Why blending cognac and tradition is never just a matter of taste
To begin with, perhaps I should dispel the misconception about the role of a master blender
When you grow up steeped in a heritage as unique as ours—the Fillioux family has made cognac hand in hand with the Hennessys for more than 200 years, across eight generations—you grow up with a sense of craft.
To begin with, perhaps I should dispel the misconception about the role of a master blender. It is not a title that is simply handed down, like a peerage or a grand estate, from one generation to the next. Not unlike grapes that ripen on the vines, becoming a master blender is something that reveals itself over time.
Growing up in the Charente region in western France, I revelled in the excitement of the fall harvest—the three months of grape harvesting, which usually begins mid September . That annual ritual is an essential part of who I am, and I still look forward to it with a sense of wonder and renewal, just as some anticipate the year-end holidays or New Year’s festivities.
Though my parents owned a distillery and sold eaux-de-vie (brandies made with grapes) to Hennessy, my route differed from that of my relatives. I studied economics, first in Bordeaux and later in Reims. And I’m the only one in the family who took time off from Hennessy to earn a master’s degree in wine business at the University of Adelaide. That experience really helped shape my worldview.
Long before I had any idea that I might one day succeed my uncle, Yann Fillioux, as Hennessy Master Blender, I spent years overseeing the company’s relationships with its wine-growing partners. That connection to what we call terroir—the soil and all of its subtle nuances—and particularly the people who cultivate it helped consolidate my foundations. Knowing cognac starts with understanding the land.
Savoir-faire is the master blender’s stock in trade. As the Hennessy Master Blender for half a century, my uncle Yann’s knowledge is encyclopedic, his experience priceless. Not only did he pass along his know-how in tasting, selecting and blending, he also has the gift of instilling true passion in others. His uncompromising commitment to quality and precision were a gift—in life, the best teachers are always the most exacting ones.
Our role has everything to do with taste, obviously. But it also implies an elusive combination of pleasure and strategy. There is an esoteric, abstract quality to blending—how do you build consensus on taste, which is by definition subjective? Yet being a Master Blender is one of the most rigorous disciplines in the world: preparing for my current role required over 15 years of training by my uncle’s side. I learnt that patience, perspective and no small amount of courage are required.
People often ask me whether tasting can be learnt in school. The short answer is no. Training one’s palate can only happen over time. It’s never simply a matter of “taste". For example, recognizing a desired flavour requires a fine palate, which can discern sweet, sour bitter, salty, and savoury. But the nose is even more important because aromas vary with the age of a cognac. The most present scents are vanilla, nuts, flowers and caramel, but you might also encounter more complex notes of chocolate, cake, ancient spices, leather or wood.
The master blender’s art draws on all the senses. In addition to taste and smell, there is listening. Every day, all year round, the Hennessy Tasting Committee convenes at 11am in the Bureau de Degustation to share impressions about which eaux-de-vie might one day become part of a Hennessy blend. A unique group in the world of cognac, the tasting committee is composed of experts in viticulture, distillation and ageing. Sharing impressions allows us to evaluate the quality and future potential of eaux-de-vie, but most of all it ensures continuity of excellence.
And there is the sense of touch. In the field, the feel of the soil and the vines teach more than any book might. The main grape variety used for cognac is Ugni Blanc, a white grape also known as Trebbiano. The cognac region has all the elements the grapes need to grow best: a chalky soil and a microclimate that’s indirectly influenced by the ocean, which means that winters are not too cold and summers not too warm.
Lastly, while memorizing appellations of eaux-de-vie is a feat in itself, it’s not the point: one needs to be able to understand and classify them. There is not a unique quality of cognac, but many different styles. We use words like delicate, elegant, refined, full-bodied, good oak, smooth and well rounded, balanced. Balance is critical. The selection process is all about rigour and continuity: it’s something you have to learn, but it’s also never-ending. In that sense, being a master blender is not a destination—it’s a journey.
Renaud Fillioux de Gironde is master blender at Hennessy. In Daily Diary, professionals offer a glimpse of their career.Write to us at email@example.com
FIRST PUBLISHED17.09.2019 | 10:24 PM IST