Sand, sun, shellfish and…Cognac? It may seem like an unlikely mix, but the westernmost portion of France’s famed Cognac region juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and creates a scenic “Cognac coast.”
Historically, easy access to the Atlantic attracted France’s brandy makers. That’s even though the region’s sandy soils were considered less hospitable to grapes than the chalk-rich soils of Cognac’s central crus, or top vineyard growing areas.
These sandy conditions proved beneficial when phylloxera swept through Europe. The pest couldn’t burrow to the vine roots through the unstable soil, as their tunnels would collapse, which kept the area unaffected largely from the epidemic.
Harbor towns built around coastal ports thrived as merchants sailed Cognac and other goods away to thirsty buyers in England, America and beyond. Lighthouses and boats still line these waterfronts.
The sea air also yielded interesting options to mature Cognac, which led wily producers to build caves within earshot of the surf. Some of the resulting brandies almost read like a cross with Islay Scotch, another spirit with maritime influence, or otherwise show nuanced hints of salted caramel.
Today, visitors can head to islands like Île de Ré and Île d’Oléron, as well as the port city of La Rochelle, for a taste of coastal life and the unique Cognacs made there.
Île de Ré
Think of Île de Ré as the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard of France. It’s a nautical-chic spot with miles of white-sand beaches to which the well-heeled flock. Many Parisians have second homes here, and, for celebrities, it’s a low-key alternative to glitzy Riviera resorts.
Many residents use bicycles to get around, filling baskets with produce from local markets. They navigate cobblestone streets into town and pass picturesque houses with terracotta roofs and shutters painted green or blue. Small restaurants line the harbor, where visitors sip wine and watch the boats as they glide along the water.
Closer to the beach, small oyster cabanes—cabins or shacks—serve fresh bivalves. In the spring comes the harvest of tiny Île de Ré potatoes, the only variety granted Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status. They’re known for their mild maritime flavor, thanks in part to the seaweed used to fertilize them.
In the late 1990s, Camus Cognac began working with local grape growers here. Although the Cognac house has been around since 1863, working with grapes in a variety of traditional Cognac crus, the endeavor was a daring move.
“When there is a storm, the sea is going under the vineyard,” says Jean-Dominique Andreu, chief marketing officer of Camus. “The earth is quite different, and of course, the wine [that becomes Cognac] doesn’t taste the same.”
Launched in 2005, Camus’s Île de Ré Fine Island bottling is made from grapes that are grown, harvested, distilled and aged on the island. The same is true for the Île de Ré Double Matured bottling, although it’s also aged at another facility elsewhere.
“It’s a very pristine profile,” says Andreu of the Île de Ré Fine Island Cognac. “You definitely have the influence from the sea,” which he claims lends an intense iodine note, particularly in the aroma.
Bottle to Try
Camus Ile de Ré Fine Island Cognac; $52, 91 points. This “fine island Cognac” is reminiscent of creamy salted caramels. It has lots of rich caramel on the nose and palate, plus a light, mouthwatering saline note. It’s soft and easy drinking, though it finishes quite spicy.
A short drive east from Île de Ré is the coastal city of La Rochelle. The destination’s main feature is the Vieux Port, or old port, which is the local gateway to the Atlantic Ocean.
Not known as a beach destination compared to the surrounding islands, La Rochelle has a bit more of a city vibe, ideal for tourists who seek historic and cultural attractions. Medieval fortresses, constructed during a 17th-century siege in the struggle between the Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots), surround the city.
By 1890, the area was better known as a merchant hub with a commercial port accessible to larger vessels. The entrance to the old port is flanked by two imposing towers: Saint-Nicolas Tower and the Tower de la Chaîne, the latter named because a chain would be strung between the two structures at night to close the port. Today, tourists and merchants are more likely to arrive via the La Rochelle–Île de Ré Airport.
For almost 150 years, Normandin-Mercier has brought its Cognac, made with grapes harvested and distilled in the Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne Crus, to La Rochelle to age. In 1872, founder Jules Normandin and his wife, Justine Mercier, built caves near here to take advantage of the cool, temperate climate and humidity provided by the nearby ocean.
While it doesn’t taste explicitly of the sea, “humid caves give you mellow spirits,” says Edouard Normandin. He, along with his sister, Audrey, represents the family’s fifth generation to mature and finish the house’s Cognacs in the La Rochelle region.
Bottle to Try
Normandin-Mercier Fine Champagne Prestige Cognac; $98, 96 points. Nuanced and complex, this shows a floral lilt up front, segueing into more substantial vanilla and honey aromas. The palate is relatively dry, with cocoa and leather lightening to ginger spice and hints of tropical fruit. Fine Champagne region.
A bridge that’s less than two miles long connects La Rochelle to Île d’Oléron, France’s second-largest island after Corsica and the southernmost island along the French Atlantic coast. It’s also the wildest, mixing rugged beach, chalk cliffs, dunes and marshland that are prized by bird-watchers.
Visitors can view and climb the iconic black-and-white-striped lighthouse at Chassiron or stroll among the brightly colored oyster-farming huts along the port in Fort Royer, some of which have been transformed into art studios.
Many of the beaches are bordered by pine trees. About one-third of the island is wooded, perhaps a glimpse into how the greater Cognac region might have looked before the forests were cleared in the 1800s.
It’s not a coincidence that half of the Cognac crus are named for the perceived quality of the local wood: Fins Bois (fine woods) and Bons Bois (good woods). The island regions are part of the Bois Ordinaires (ordinary woods) designation, but the Cognac produced here is far from ordinary.
In particular, Augier, which specializes in single-variety and single-region Cognacs, harvests Ugni Blanc grapes grown on Oléron for its appropriately named L’Oceanique bottling. The producer claims it prizes the location for the mineral notes and ocean influence it provides, and this bottling has a distinctive salted butter note and racy astringency not often seen in brandy.
Bottle to Try
Augier L’Oceanique Cognac; $62, 94 points. This straw-hued Cognac has a distinct buttered-popcorn scent. On the palate, that morphs into a salted butter note, with a saline influence reminiscent of some Scotches, coupled with vanilla, a juicy hint of pear, white flowers and a hint of lemongrass on the finish. The mouth waters with a racy astringency not often seen in brandy. Bois Ordinaire region. Made from 100% Ugni Blanc.