The world’s first female cellar master of a cognac house, has one of the finest noses in the business. Having grown up on a vineyard and trained as a scientist, she reveals to Laura Barber how she sniffed and swirled her way out of the Rémy Martin laboratory and came to possess the centuries’ old secrets of the spirit
When I think of my childhood in the countryside, what comes back to me are the aromas. I remember the fig jam my mother used to make, and the way the smell would change as the fruit was cooking. My father was a viticulturist and the scent of the grapevine flowers when the vines were in bloom was magical. I’ve always been curious and loved research, so I decided to study biochemistry at university – not to work in a chemical industry, but to bring my scientific knowledge back to my roots, by applying it to a product that comes from the earth.
It was pure luck that I went into spirits. I’d just finished my degree when I was invited to apply for a job at Rémy Martin. The president of the company, André Hériard Dubreuil, wanted to develop the best cognac possible and he was setting up a laboratory in order tounderstand the entire process, from the distillation of the eau de vie, to the oak-aging, and the blending. I joined the company as a scientist, but it was always important to me not just to analyse the wine from a molecular point of view, but to know its aromatic qualities, on the nose and in the mouth.
As part of the tasting team, I was responsible for making sure that the distinctive flavour of the cognac remained consistent. Through my work in the lab, we’d broken down the different aromatic notes and created a specific palette of descriptors that defined our style. To apply this at the tasting table, I had to train myself to be able to pick out individual scents, commit them to memory and recall them. Every day we would gather with the cellar master, Georges Clot, to nose the eau de vie and discuss it. When we smell, we all have different points of reference, so while I might summon up a memory of hay, the person next to me will imagine a tisane. Over two decades, by tasting hundreds and hundreds of wines together, we learned to recognise each other’s personal sensitivities and align our vocabulary, so we could be sure we all had the same conception of an aroma.
“I’d been working on recreating the precise blend of our Louis XIII, which dates back to 1874. The person who usually tastes this cognac, took one sip and said to me, ‘It’s perfect. Carry on – and don’t change a thing'”
When the moment came for Georges Clot to retire, they had to choose his successor from among the team. He knew I had a good nose and understood cognac, but the fact that I also had scientific expertise gave me the edge. There were a few who wondered whether a woman could handle all that eau de vie. But I was able to assure them that I could do the tasting with a female physique and still be in pretty good shape afterwards.
As the cellar master, a lot of my time is taken up with management – from buying the casks to monitoring the alembic stills and controlling the stock – but every day there’s something new to discover in the moment of tasting, a note of honey or trace of spice, so my senses are kept constantly alert. I often play around at my desk, experimenting with blending and dreaming up new products. Keeping this sensory curiosity and excitement is essential. If ever I get stuck in my work, I leave the office and cycle off into the countryside. The fresh air and the smells you find in nature clear my head and inspire me.
I’m now beginning to think about handing on the baton to the next generation, so just as Georges Clot did with me, I’m spending thousands of hours with my successor, tasting together and talking. It’s this transmission of sensory savoir faire that enables the tradition of cognac to continue, from the past and into the future. I remember the day I felt this most strongly. I’d been working on recreating the precise blend of our Louis XIII, which dates back to 1874. The person who usually tastes this cognac, took one sip and said to me, “It’s perfect. Carry on – and don’t change a thing.”