In the early 1980s when Herb and I lived in Chicago, we would often spend our Friday nights after work at the Acorn On Oak. The Acorn was a wonderful old place and a bit of a Chicago institution, known for its piano player and the best burgers in the city. We would always manage to stick around after dinner, enjoying the music and the cast of local regulars. I would order a glass of sherry, and Herb would have a cognac, Rémy Martin VSOP.
My memories of those days came bubbling up to the surface as I was planning our itinerary for our cruise from Lisbon to London on the Crystal Symphony. There it was, at the port of La Rochelle, France: An excursion to the town of Cognac, with a specially arranged tasting at Rémy Martin Cellar. I could almost hear the Acorn on Oak piano player as I signed up for tour. It didn’t matter that Herb hadn’t had a cognac in decades or that I had never even tried it! We just had to go.
It was raining hard when we arrived at the port of La Pallice near La Rochelle. The wind was picking up as well, having a great time turning my umbrella inside-out as we walked down the gangway. Most of the Rémy Martin tour would be inside, but the first leg of our excursion was to the town of Saintes, and it seemed doubtful to me that we would be able to do much sightseeing.
Saintes is about an hour southeast of La Rochelle and has a history that goes back to Roman times. We stopped at the Gallo-Roman Amphitheatre, which was constructed between 40 and 50 A.D., and the 19 A.D. Arc de Germanicus.
Our final stop in Saintes was the Abbaye aux Dames, an 11th century abbey that is used today as a music venue. We were not able to go inside.
I found Saintes to be one of those places that is worth stopping by if you’re in the area, but not a must-do destination. It’s always important to view places for what they are, for their history, without drawing comparisons to grander sights. Sometimes these off-the-beaten-path towns are a real surprise, becoming an unexpected favorite of the trip. But for me, not this time.
The rain was still refusing to clear as we made our way to Cognac. We drove through the old part of the city and stopped for lunch at Les Pigeons Blancs before our tour of Rémy Martin.
The Rémy Martin grounds are expansive, with low-rise stone buildings that have the feel of an old-world campus. It’s an understated sort of place that doesn’t seem to draw attention to itself. A simple sign that sits above a water lily-filled pond tells visitors where they are.
We were greeted by our guide, who told us we would be visiting several buildings but would not be allowed to take pictures until the tasting at the end of the tour. She led us outside to a Disneyland-like tram, which transported us to our first stop.
The tour was impeccably professional and filled with information about all things cognac. Our guide told us that Rémy Martin, which was founded in 1724, is one of the houses in France’s Cognac region that is still French-owned. She talked about eau de vie – the “water of life” – a clear, colorless fruit brandy that is produced by distilling wine and aging it in wood barrels. In order to be granted the name Cognac, it must be produced in a specific geographic region and adhere to strict regulations.
The most interesting thing to me was learning about the cellar master – there is only one – who is responsible for keeping the taste and smell of today’s cognac exactly the same as the original blend. This is especially critical with the Louis XIII, the house’s Grand Champagne Cognac that can take up to 100 years to perfect. It’s extremely pricy – about $2,800 – and is bottled in Baccarat crystal. We were taken to the Louis XIII cellar, where our guide spoke in a hushed, almost reverent tone as she described the years of work that go into producing the premium blend.
The Tasting Room
Our final stop was the tasting room, where we sampled VSOP and XO cognacs. We were served canapés of different flavors before each tasting, which our guide said can impact how we react to the cognac. She explained that although most people think of it as an after-dinner beverage, it can be served before a meal if paired with the right appetizer.
I was surprisingly intrigued with the taste of the cognac, but it was the smell that got to my senses, transporting me to another time and place as we sat at our shiny metal table in the orange-hued tasting room.
If this blog post were a movie, I would be ending with a fade-out to our twenty-something selves listening to the piano player at the Acorn On Oak. As the music would play, the camera would pan to a glass of Rémy Martin VSOP. Sadly, I don’t even have a photo of the old place. But that’s the great thing about memories. Everything is all there inside us, filed away and ready to be revisited. All it takes is a familiar thought, or sometimes, a smell from long ago.