserved, there are all kinds of modern decorations, Mark reveals

Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa is a former distillery that was founded in 1838. While the original distillery buildings have been preserved, there are all kinds of modern decorations, Mark reveals

Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa is a former distillery that was founded in 1838. While the original distillery buildings have been preserved, there are all kinds of modern decorations, Mark reveals

At the back of Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa, a black glass structure rises into the sky, with rusted metal pipes on the sides

At the back of Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa, a black glass structure rises into the sky, with rusted metal pipes on the sides

At the back of Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa, a black glass structure rises into the sky, with rusted metal pipes on the sides

The spa and indoor/outdoor pool of the 19th century hotel are located in the basement of a modern new building

The spa and indoor/outdoor pool of the 19th century hotel are located in the basement of a modern new building

The spa and indoor/outdoor pool of the 19th century hotel are located in the basement of a modern new building

Le Baume de Bouteville vinegar distillery comes as a revelation to all three of us, especially when we are invited to add a few drops of ten-year-old balsamic vinegar to freshly harvested oysters, accompanied by a wonderfully light chardonnay – all at 11am.

The vinegar, like the brandy, is made from ugni blanc grapes and aged in oak barrels, but unlike the brandy, it is heated to a temperature that prevents it from becoming alcoholic.

We express concern about this year’s harvest due to the extremely dry weather, but a member of the team assures us that the vines have roots that go 15 meters deep. “Nature gives us what we want,” she says.

Later we eat spectacularly well at Bistro de Claude in the old town, before wondering over to Hennessy’s HQ, where we join a group tour – and end up being enchanted.

The bedrooms at Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa have a calm, Scandinavian atmosphere, Mark reveals

The bedrooms at Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa have a calm, Scandinavian atmosphere, Mark reveals

The bedrooms at Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa have a calm, Scandinavian atmosphere, Mark reveals

Pictured is Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa's Jazz Bar 1838. The hotel offers double rooms from €260, room only

Pictured is Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa's Jazz Bar 1838. The hotel offers double rooms from €260, room only

Pictured is Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa’s Jazz Bar 1838. The hotel offers double rooms from €260, room only

'Cognac has cleansed our souls in a special way', says Mark about his visit to the city

'Cognac has cleansed our souls in a special way', says Mark about his visit to the city

‘Cognac has cleansed our souls in a special way’, says Mark about his visit to the city

TRAVEL FACTS

Hotel Chais Monnet & Spa offers double rooms from €260,- accommodation only. Flights from London to Bordeaux or La Rochelle start at £35 return (ryanair.com). For more information, visit chaismonnethotel.com/en/.

We learn that the barrels are made from French oak that must be at least 80 years old and that no glue or nails get into the construction; the double distillation process of each harvest – which takes place in September and October – must be completed by March 31 the following year under strict appellation rules, and we’ve been told that the black coating in the cellars and on the sides of buildings in the city is not dirt but mold caused by evaporation from the vessels.

We also visit Martell, the oldest brandy house in the world (founded in 1715), which was purchased by Seagram in 1988. We are led through a maze of vaulted tunnels until we meet two ‘master tasters’, who lead us to a dark cellar. .

Slowly, a series of lights come on to reveal a super modern structure with a raised podium in the center with a long white table. We are asked to take a seat in front of a series of small glasses filled with different types of cognac.

The senior master taster calls for silence and asks that we prepare our senses for what is to come. We observe the thinness of the glasses; we admire the rich color; we smell the aromas and finally we taste.

“We must respect the soil, the vines and the experience of past tasters. They’re all part of the mixing process,” he says.

I look at Nigel and Johnny – and have rarely seen such concentration on their faces. It may be fleeting, but in an extraordinary way, Cognac has cleansed our souls.

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