What’s the difference between Cognac and Scotch whiskey? A lot…but then again, not really.
Camus is moving Cognac a little closer to whiskey with their new, island-made, terroir-specific cognac called Ile de Ré.
This is a very purposeful product innovation – and one that positions Ile de Ré cognac closer to whiskey on the drink menu and most importantly, closer in consumer’s minds. Why?
With global Scotch whiskey exports on the rise (22% increase in 2011 according to the BBC) Camus is freshening up their cognac’s product image to entice the growing numbers of spirit-loving consumers – particularly in Asia.
From the outside the square Ile de Ré bottle looks like a fancy scotch whiskey bottle. Another "scotch-like" thing about Ile de Ré is that Camus suggests a cool serving temperature – in fact suggests freezing the bottle in a block of ice to retain the chill while drinking. The wild, devil-may-care drinker can even enjoy the Ile de Ré on the rocks – though Camus prefers you drink it neat - if icy cold.
Keeping things “neat” underscores that Ile de Ré remains a cognac at heart, and a bit of a cognac experiment at that.
The Ile de Ré Story
Cyril Camus (family winemaker/owner) wanted to explore new areas of the Cognac appellation which is what lead him to the island (Ile) of Ré off the coast of Cognac. “Cognac” is a protected wine region much like “Champagne” so only brandy wines that come from the delimited area of the Cognac region can be sold as true “cognac”.
No one had been producing cognac from there – so it was the perfect place to try and make something a bit different. Cyril established relationships with the existing growers and worked with them to get quality grapes for the base wine.
From the very start this project was aimed at following a whiskey route. Cyril wanted to produce an eau de vie entirely on the island to see whether he could achieve an “Islay” effect in the finished cognac, e.g. a little salinity and the right cool, damp conditions for aging the casks in a castle at the edge of the sea.
He found just what he suspected in some ways. The vineyard conditions yield berries that have a definite saltiness on the skin – and naturally this adds a special quality to the juice, and to the finished wines destined for distillation.
As traditional as the distillation process remains, the unique Ile de Ré is a thoroughly modern spirit: It's a cognac from grapes grown on an island, distilled on the island and then the age the casks in the damp maritime conditions. Ile de Ré is without question, a pure island wine
Ever mindful of retaining the iodine-character Camus distills the Ile de Ré a little differently too. The iodine aromas remain apparent – and are reminiscent of an Islay Scotch but with an attractive undercurrent of cognac’s bready-brioche aromas.
Serving the cognac cold captures the high toned aromas and brings more of the iodine flavour to the fore; the cooler temperature also tightens the mouth-feel. As it warms up it the more familiar bready aromas of cognac open up, and there’s a smoky character on the finish. Whatever temperature Ile de Ré is served the salinity in the cognac shows on the palate – it shows more though when you taste one of the other Camus cognacs alongside.
Camus has three styles of Ile de Ré – the Fine Island Cognac, the Cliffside Cellar that is double matured on the island – meaning the wine is racked from the aged barrel into a new toasted barrel then aged additionally on the island. The third is the Ile de Rés Double Matured Cognac that is first aged in the damp island cellars before being racked into a new toasted barrel and aged more on the mainland, a process that adds an additional smoky flavour to the cognac. This imitates the “smoky, peaty” quality of scotch.
The cognacs are all aged 5-6 years in barrel – which makes them young as cognacs go. Camus produces about 15,000 bottles of Ile de Rés using a base wine made with a high percentage of Cognac’s traditional Folle Blanche grape.
The Vintage Camus'
The other Camus cognacs are made from estate grown grapes in the Borderies region of Cognac. No matter how proud Camus is of their innovative streak on the island, they are even more proud of the house traditions on the mainland.
Four big-brand cognacs (Martell, Remy Martin, Hennessey and Courvoisier) account for 97% of cognac exports from France. Camus is one of the last family-owned Cognac houses and aims to differentiate itself with it's unique, artisanal quality.
As such, Camus isn’t big enough to follow the single barrel and single bottle trend. Rather, Camus takes the more boutique, refined route. They like to think of their cognacs as the difference between “Prêt à Porter” (ready to drink big brands) and “Haute Couture” (more premium, handmade wines).
Singapore’s Camus tasting featured two vintage cognacs – the ’91 and the ’88. Both vintages were special in very different ways.
Like many things French, the system overseeing Cognac is heavily regulated: there are strict rules around vintage cognac production and release procedures. In the case of cognac, a Bayliff – government regulator – must be enlisted (and paid a fee) to put a seal on any oak barrels that are identified for vintage aging. The barrels then go into their long sleep.
Cognac houses eventually have to pay the Bayliff (2000 Euros!) to return and remove the seal in order to bottle the wines. To certify their authenticity, only the Bayliff can open and remove the seal from cask to certify that the wine inside is indeed from a specific vintage.
There’s a solidly held belief in the wine industry that the best measure of a winery’s overall quality is how well the winery makes wine in a bad year. Obviously, when vintage conditions are easy it’s a lot easier to make good wine. It’s the contrary conditions that test the viticulturists and winemakers.
With this industry measure of quality, Camus clearly makes the grade with the “91 and “88 vintage cognacs. The ‘91 vintage was challenging with excessive rain during the winter months which made it difficult to do the winter pruning. This ultimately led to irregular flowering in the spring. But the first of July the sun came out and the rest of the vintage was really good. It ended up being a famous wine because it miraculously turned out perfect in spite of the challenges.
1988 was different – it was a very cold vintage - everything was in fact frozen. This created a cryo-concentration in the grapes – sort of like a late harvest or ice wine. This is unusual in cognac. Ultimately the frost improved the quality by adding 2 degrees more of sugar to the grapes. Camus managed to make outstanding wine with really balanced acidity/pH from really challenging conditions.
Of the two the ’88 was the more elegant; it was laced with layers delicate floral notes, beautiful balance and a finish that left lightly toasted bread flavours and lemon zest lingering. Very delicate, in fact. The ’91 was more powerful – had more body and toasty and nutty aromas. Both were delicious, but in different ways.
Cognac Numerology - the 2,105
Amid this constellation of fine cognacs was the most special one – a celebratory wine signifying the continuation of the family cognac legacy when Jean Paul Camus passed the keys to the cellar on to his son Cyril in 2003: the 2,105. Numerologists will find plenty to explore in the name since the number honours the moment when Jean Paul Camus gave the cellar key to his son Cyril in 2003. This was in accordance with the family tradition: the father must pass on the cellar key to the son when the son turns 28.
To prepare for this momentous occasion, the Camus family makes a barrel each time a child is born into the family. Eventually a special blended cognac from the father and son’s barrels are blended into a special cuvée.
For the 2,105 - 2 stands for the number of the “eau de vie” in the blend. The 105 is a total of the ages of the cognacs that were blended: Cyril was 40 when the blend was made and his father was 86
The bottle is made of Baccarat crystal with rings around the neck representing wedding bands - a concept of marriage of barrels - father and son. The two colour rings are simply because Cyril prefers silver and Jean Paul prefers gold. That is the unblended part of the 2,105.
Those who purchase one of these special bottle get a certificate of authenticity card plus a personal invite to visit the Camus estate for dinner with the family.
Contributed by Sarah Mayo, TLN Editor