By Mary Ann Anderson, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
9:14 AM EST, January 28, 2013
Light mist cloaked the ancient hills in Upper Normandy, and from somewhere within this tapestry of seaside cliffs and pastures of flowers, I expected a fire-breathing dragon or a white-haired wizard muttering ancient incantations would come bounding out of the forest at any moment.
Upper Normandy, in the northwest corner of France, is just the place that would summon a dragon or wizard or two with its castles, monasteries, moats, and stone fences. But it also summons spirits, the kind you find in a bottle, not those wafting from a vat of eye of newt and toe of frog.
If you've wined your way across Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Beaujolais sampling the vins yet still want to experience France by the glass, there are plenty of places to go one step further on a sniff-and-swirl journey to taste France's distilled spirits.
With snifter in hand, off went our tour group in a spirited journey across France.
After feasting on the most divine scallops at the chic restaurant Les Terre-Neuvas in Fecamp, a lovely Normandy town edging the English Channel, we visit first Palais Benedictine, where the herbal elixir DOM Benedictine has been produced since the 19th century.
There, we learned that Benedictine's recipe of 27 different herbs like hyssop, juniper, and saffron is so closely guarded that only three people in the world at any given time know it.
As much art gallery as storied history, the Palais Benedictine, perhaps the world's most ornate distillery with its hypnotizing part-Gothic, part-Renaissance architecture, is all stained glass, venerable spires, and lush gardens.
From Fecamp, the bus rumbled to Rouen for an overnight at the Hotel de Bourgtheroulde and dinner at La Couronne, dating to the 14th century and where Julia Child had her first meal in France. She proclaimed the cuisine, flavorful sole meunière, as "heaven to eat." Choosing the fish, I had to agree with her, our intrepid travelers toasting the evening with a lovely glass of Benedictine and champagne.
Before leaving Rouen, a city crammed with churches dating to the 4th century, we walked to an unassuming grassy rise on the Place du Vieux Marche, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. Afterward, we stopped in at the Rouen Market for fresh cheeses, sausages and fruits for the ride to Angers in the Loire Valley and Cointreau.
Cointreau, blended with a mélange of sweet and bitter orange peels, is the candy-like confectionary liqueur added to margaritas and cosmopolitans. Carre Cointreau, in its honor, is a museum, heritage center and distillery all combined into one happy place.
Brightly lit everywhere with Cointreau's signature gleaming orange and shiny copper stills, the distillery is like a theme park for spirits and definitely worth a visit, especially if you like the marvelous liqueur.
Leaving the Loire Valley, we pass fields of sunflowers, their blossoms reaching to the sky, and untold acres of rolling vineyards. Finally we arrive in the town of Cognac on the banks of the Charente, a river once described by King Henri IV as "the loveliest stream in my kingdom."
After checking in Chateau de L'Yeuse, a charming and historic hotel overlooking the Charente, and then fed by a hunger for arts and culture, we took a walking tour of Cognac. Ambling along its cobbled streets, we learned of its history deeply rooted in Celtic and Gaelic culture and stopped by the Musee des Arts due Cognac before visiting our first stop, Hennessy.
"In Cognac, you hear three things," begins Hennessy's Laurent Lozano, walking us through the distillery, "and those are tradition, history, and respect. It's all a very important part of the process."
He explains that cognac is produced only in this corner of France and nowhere else on earth. The air is humid and the soil chalky and easily drained, which are secrets to growing good cognac grapes.
The art of cognac, which translates to "eau-de-vie" or "water of life," is really aging and blending flavors with only white grape wine and which produces undertones of honey, vanilla, and oranges. The cognac then slumbers in oak barrels to maturity.
There are good years and bad when it comes to producing cognac. "When it comes to a good year for cognac and its harvest," says Hennessy ambassador Cyrille Gautier-Auriol, pointing to the sky, "the answer is always from God. God decides."
Remy Martin, makers of the signature champagne cognac, was our next stop. Here, you can take part in its Rendez-Vous program, which takes you to the estate, the vineyards, and cellar tastings complete with three meals.
"Many, many things will remain exactly the same as a hundred years from now, and just as they were a hundred years ago," says our guide as he led us through the essentially unchanged process of making cognac.
In Jarnac, we visited Courvoisier, the cognac of Napoleon, and were treated to a tour of the Chateau Courvoisier Museum, where the emperor's great coat, one of his hats, and even a lock of his hair are on display.
Courvoisier offers several tours, including Cognac and Truffles, a day-long treat that includes lunch and tastings.
One of the oldest major cognac houses is Martell, dating to about three centuries ago. More than 20,000 guests a year are welcomed through its visitor center, where the story of cognac is told through exhibits and 200 years' worth of handwritten archives.
And it is at Martell where I learned paradise isn't all it's cracked up to be. Instead of angels and fluffy clouds, it's much dustier and dirtier than I imagined.
Paradis, the French spelling, is more of dark, damp dungeon-like cellar where the oldest and best cognacs are kept for aging. Instead of brushing against gossamer wings, you're more likely to encounter gooey cobwebs and black mold.
"That's the angel's share," our guide explains in good-enough-but-not-perfect English and pointing to the ink-colored mold. "It feeds from the fumes, the alcohol that evaporates from the cognac as it ages. It's like black velvet."
Gathered around myriad barrels full of cognac quietly aging in oak casks, we raised a glass of cognac to France's happy angels.
IF YOU GO:
For more information on tours and tastings, visit Benedictine at http://www.BenedictineDom.com, Cointreau at http://www.Cointreau.com, Remy Martin at http://www.Remy.com, Courvoisier at http://www.Courvoisier.com, Hennessy at http://www.Hennessy.com, and Martell at http://www.Martell.com.
To learn more about cognac, the spirit, visit http://www.cognac.fr, and to learn more about the Cognac region, visit http://www.tourism-cognac.com. For more information on Normandy and the Loire Valley, visit http://www.Normandy-Tourism.org and http://www.LoireValleyTourism.com.
Your travel agent can put together an itinerary with either a group or individual tour. Keep in mind that some distilleries are open only seasonally, so check the websites first.
Almost all major U.S. carriers have direct flights into Paris. Air France (www.AirFrance.com) and Open Skies (www.FlyOpenSkies.com) are Paris-based airlines with nonstops from the U.S. If you rent a car, driving is on the right-hand side of the road. Fecamp is about a three-hour drive from Paris and Cognac is about five hours.