Rémy Martin Cellar Master Baptiste Loiseau on Signature Blends, and the Greatest Challenges to Cognac
People who work in cognac are fond of saying that each drop of the spirit is distilled history. That's true, because perhaps more so than other spirits, cognac is crafted with decades, even centuries, in mind.
In 2014, Baptiste Loiseau became Rémy Martin Cellar Master; he is only the fifth person to hold this position in the company's 290-year history. This fall, Loiseau oversaw the launch of a limited-edition new expression, Rémy Martin Carte Blanche Merpins. Only 2,000 bottles will be sold in the U.S., at $500 each. He sits down to chat cognac, the art of the blend, and the biggest challenges facing the storied French spirit.
What is Carte Blanche Merpins?
Baptiste Loiseau: 'Carte blanche' means I was given total freedom.
I took the position as the cellar master more than three years ago, in 2014, after being trained by the previous cellar master, [Pierrette Trichet], for seven years.
It was a really close relationship... It went so well that she decided to retire. She told me, "You're my choice. I trust that you can be the next one."
The main mission of the cellar master is to maintain the consistent style of the house. [But] a few months ago, I was told that I could really express myself. I could break the rules, going further than making the classic range [such as XO, VSOP and others.] I could release something that is still in the style of the house, but that has not been highlighted before.
So when you have this total freedom --- on what side do I start? I went back to the notes I had taken while I was learning from the previous cellar master.
I took all these samples, and I did a blind tasting on my own in the tasting room. [I didn't want to] be influenced by the places where I have taken the samples. Only determining the quality I have in the glass. I had a little bit more than 30 different samples. I took my notes, and some of the blends were really (*whew*) exceptional in the aromas, on the nose and in the palate.
I went back to the family of the house. "Ok, I have found something incredible."
(Pours out a glass.)
It's the Merpins cellar edition. It is only 9650 bottles, and only 2000 bottles for the U.S. [It is bottled at] cask strength, which 44%. That's is quite unusual in cognac. (Most cognacs are in the 40% proof range).
The youngest eau de vie is 27 years old.
I went back to the family of the house. "Ok, I have found something incredible."
Do you know the age of the oldest eau de vie in this blend?
No, because the blend was selected by the previous cellar master. In the warehouse, we have blends that have already been made by the previous cellar master.
The role of the cellar master is to make the blending through all the stages of aging. [Many people think] that we select the unaged eau de vie, we put it aside and we only make the blends at the end life of the eau de vie. That's not the case. If you do so, all these eaux de vie, they are struggling. They don't have the time to meet each other.
So you have everything from 1960 in one barrel. Everyone from 2010 in another other cask. At some point you have a 50-something-year old and one that's less than 10 years old. When will you put them all together?
It's what we call "working by bridges." When you are blending eaux de vie that have more than 30 years of difference, you really need these eaux de vie to meet each other before the final blend.
How much before?
It depends on the quality of the blends. You have to give time to the final blend before [it is] bottled.
Before making a final blend, you make intermediate blends. When you have such powerful eaux de vie, you have the best potential of aging. You have the richness from the very beginning. So you really need to give time to this eaux de vie to express their potential of aging.
The mission of the cellar master is to make the bridges between all the different eaux de vie before the final blend. It will help also to maintain the consistency.
It is much more easy at the end, to make a final blend when it's already something that has been blended, and to deal with 20, or 25 intermediate blends, in comparison to dealing with 200 or 250 different components.
For me, it's part of the harmony that we want in the style of the house. At Réemy Martin we talk about the phase de mariage. It's the finishing period.
So why do you choose this blend?
It moved me. I was really focusing on something that is concentrated and intense but still fresh and vivid. I really wanted something that will highlight spiciness and woodiness.
I had some samples where [it was just a] concentration of fruits and that's all. Others were really woody. I was trying to find the most harmonious parts of the blends. I wanted to highlight the fresh spices, when it's full of nutmeg, ginger. Something like a Christmas cake or a gingerbread.
Other categories are experimenting with new wood expressions. Will cognac ever go in that direction?
To be called cognac, it has to be aged in French oak. It's written that it has to be aged in oak, or it could be oak barrels that used to contain wine or wine-based spirits like brandy. To be named cognac, you have to respect these rules.
There is a lot of people now in the cognac region that are looking at what other categories are doing, and they are asking if we could be inspired by all these finishes.
You have to find the right balance between the traditional part of the cognac making and innovation. We have so many things to tell, in the treasures and the diversity we have in the cellar, the legacy that we have from the previous cellar masters, that in my opinion, for Rémy Martin, we don't need to explore [these other styles.]
In my opinion, cognac is the king of the spirits. It has already everything inside.
I'm much more dealing with the quality of the grapes, the quality of the terroir, the quality of the people who are making the eau de vie.
So how does a heritage industry innovate?
We do limited releases, cask strengths. We speak about the diversity we have in the cellars. We highlight the new way we are making the distillation.
We have so many things to tell people. It's a big field to explore and we are still at the beginning of that. If I'm launching something, it has to remain in the style of the house and not be something that will just have the vision for two or three years.
I'm not focusing on the finishes of some [other] oak cask. Maybe it could be interesting. Maybe it can give a twist. But what's the point? If I'm having a cognac, I don't want my cognac to have the aroma of a bourbon finish or a whisky finish, I don't know.
What are the biggest challenges facing cognac?
In near-term and longterm, we know that we will face a climate change that will affect the quality of the grapes, and the balance between acidity and sugar. Grapes are becoming ripe much sooner now, so we have adapt when we harvest.
We have to rethink the way we grow the grapes, the way we pick the grapes, the type of grapes we grow. Between the next 30 or 40 years, the ugni blanc, and the other varietals of white grapes we have in the region will be transformed into new one.
We are already making experiments.
Cognac right now is made with Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard. There may other grapes one day?
We are already experimenting with new types of grapes on the Rémy Martin estate to see how they would behave in a really hot summer, if they would acquire the quality to maintain this consistency in the blends.
To make this experiment, you have to plant the vineyards, and then you have to wait three more years for these vineyards to give you some grapes. Then you make the harvest and the distillation. Then you have to wait at least four years of aging to see if it has the potential to be VSOP or not. It's really a long term vision.
When did you start this experiment?
A few years ago. I think we will see the effects of climate change in the next 30 or 40 years. That's why we have to start the experiments now to be ready.
It's one of the three parameters of the terroir. You have to be focused on what's going on the climate to be sure that the terroir won't change.
You can't control for climate.
It's far bigger than us. It's nature. You have to adapt to what nature gives to you. From time to time, the yield and the crops are lower than what you need. You adapt.
But are you allowed to use new grapes?
It's not grapes that are [officially] allowed but they are of interest for the region. Maybe we will make a move to have these grapes allowed in cognac making. For the moment, it's just experimental.
This interview has been condensed, and edited for clarity.