The right turn-off to Domaine des Etangs is sharp. My husband, Jaidev, is driving at a clip down the narrow country road and we miss the turn and have to double-back. The tires kick up gravel as he makes a tight U-turn in our rented ice-blue Peugeot. After a two-hour train ride from Paris to Angouleme and an hour of driving, we're anxious to settle into our new lodgings and begin exploring the Cognac region.
A long, straight road lined with trees made barren by winter leads into the 850-hectare Domaine of the Ponds. We come upon a medieval chateau, which looks like it materialised out of a fairytale book. It's the kind of place I dreamed about when I was a child, imagining myself a princess living on her estate in one of the large yellow turrets overlooking the still pond. But this is not make-believe. The Domaine possesses an air of magic: It's the kind of place where you just might start seeing forest fairies if you stay too long.
We follow signs to the reception next door, a long stone building that also houses the restaurant and five guest rooms upstairs. Inside, it's warm and rustic, and there is a large fire smouldering in the antique fireplace. The heat warms our bones and my thoughts drift and evaporate like lazy wisps of smoke. This is a completely different world, away from city life, and it takes me time to adjust to the silence. Country silence is a particular type of quiet; it forces you to tune into your surroundings. Senses are heightened. Time slows down.
Our quaint stone cottage is a quick three-minute drive from the reception. I notice an adjoining appendage on the side of the cottage, which resembles a round adobe hut. Upon entering, I realise the fireplace is in front of what used to be a wood-burning oven, the old stove hole leading into the exterior bulge. Worn wooden paddles, originally used to lift bread, are mounted on the wall for decoration. Upstairs, the loft ceiling is low, and I need to duck so as not to bang my head against the rafters above the bed. The only sound I hear is the fluttering of a beetle's wings brushing against a lampshade.
The next day, having slept like a rock, I'm refreshed and ready to start. We're visiting Remy Martin, which has made fine champagne cognac since 1724. Our guide, Micaelle, is French, but her family is from Africa. She immediately tells Jaidev that she has a deep appreciation of India and its cultures, has visited the Sula Vineyards, and even contemplated living in India.
"The centaur is a very important symbol for Maison Remy Martin," Micaelle tells us as she leads the way to the cellar. "The founder was a Sagittarius." The centaur represents energy, courage, and generosity, traits that embody the spirit of Remy Martin. "All over the world, cognac is a symbol of French lifestyle," she says. "Remy Martin only produces eaux-de-vie from grapes grown in the region's best vineyards, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne." These regions contain a unique chalk-flecked soil that reflects light and ripens the grapes to perfection.
Technically, all cognacs are brandies: Spirits distilled from wine or fermented juice and aged for at least six months in oak casks. But while brandy can be produced anywhere in the world, cognac can only be produced in the Cognac region, just like champagne can only be produced in the Champagne region.
Eaux-de-vie, which literally translates as "water of life", is a colourless brandy made from ripe, fermented fruit that is run through a double-distillation process. Referring to a small model, Micaelle explains that eaux-de-vie is produced with a copper still, called alambic charentais, which looks like an apparatus from a scientist's lab. "Of course, we don't use a distiller this size, as it is much too small to make the quantities we produce," she says. "But we do distill in small batches."
The alambic is of pure copper to withstand the high acidity of the wine; other metals would dissolve. It has three main interconnected chambers: A boiler, a pre-heater, and a condenser.
Grapes are harvested once a year from the end of September to the beginning of October. Farmers are prohibited to water the vineyards, as it might decrease the concentration of flavour in the grapes. First, the grapes are crushed and fermented. This harsh, un-aged (not to be confused with young) wine is siphoned into the alambic's copper boiler with the lees, the dead yeast cell impurities (such as skin and pips) that are left over from fermentation. The mixture is brought to a high heat, creating a 'brew'. The brew vapours travel from the boiler through a pipe shaped like a swan's neck, carrying them past a pre-heater to a condenser coil, which causes the vapour to turn to liquid. This twice-distilled colourless liquid is eaux-de-vie. "Nine litres of wine yields one litre of eaux-de-vie," Micaelle says.