Travel Story Getting full bottle on distilling in France's Cognac

Photo of Niall McIlroy

Blend your own cognac in the home of the acclaimed drop. 

I feel like a stranger at Camus. This distillery has been making cognac to worldwide acclaim for 154 years and I’ve never tasted a drop.

But I’m about to get into the spirit of things.

Cognac, the town on the Charente River, and the drink have been on the map for quite a while. It’s the birthplace of King Francis I who was responsible for so many of those beautiful Loire chateaux and an enlightened view that brought Leonardo da Vinci to France.

The Dutch had been selling gin in France and importing wood, salt and wine from the Cognac region but were having difficulty getting wine back to the Netherlands without it spoiling. The solution was simple, distil the wine twice turning it into brandy wine. 

But only wine distilled in this relatively small area can bear the name cognac. There are six regions or crus, based on the type of soil the grapes grow in. Camus grows mostly St-Emilion grapes and only in the smallest of these areas, the 4100ha Borderies cru, where the soil is heavy in clay and flint from eroded limestone. 

There are other cognac distillers with grapes in regions such as Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne which have chalky soils, and Bois a Terroirs with its sandy soil.

But Camus is the only distillery that is still family owned.

The cognac first distilled here by Jean-Baptiste Camus was the favourite of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas I, and has since made its way to duty-free shelves all over the world.

In fact exports account for a massive 97 per cent of the cognac produced, after being twice distilled in chunky red copper Charentais pot stills in these cellars deep in the French countryside.

Then, it’s all about age — the time it’s left to mature and gain character in French oak barrels. Cognac left in the barrel for two years is Very Special, VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) needs four years, while XO takes 10 years.

The cognac can be from a single region or “married” with another to add more complex tastes and aromas. The blended cognac always takes the age of the youngest cru.

In the cool of this cellar, surrounded by cognac barrels, I’m hastily arranging a marriage of my own. In front of me I have four cognac glasses, one each of Fins Bois, Borderies, Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne. All of the glasses and barrels contain XO and coaxing me through I have Camus Cognac global brand ambassador Frederic Dezauzier.

No pressure, then.

“The best of these cognacs is whichever is your favourite,” he says, despite the fact that the Camus is clearly in the second glass labelled Borderies.

“I am not your palate or your nose,” he encourages, “whatever I prefer, doesn’t matter.”

I go through the four noting the colour, aroma and taste.

The Fins Bois is light coloured but there’s a real party going on in that glass and it kicks a bit as I swallow it.

The Borderies is very fine, smoother to taste and with a golden colour — it’s given this hue by betacarotene in the grape. There is less initial aroma in the Petite Champagne which feels like honey in the mouth while the Grand Champagne has a real perfume and goes down nicely.

I’m surprised by how much difference, in both scent and taste, I detect between the four cognacs.

“Just don’t go backwards, tasting one then the other,” urges Frederic. “Go with your initial impressions, otherwise you’ll begin to smell different things — you see how difficult it is for the master tasters,” he laughs.

That Fins Bois is much too uppity so I leave it completely and use a dropper to mix a blend that is 70 per cent elegant Borderies, 20 per cent Petite Champagne and, for the spiciness, 10 per cent Grand Champagne. Then with a half litre test tube I head over to barrels which are each marked with their individual cru, pour each by proportion, mix then funnel it into a bottle.

Much mirth ensues when I ask one of my fellow blenders whether he’s kneeling at the barrel because it’s easier to pour or if he actually just can’t stand any more.

Next door in the boutique, there’s more tasting while our newly married cognac is labelled, sealed (for three months) and placed in a display box. It’s been a thoroughly entertaining afternoon and while I may not know everything about cognac, I am at least leaving with a full bottle.

Fact File

WHERE

Cognac, the town that gave its name to a much-loved brandy, is on the Charente River in the south-west of France about 100km north of Bordeaux. 

WHY

Break up the vineyard visits with a day in Cognac. There are a number of distilleries that offer tours but Camus is the only one still family owned.

WHAT

The eight-day Chateaux, Rivers and Wine itinerary operates round trip from Bordeaux from March to November this year and in 2019. The tour of the Camus cognac distillery is an optional excursion but there are seven guided tours on the cruise, which costs from $3595 per person in a standard stateroom. Book by March 31 to fly to Europe for $995 per person.

WWW

vikingcruises.com.au, 13 87 47 and travel agents.

Disclaimer

Niall McIlroy was in France as a guest of Viking River Cruises.

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