Visiting the Chateau of Cognac and the Baron Otard cognac house.
The main entrance of Chateau de Cognac, which is right in the centre of the old town. This access is not at first imposing by French standards and the property is perhaps best viewed from Saint Jacques, across the river. From there the full extent of the long facade built by the Cognacais, who later became King Francois I, can be appreciated.The hour-long guided tour reinforces the belief that the chateau is well worthy of being so called!
Entering the chateau from the courtyard behind the main entrance. Like almost everywhere else in France, the buildings have a long, complicated and interesting history! Part of the original 12th century chateau still exists, built on the site of an earlier 10th century Benedictine abbey, and to this were added many later extensions and alterations! The "Black Prince" (Edward, Prince of Wales and the son of Edward III of England) lived here between 1366 and 1370. The years passed and for 200 years the buildings fell into disrepair. In this condition, they were seized by the state after the French Revolution and in 1796, Baron Jean-Baptiste Otard bought the estate by auction for 1620 livres (about the same amount of francs at that time). Otard was from a distinguished family, of Scottish and Norwegian descent, which had fled the Catholic power in England to settle in France. The Baron's business was in eau-de-vie, and the chateau's cellars with their 6 feet thick walls, and being sited right next to the river, provided the constant temperature and humidity he needed to mature his product.
The salamander, considered in legend to be both fire resistant and invincible, was chosen by King Francois I as his emblem. Carved examples such as this appear all over the chateau!
Amazing brick vaulted ceilings. It is known that Leonardo da Vinci himself was consulted on architectural layouts for alterations to the chateau during his career and the design of the ceiling ribs is a characteristic hallmark of his work. To the right hand side, a window bay, one of several in this salon, with a view on to the river, can be seen. Measuring only about 6 feet by 3 feet, and closed off with a metal grille, each bay was used as a cell to confine about 15 English prisoners. They had been captured by the French in America during the Seven Years' War (1756-63) and brought back to Europe. I'm afraid space doesn't allow a precis of the war, but it's easy to research if you want to know how all that came about!
Prisoners' graffiti carved into the stonework of the "cells". As these windows are about 30 feet above the outside ground level, jumping out of the window obviously wasn't an option!
A bas-relief carving (I think it's called) of the Battle of Marignan(o) which took place in Italy in 1515. The tour guide said it was the only battle ever won by Francois I and hence much celebrated!
The distillation equipment for producing eau-de-vie, to be turned into cognac later, by storage in oak barrels. Boiler on the left, heater in the middle and condenser on the right. This is a museum piece, but the principle still applies in modern production methods.
Our lovely guide explaining the procedure to us!
One of the cellars.
Alcoholic spiders! The guide told us that the spiders become addicted to the alcohol vapour in the air and they cannot survive if they go outside!
A cellar called "Paradise" reminded of our visit to the Tesseron cognac house earlier this year. The cognac doesn't improve in an oak barrel after 80 years or so (really!) and is therefore stored in glass demi-johns.
Storage barrels are painted white to reduce the amount of oxygen filtering through the oak and affecting the maturation of the eau-de-vie. The structure in front is what appears to be a set of scales.
A display to allow visitors to appreciate the different perfumes which they might encounter when smelling cognac scents. Floral, vanilla and coconut are self-explanatory but the last "rancio" is a word meaning, in general terms, musty, aged or mellow.
Our guide explaining the finer points of barrel making. Here the barrel is being heated and wetted to allow the staves to be bent and iron hoops applied to secure its lower end.
Wall art! Examples of advertising material produced by Otard over the preceding decades. Otard used to be sold in the muslim French colonies of North Africa as a "medicine," but when the content of the said medicine became known, the religious objections brought imports to a halt!
James Ottar/Otard de la Grange was the great grandfather of Jean-Baptiste, founder of the cognac house. James fought in battles for the "Sun King", King Louis XIV and in 1701 was awarded the title of Baron for his services. He is wearing the Cross of the Knight of Saint Louis on his tunic.
Examples of past Otard packaging
Wall painting of barges carrying cognac barrels between cellars, or to larger ships for export.
To end the tour - tasting a sip or two of VS and VSOP, the least matured, at 3 and 6 years respectively, and hence the cheapest! The best and oldest, matured 60 years, can run out at €3,000 a bottle or more! Otard isn't a very well known brand, but it has a very good reputation and the tour was better and more intimate than the biggest and best known cognac houses in town can offer.
Also see my daily diary HERE
and My Life Before Charente (updated 25 September 2016)