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The rivers, star players in the Cognac landscape

The rivers, star players in the Cognac landscape 

Until the 19th century, rivers played an essential role in the geography of the Charente vineyards. Mandatory for the transport of wines and brandies, they imposed urban settlements and structured human occupation. (Re) discover today these star players of the Cognac landscape in the book “les paysages du Cognac”.

Since the 17th century, the wines and brandies of the Charentes have been export products. Located on the Atlantic coast and the islands of Ré and Oléron, the vineyard has an accessible communication route, the sea, with Brouage and La Rochelle as shipping ports. By taking over the trade of brandies, the English showed their demand for better quality products than those supplied to the Dutch. They discovered the products of the inland countries which were transported via the river network to the ports on the Atlantic coast. The wine-producing regions had significant river connections: the Sèvre Niortaise, the Charente and its tributary the Boutonne, and the Gironde estuary. A few centuries later, the cargoes used the Vienne, the Loire and the connecting canals to reach the Seine and the Parisian market. 

The Sèvre Niortaise is navigable from Niort and the Migron from Mauzé. The southern part of the Deux-Sèvres is covered with vineyards, and wines and brandies are loaded at the port of La Roussille on the Sèvre and Mauzé on the Mignon to reach the port of Marans, which can receive ocean-going ships. The Charente and Boutonne rivers represent the most elaborate navigable system. Important works were carried out until the end of the 19th century to improve navigation and develop the estuary ports of Charente and Rochefort, which dethroned La Rochelle and competed with Bordeaux. Saint-Jean-d’Angély became a navigation head on the Boutonne river, able to ship wines and brandies and to receive stave wood from Limousin and Northern Europe. It is also a great center of cooperage in the hands of Cognac merchants. The Charente is navigable from Angoulême. Most of the towns were settled on the middle and lower Charente. The extension of the vineyards towards the Angoumois corresponds to the possibilities of navigation. Moreover, on the left bank of the river are the best terroirs, those which give the prestigious Champagne brandies. Among the twenty or so river ports, a hierarchy is established in the functions and activities.

The 50-ton barges can load staves and strips of wood from the Limousin, wines and brandies. The port of L’Houmeau, for example, also receives sea products. In the 19th century, at its peak, traffic reached 50,000 tons. The arrival of the railway line to Paris and Bordeaux in 1852, and then in 1867 to Rochefort precipitated its decline by developing new commercial lines. Downstream, Châteauneuf is a transit port that receives the collection of eaux-de-vie from the Champagne de Blanzac and Montmoreau. The Cognac merchants opened warehouses there to supply the cellars of Jarnac and Cognac.

The rivers - Cognac landscape

Châteauneuf was above all a transit port that loaded the wines and brandies of the Champagne de Blanzac. The docks underline the importance of the traffic and the loads sent to the trade of Jarnac and Cognac. Only one important merchant, the house of Normandin, had storage and shipping facilities.

Jarnac was the second capital of the brandy industry and saw the establishment of numerous trading houses in the 19th century. They built wharves to receive the wines and brandies and to organize the cargoes for the estuary ports. The town benefited from the extension of the planted areas and became a major cooperage center. On the middle Charente, Cognac is the main inland town for the wine trade, which wanted to get closer to the plantations on either side of the river. The lands of Champagne are at the gates of the city and the productions of the Borderies in the close suburbs. Dozens of trading houses built warehouses there: Augier, Martell, Salignac, Hennessy, Otard… Followed later by Camus and Rémy Martin. River traffic to the estuary ports exceeded 60,000 tons per year and the barges had a better draught. After 1860, the railroad became a formidable competitor to navigation, as well as the road in the 20th century. After the phylloxera crisis, the merchant city no longer had any rivals and structured the wine growing area. 

Despite the presence of a river port, La Rousselle, Saintes did not become a major trading center. The plantations are mainly located upstream from the town. As for Port d’Envaux and Taillebourg, they benefit from a better draught, but are far from the remarkable vineyards. In Saint-Savinien, where navigation was maintained until the 1930s, the gabares could have a capacity of 200 tons. 

The lower Charente has two export ports: Tonnay and Rochefort. Tonnay, a port at the bottom of the estuary, had more than 600 m of quays in the 19th century. Agricultural and industrial products were loaded onto ocean-going ships bound for Northern Europe thanks to 6-meter deep bottoms. Dutch, English and German merchants traded with their counterparts in Charente, who had warehouses, trading posts and offices. The trading houses called on commission agents to carry out the chartering. In return, the port received wood from the North, strips of wood and English coal to supply the distilleries in Cognac. To stay in the race, the Rochelais set up subsidiaries there. On the eve of phylloxera, 129 companies shipped over 200,000 hl of Cognac. 

Downstream, Colbert set up an arsenal in Rochefort. The navy represented a market for Cognac merchants who delivered wines from the Grandes Borderies, brandies and cereals. Insurance companies and bank branches also benefited from the brandy trade. From the 1750s, a commercial port was built inside the arsenal. Today, the development of a port outside was carried out with a floating basin to be less dependent on the tide. All in all, the port facilities reinforce the commercial pole of the Charente estuary at the expense of the Aunis. On the Gironde estuary, coastal ports developed: Royan, Mortagne… All of them maintained a coastal traffic with Bordeaux, which received foreign ocean-going ships operating regular lines with Northern Europe. Cognac merchants have warehouses in Mortagne which receive purchases of brandy from Mirambeau to Pons to avoid the poor conditions of land transport to Cognac. 

The Vienne is a waterway accessible from Angoumois by road. Due to international political relations in the 18th century, the Poitevin river port of Châtellerault had the Angoumois vineyards in its sphere of influence. To avoid the high taxes of transporting brandy on the middle and lower Charente, merchants from Jarnac, Angoulême and Aigre used the Spanish route to reach Bordeaux or Châtellerault. In Châtellerault, Bouniot, a Cognac merchant, had a warehouse where his commission agents could draw on to fill orders from Parisian and Norman wholesalers. The capital is supplied by the Vienne, the Loire and the Briare canal.

The port of Mortagne-sur-Gironde

The port of Mortagne-sur-Gironde maintained a coastal traffic with Bordeaux to avoid the poor conditions of transport of the brandies stored by the merchants of Pons and Mirambeau.

The port of Saint-Savien

During the 18th century, Saint-Savinien-le-Port (now Saint-Savinien) was one of the three main ports on the Charente with Saintes upstream and Tonnay-Charente downstream.


Photo credits: Michel Guillard


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