These days, the castle is better known as the Cognac House Baron Otard. A Cognac House is an enterprise dedicated to the creation, production, and sale of the grape-based, double-distilled brandy called cognac. I tried in vain to google the exact number of cognac houses in the Charente department, but it appears that there are more than 300 companies vying for a market share in the world of cognacs. In previous posts, I have introduced the details of the distillation process as witnessed in one of the smaller family houses, la Maison Gourry de Chadeville. More recently, I wrote about the elegant House of Meukow where we took a tour with friends last summer and where we occasionally have lunch in their lovely restaurant, the Chai Meukow. Last winter I even learned how to make foie gras from their chef!
With our visit to the château royal, we finally took the plunge to visit one of the dominant cognac houses, the names of which are well known around the world, among them Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier, Rémy Martin, and so forth. When our friend Mary from Gloucester, Massachusetts, came to visit us, we figured a combination tour of local history with local schnapps might be just the thing.
Thus we selected the Maison Baron Otard which was founded by Jean-Baptiste Antoine Baron O’tard de la Grange, seigneur de Mérignac. Jean-Baptiste was a local boy, Charentais all the way. Well educated, he was a staunch royalist and patriot, even refusing to emigrate during the revolution which earned him two terms of incarceration in the Abbaye des Dames in Saintes in 1791 and 1793 respectively. You may remember that the abbey was ransacked and turned into a prison during the revolution. Being spared the guillotine, the baron obtained a surveyor’s license for the canton of Cognac and settled in town as a négociant, a wholesaler of eau-de-vie. Settled in Cognac, he soon realized that the old and fairly dilapidated royal castle possessed the most suitable cellars to age his product in their oak barrels, so he bought the old pile and made it the headquarter for his Maison Cognac Baron Otard.
We approached the Château Royal on foot, after a short walk through Vieille Ville, the Old Town of Cognac and were greeted by a lonely poppy growing against the formidable castle walls.
After waiting around a bit for our tour to start,
our small group proceeded into the castle grounds.
where our guide summarized some of the castle’s history. The earliest fortification, a wooden castrum, was erected toward 950 CE by one Hélie de Villebois to prevent invaders from sailing further upriver. For the next 250 years, the seigneurs de Villebois established themselves as the first Lords of Cognac, while Bénédictine monks build their monastery, as well as the church of Saint-Léger which still exists today in the center of Old Town. Around the castrum and the church, a small market-town developed under the watchful eyes of lords and clerics.
By the end of the 12th century, the wooden castrum had been replaced by a stone-build fortification along the left bank of the River Charente and the old palisades, flimsy by High-Medieval standards, were rebuilt as proper Remparts.
Traditionally, the town of Cognac lay within the territory of the Counts of Angoulême which was part of the Duchy of Aquitaine, but thanks to the infamous Alienòr and her unusually long and adventurous life, Cognac was passed back-and-forth between several powerful factions, even nations, over the years. Alienòr or Aliénor Duchesse d’Aquitaine et Comtesse de Poitiers, also known as Éléonore de Guyenne, while in the English speaking world she is usually called Eleanor of Aquitaine, was the most powerful woman of all of Europe during the 12th century. Let’s just say that at the hight of the power of the House of Poitiers her realm encompassed about two-thirds of modern-day France – and all of that whilst she was actually Queen of England! Before becoming Queen of England as the consort of young King Henry II, who was 11 years her junior, Alienòr had previously been the anointed Queen of France as the consort of King Louis VII. Through her marriage to Henry, the Duke of Normandy and later King of England, she became the founder of the Angevin Empire, otherwise known as L’Empire Plantagenêt.
Around the year 1195, one of Alienòr’s sons, Richard the Lionheart, stopped by the Cognac castle to witness the marriage he had arranged between Amélie de Jarnac hereditary Lady of Cognac-Villebois, Merpins, Archiac, Jarnac & Châteauneuf to his illegitimate son Philip Fitz Richard AKA Philippe de Falcombridge. After Amélie’s early death, Philippe promptly sold the acquired-by-marriage ownership of Cognac to his English uncle King John “Lackland” of Magna Carta fame. The transaction, sans doute, was arranged by Johnnie’s second wife, Isabelle d’Angoulême, who thus managed to reclaim her ancestral Angoumois territory, including Cognac, after her husband’s death. What goes around comes around, or so they say.
Following our guide through a series of dark, medievally chambers, we soon encountered images of the most important resident of the castle, the one who bestowed the royal title to a rather unimportant edifice in a small town in Aquitaine, the Renaissance king Francis I, proud son of Cognac.
François was born on September 12, 1494, in the castle of Cognac as François d’Orléans, a member of the Angoulême cadet branch of the Royal House of Valois. The reigning royal couple, King Louis XII and Anne of Brittany had no living male heir despite a dozen pregnancies in twenty years. Thus, the king decided to appoint his cousin François as his heir, naming him crown prince. Against the fervent wishes and desperate opposition of his wife, he commanded François to marry their daughter Claude. Young Claude’s mother, Anne Duchesse of Brittany was loath to see her independent realm united with the French Crown through the marriage of her eldest daughter to a Valois prince. Sadly she lost that battle of wills, and the citizens of Brittany lost their independence forever which they still mourn these 500 years later.
Not quite fifteen years old at her wedding, the queen consort of François 1er, Duchesse Claude of Britanny suffered through seven pregnancies in ten years of marriage when she died as quietly as she had lived at age twenty-four, presumably of sheer exhaustion. It is sad to read descriptions of contemporary chronicles how Queen Claude had been ridiculed savagely at court for her less than elegant appearance. The poor woman was short in stature, suffering from scoliosis and was, naturally, quite rotund through her perpetual state of incubating royal infants. She was known and respected, however, for her piety and kindness.
Advancing from the part of the castle that goes back to the 12th century, we entered the splendid Renaissance reception hall overlooking the river. It is said that Leonardo da Vinci helped François with the design of these magnificent spaces. The king held sumptuous receptions for foreign dignitaries here, although he didn’t spend a great deal of time in Cognac to which he held a sentimental attachment as the place of his birth.
Next, our guide led us into underground spaces of dark murkiness filled with casks and heavy-duty spiderwebs.
Those are the cellars within the foundation of the medieval castle with 3m thick walls and thus providing an ambiance of constant temperature and humidity levels year-round. Those are the spaces that Baron Otard discovered as a cadastral engineer or surveyor, and which he turned into the perfectly tempered aging cellars for his eaux-de-vie.
Our tour through the working end of the House of Baron Otard was coming to an end as we descended into – where else! – the shop,
where we enjoyed a degustation of VS and VSOP cognacs and admired the most beautiful cut-glass cognac decanter on display.