Cognac in the United States has never been more popular, yet it’s also never been more misunderstood. This classic French after dinner drink enjoys a starring role in the exploits of music super stars and some of the top athletes in the country. But it started much more humbly and while visiting the Cognac region of France, I discovered not only the science behind this aperitif, but the art of its creation.
In the grand history of French wine making, cognac is a relative newcomer. It wasn’t until the 17th-18th centuries when this powerful elixir became popular with both European customers as well as sailors who could keep it for months without fear of spoilage. In order for a cognac to be officially designated as a true cognac, it must first meet certain criteria. It must be made of grapes grown in specific areas in France and it must be twice distilled in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels. But these hard facts and regulations do little to impart the true brilliance of this amber liquor.
It was raining as I navigated the rolling hills towards the tiny town of Biron in the Poitou-Charentes region of France. It was getting late, but I’d called ahead and Mr.Bouyer said he’d still be there for a quick tour. I’m glad he did because he taught me not just about cognac, but its legacy and importance.
The farmhouse wasn’t large, but Phillipe Bouyer has managed to create a quiet tasting room for any curious souls who venture out to learn more about his varietals. We spoke in a mixture of French and English, creating new words in the process. I had to be careful about speaking French. Once locals learned I knew enough to be dangerous, they assumed I had completed my doctorate at the Sorbonne and went off in fast and furious French. But even though some words were lost, the meaning was all the richer for the new language we had cobbled together.
Phillipe is a 6th generation cognac master, his family has only known cognac and the art and science behind its distillation. The master talked me through the process of creating cognac, which was much more complicated than I’d ever imagined.
Just as with wine, the grapes are harvested during the fall crush and then pressed. After the grapes are pressed, the juice is left to ferment for two or three weeks, with the region’s native yeasts converting the sugar into alcohol. Distillation takes place in traditionally shaped copper stills, the design and dimensions of which are also legally controlled. Two distillations must be carried out; the resulting eau-de-vie is a colorless spirit of about 70% alcohol. Once distillation is complete, it must be aged in oak for at least two years before it can be sold to the public. Cognacs are then made by blending together several different grapes, usually from a variety of areas.
By the time I left Mr. Bouyer, I was intrigued. This cognac stuff was much more interesting than I’d ever thought. But the sky was darkening, the clouds threatened and I still needed to reach the town of Cognac itself. I’ve never been to Tuscany, but this region of France was the mental picture I’d created for its Italian cousin. Vineyards covered the roller coaster hills as far as the eye could see; even through the rain it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I could have spent weeks traipsing through the tiny villages and hamlets, investigating treasures long forgotten. But that was not my mission, and after a few delightful wrong turns I arrived in Cognac.
The next day I paid a visit to another cognac house, but of an entirely different level. Mr. Bouyer is one of thousands of small growers who sell some of their elixir to the larger giants, keeping some for their own label. The House of Camus though is one of those giants.
Since 1863, five generations of the Camus family have cultivated a single-minded passion for cognac, bringing to life the infinite riches and soul of the land that is their home. Each generation has contributed to the philosophy that produces innovative, superb cognacs, ensuring that every Camus cognac is marked by the personality of the family and the floral character of the Borderies, the smallest and rarest cognac growing area where Camus’ vineyards are located.
I worked in a winery when I was in college and even though it’s not the same process, I’m pretty familiar with the tour and tasting process. Well my smug self was put in my proper place when we were met for a master blender class.
The House of Camus is the only cognac house to have a program that teaches people about the delightful intricacies of cognac mixing that also allows them to create an entirely new blend.
Blending a superior cognac requires the mastery of a long, complex process in which every phase is subject to strict control. This tour allows guests to take part in one of the essential phases in the creation of a cognac. After learning how to taste cognac, the guest enters the strange world of the Cellar Master. Under professional guidance, guests compose their own cognac according to a self-designed blend, using the best cognac crus. It’s truly a unique experience.
The process begins with an in depth discussion about the importance of terroir and how it affects four kinds of varietals Camus uses in creating cognac blends. Terroir is that strange science of determining how the soil composition affects the quality and taste of grapes. Some dismiss it, some swear by it. Camus swears by it.
After our education, the process of determining which cognacs would make the best blend had arrived. I looked at my notes, recalled the flavors and finally, in quick succession decided what I thought to be the perfect cognac.
We went up to the giant casks of cognac and like a scientist in an alcohol fueled lab poured each percentage of cognac into our giant beaker. After some final touches, the blend was bottled and corked. In what is one of the best interactive programs I’ve seen anywhere, I had in the course of a couple of hours learned more about cognac than I ever thought I’d know and walked away with my own blend, thoughtfully called Loper ’12. Doubtless it will be long regarded as the best.
Cognac definitely isn’t for everyone, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s not my first choice, but the time I spent exploring the region, not just the beverage, was one of the best I’ve ever had. Talking with Mr. Bouyer and his daughter, their pride evident in everything they do was amazing. It was a window into the soul of the region I would never have been granted otherwise.
So when you plan your next French escape, don’t just follow the droves of tourists to Bordeaux or Champagne. Instead, spend some time in Cognac and really experience a new side of French culture that I guarantee will surprise you.