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Cognac workshop the highlight of Bordeaux experience

By Paul Knowles

Beside my keyboard, as I write this, there is a snifter containing a unique Cognac. It sits next to an elegant wooden box with a brass clasp. The box is labeled “Camus: Maison Familiale Depuis1863”. Inside the box is the 50 cl bottle, bearing the label “PMK”, and its unique code – 15-07-108. Oh yes, it also lists the details of the blend – 60% from the Camus vineyard in Borderies, 20% Fins Bois, 10% Petite Champagne, 10% Grande Champagne, each a different – although neighbouring – “cru”. A perfect blend, to my way of thinking. Of course, I am biased – the “PMK” on the label are my initials; this unique bottle of Cognac is my own, personal blend, the end result of the highlight of a trip to Bordeaux, France – a “Master Blender” workshop at Camus, the largest independent and family-owned Cognac House.

 

There’s a certain counter-intuitiveness to this experience, because we were on a terrific Viking river cruise of France’s Bordeaux wine country, and we visited several superb wineries along the way. But as interesting (and tasty) as those stops were, none compared to the unique experience at Camus.

The “workshop” has elements in common with any wine tour, anywhere in the world – a walk through grapevines, an explanation of the craft, a visit to the cellars, and eventually, the inevitable exit route through the retail store.

But from the moment you have visited those essential grapes, wine lovers find themselves in slightly foreign territory. Camus “Global Brand Ambassador: Frédéric DeZauzier – who led our workshop – talks about “grapes with a unique destiny”. Grapes from Camus’ Bordeaux vineyards will become wine, but that’s just the first step of many. The wine is transformed into a clear liquid called “eau-de-vie”, and then twice distilled in copper pot stills.

It is then aged at least for two years in French oak barrels. The maturing process is similar to that of whiskies and barrel-aged wines. At Camus, all of the Cognac is aged in separate barrels, according to the “cru” in which the grapes were produced. The ultimate blend is produced using an approach exactly like mine – sampling the various Cognacs – and blending them to taste – although tastes vastly more experienced and professional than my own, it must be said.

To be called “Cognac” – which is, in fact, a brandy – the wines must come from the district surrounding the town of that name.

The highlight of the workshop, of course, is the tasting and blending. Our group was, shall we say, wildly enthusiastic about the process. We tasted four Cognacs (the four represented on my label); if we felt we needed a second opinion, our tasting glasses could be topped up.

Some especially eager tasters discovered that their neighbours didn’t want to finish off all of their tastings, so they cadged extra from that source.

DeZauzier is a suave, handsome, witty, congenial and patient host, with enough European charm that several members of our group clearly developed intense if temporary crushes on the man. And his expertise is unbounded – in the shop I found a beautiful, hardcover coffee table book simply titled “Camus” – 170 or so bilingual pages of information and gorgeous photos… but with no author listed. I asked DeZauzier about the author. “It was me,” he said, simply. Turns out he’s humble, too. I got him to sign my book.

Needless to say, it was a convivial group by the time the tastings were finished. But we were riding on a bus, so that presented no danger to the public at large.

We each tasted each sample, made careful notes, and then came the tough decisions – which of those flavours did we want to dominate our own blend? Some people felt equality was the way to go, and did a relatively even mix of all four. Some fell in love with one, and didn’t include much of anything else. Others, like me, seduced by the experience into fancying ourselves instant experts, derived very precise formulae.

Truth is, I doubt anyone was disappointed when they tasted their blend back home, six months or so later.

We carried large, calibrated beakers to the vats, and measured out our chosen blend, bottled it, and took it to the shop for labeling, sealing, and packaging. The chatter and laughter did not lessen until the Cognac took hold halfway back to the river cruise ship, and people began to nod off.

This visit is not inexpensive – about $225Cdn if you are booking individually, $180Cdn if you are part of a group. Is it worth it? I’d have to say, yes – you come away with memories of a unique experience, golden liquid evidence of your accomplishment – and the potential to order more, because Camus keeps a record of every individual blend, and will happily ship you a lifetime supply of your own, personal Cognac. There are, of course, less costly ways to visit Camus, from a $12Cdn tour that includes on tasting, and on up.

There is much else to see and do in Bordeaux. The city itself, utterly revitalized by a visionary mayor named Alain Juppe, is a delight to visit, especially the squares like the Place de la Comédie, and the waterfront. Bordeaux city is worth several days.

And the wine country is exquisite – the world-famous wineries, of course and the historic towns like St. Émilion. Each worth a story in itself.

But the best story – and I remember it well, despite the extra tastings I may have sampled – was the Camus experience. For lovers of the grape, that is a lifetime highlight – and, as I carefully marshal the contents of  the Camus PMK blend – a highlight that will last.

For more about Camus, visit www.camus.fr/en.