The chestnut trees were still resplendent in yellow leaf along the banks of a misty autumn river on its glide through woodlands, pasture, comfortable towns — and vineyards. This was the Charente. Eighty years ago, before the lorry became dominant, it would not have been so peaceful. In those days, barges laden with barrels of Cognac made their way along this river to the coast to be shipped all over the world.
Wine has been grown in Cognac for centuries and exported since the Middle Ages. But it was always inferior to the products of Bordeaux, to the south-west. Even so, its acidity and low alcohol content made it ideal for distillation once the Dutch discovered the technique. They called the result brandwejn: burnt wine, hence brandy. The vintners of Cognac, piqued that foreigners should be pocketing extra profits, invented double distillation, which defines the brandies of Cognac: their finesse, subtlety and strength.
That latter quality was crucial in important markets. Strong waters have always had an appeal in the frozen North, where an implacable climate is reinforced by religious extremism. Mere wine, created from the sunshine of gentler regions, neither thaws the chilled body nor placates the austere soul. Among the craggy hills of Scotland and Scandinavia, drink is associated with guilt. In the Highlands of Scotland, there is often a generational succession. Alcoholics are replaced by teetotallers and vice versa.
Moderation rarely intervenes and drinking is often denounced from Scottish pulpits. I often wonder how those clergymen explain the Miracle at Cana. Then again, the Scots have usually been more at ease with the Old Testament than with the New. Puritanical Protestantism, surely the least attractive religion west of al-Qa’eda, would have us believe — to paraphrase Gibbon — that man is an abject criminal: God, a bloodstained tyrant.
In Scandinavia, Puritanism is re-inforced by punitive taxation and a regulatory regime that stops short only of prohibition. Neither has succeeded in crushing the human spirit, or its taste for spirits. The Norwegians are the highest per capita consumers of Cognac in the world, the Finns are not far behind, and the Swedes shift a fair few bottles. The Norwegians are not just passive consumers. The Anglo-Irish links with great Cognac houses are well-known: Hennessy, Hine, Martell. There are also two Cognac dynasties with Norwegian roots.
In 1899, a Norseman arrived in the region. Unlike his forebears a millennium earlier, Sverre Braastad’s intentions were peaceful. He mastered the Cognac trade, married his boss’s daughter and expanded the business. To Tiffon, the existing brand, he added Braastad, which helped boost sales in Scandinavia. The links with Norway extend to the royal family. In ten years or so, on their 21st birthdays, young Princess Ingrid Alexandra and her brother Prince Sverre Magnus will each receive a barrel of fine Braastad laid down in honour of their birth.
Sverre Braastad thrived and prospered. He died two months short of his 100th birthday, having fathered eight children, four of them still with us. The others lived into their nineties. Cognac has preservative powers. In 1946, the paterfamilias bought a fitting residence, the Château de Triac, which embodies both the region’s prosperity and its troubled history. There was a château here by the 11th century. That was destroyed by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, and its successor perished during the Wars of Religion. Two round towers survive from the days when such a house was also a fortress.
Its architecture a blend of neo-class-icism and the grands boulevards, the present château dates from 1880. It is surrounded by vineyards, mostly planted with Ugni Blanc. The wine made from it — for distilling, not drinking — tastes like flat cider. But Ugni is 95 per cent of the vinous basis of all Cognacs. It is a very different liquid once transformed into brandy.
Although the Braastad and Tiffon Cognacs have won many awards, they are little known in the UK. With the help of Messrs Berry Bros, that may be about to change. There is one special-occasion bottle which will delight any brandy lover, the Château de Triac, Reserve de la Famille, which is a blend of Cognacs all at least 50 years old. At first taste, it seems to contradict Dr Johnson’s dictum that brandy is for heroes, for it is smooth, gentle and complex, with an immensely long and insinuating finish. For heroes, read connoisseurs; however splendid the dinner, this is a superb wine well worthy to round off the feast in a flourish.
The Braastads’ distillery is in Jarnac, the second-largest town of Cognac. Washed by the Charente, it exudes prosperity and stabiilty. Tocqueville said that no one who had not been a French aristocrat before 1789 could fully understand la douceur de vie. Although the denizens of Jarnac may not be pre-revolutionary aristocrats, they enjoy a douce existence. There are some fine restaurants and brasseries. As one begins the journey towards digestifs, this is the season for oysters from Marennes, which taste of the sea. There is only one blemish. François Mitterrand was born here and there is now a Musée Mitterrand. His family made vinegar.
Places like Jarnac remind one how rich France could be with a competent government. Perhaps providence is at work. Were it not for the midge, the West Highlands would be an earthly paradise; were it not for its politicians, so would la France profonde. Even a deity far removed from the Puritans’ vengeful God might discourage the notion of an earthly paradise. But it should surely be easier for France to elect someone decent than for the Highlands to exterminate the midge.
The Braastads’ premises are a perfect antidote to political or theological gloom. This is a family business, and feels like one. The distillery, the bottling plant, the offices: in all of them, there is an enthusiastic atmosphere. The family members who run the company believe that a happy and fulfilled employee will be an efficient and thoughtful worker. They are also determined to maintain the highest standards and have the equivalent of 9 million bottles of Cognac in barrel, to ensure that there is plenty of raw material for all their blends.
Even before the first snifter, a visit to Braastad/Tiffon is a life-enhancing experience. Fortunately, one does not have to be in Jarnac to enjoy their Cognac, which is well worth all the commendations it has received over many decades.