All Cognac houses make their Cognacs in broadly the same way with subtle differences in their choice of wines, distillation methods and aging techniques contributing to the finished Cognacs having distinct house styles. Of all the large houses, Camus is the most distinctive in use of special production techniques and these combine to produce equally special intensely aromatic Cognacs.
Cognacs made from Borderies wine play a key role in all of Camus blends and the Borderies style heavily influences Camus Cognacs. More on Borderies.
Although most Cognac houses now rely solely on Ugni Blanc grapes, Camus is one of the few houses to also use Folle Blanche grape eaux-de-vie, believing this harder to cultivate grape variety adds elegance and lightness to their blends. For the vinification, all the grapes are pressed within two hours of harvesting and the juice is fermented for six to seven days, at a controlled temperature between 22° and 26°C, with three different strains of yeasts, selected to develop specific aromas and reflect the best from the terroir.
After winemaking and a settling period of two to three days a sludge of dead yeast cells, seeds, skin and pulp from the grapes settles at the bottom of the tank. Called lees this comprises some 10% of the volume. Many Cognac houses draw the wine off from the top of the tank to leave the lees behind, so they have a clear wine to distil. Crucially, Camus do not separate dead yeast cells from the wine, indeed they blend the lees with the wine as they believe this adds rich character to the finished distillate due to the flavoursome fruit esters the lees produce during distillation.
As mentioned above, the wine Camus use to charge the still for the first of two distillations contains dead yeast cells and this is known as “distilling on the lees”. This is made possible by Camus’ use of much smaller stills than many of the other Cognac houses, some of whom use stills as much as five times bigger for the first distillation. Camus use small 2,500 litre capacity stills so there is a larger ratio of copper surface area to the lees rich wine. The copper acts sacrificially to remove unwanted sulphur compounds.
Few other houses distil on the lees, partly due to the extra care that must be taken during distillation to prevent the dry matter in the wine burning inside the still. Distilling in this way also necessitates longer cleaning periods between distillations and this is also beneficial as it gives time for the copper to react with oxygen in the air and so rejuvenate before the next distillation.
The spirit that emerges from the first distillation, the low wine or brouillis in French, is around 30% alc./vol. and very aromatic. This is distilled for a second time, also in small 2,500 litre capacity stills, to produce an eau-de-vie that after aging will become Cognac.
During the second distillation, Camus use a patented and bespoke distillation process which involves sampling the first 20 litres of distillate, the heads, as they are extracted, litre by litre, with a portion of these heads selected for their highly concentrated aroma, then blended with the heart of the distillate to produce more intensely aromatic Cognacs.
Heads (or foreshots) are the highly volatile alcohols emitted at the start of distillation and other distillers discard these, usually blending them with the wine to charge the stills for the first distillation.
Heads contain unwanted bad smelling and tasting substances such as Acetaldehyde, Acetone and Methenol, but they also comprise esters such as Ethyl Acetate, Ethyl Butyrate, Ethyl Formulate and Hexyl Acetate. These highly aromatic esters contribute desirable fruity aromas such as pear, pineapple and banana. Camus recognise the importance of these intensely aromatic esters and their system of separating the heads into its component parts allows them to separate unwanted elements from desirable esters which are then reintegrated into the final distillate (eau-de-vie).
Camus age their Cognacs exclusively in small casks to ensure maximum exposure to the surface area of the oak. They also specify very lightly toasted rather than heavily charred casks.
Camus are also one of the most innovative in cask finishing with the use of different woods for the final ageing period, particularly port wine seasoned casks. This quest to add extra layers of complexity has extended to experiments in finishing in rum casks and even their Caribbean Expedition which involves a period of ageing in the Caribbean.