When Rémy Martin chose fresh-faced Baptiste Loiseau to take on its illustrious mantle three years ago, the decision raised a few eyebrows. Thrust into the thick of it at just 34, cognac’s youngest cellar master had his work cut out to prove to miffed winegrowers – and perplexed industry peers – he was up to the task.
“Some people were a bit shocked,” he admits. “In the beginning some winegrowers said, “You seem like a nice guy but I don’t really understand how a young guy like you can tell me how I’m supposed to work,” he recalls with a chuckle. “It was weird because some of them trained me and now I was giving them advice on how to improve quality. But they realised I wasn’t there to tell them what to do or how to run their business. It’s about creating a relationship, having conversations. We’re a big family.”
A smidgen of scepticism came with the territory. After all, in 2014 Baptiste was the youngest person ever to reach such a lofty position in the cognac business – and still is. Despite his relatively tender age, and boyish dimples to boot, he was no upstart. In fact, he had more than paid his dues after seven years under the tutelage of his no-nonsense predecessor, Pierrette Trichet – herself the first woman to be made cellar master at a major cognac house.
They had already been working side by side for three years when she appointed him deputy cellar master in 2011. Only then did she begin grooming him to succeed her in the top spot, finally initiating him into the inner sanctum.
“Only when you’re sure that it’s the right person do you share your secrets,” he reasons. “I was hungry for knowledge and she wanted to pass on her expertise. She taught me to taste new eaux-de-vie, to recognise the Rémy Martin house style, and to always demand the very highest possible quality. She has laid the bricks one by one, and together we have built on these foundations.”
And yet, the fast-riser never intended to end up back in his hometown of Cognac, at the helm of one of the world’s leading spirit labels. He originally set his sights on a career in biology, but a brief spell in a research lab was enough to prompt a rethink.
“I just wondered what I was doing there,” he bursts out laughing. “You have in mind this extraordinary job – researcher…” he explains with a tinge of awe. “But after a month alone in the lab I really missed human contact.”
There and then the 20-year-old made a volte-face and decided to retrain as an agronomist and oenologist.
“Off my own back I decided to go and meet some of the growers in the wine regions – to see if I could do it. I went back home for Christmas and told my family I was giving up biology. My mum just said, ‘What are you talking about?’
“When I was little I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents, who were market gardeners, and I remember going to the presses with them to taste the grape juice. I remember the grape harvest. This is part of my roots. But until then, I had never been interested in production.”
THE ROYAL ROUTE
He took the ‘royal route’, studying at some of the country’s most prestigious schools: the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon and the École Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Montpellier. Eventually, the pull of cognac, the drink of choice of the greats – Winston Churchill, Victor Hugo, Napoleon and, on a different register, rapper Jay Z – was too much to resist.
A cellar master’s responsibilities are manifold, and hugely daunting. As the house’s custodian, Baptiste is the only person able to recreate its timeless recipes and is solely responsible for ensuring consistency between blends. Each year, he single-handedly tastes (blindly, to ensure impartiality) more than 2,000 samples of eaux-de-vie between the months of November and March. Throughout, he must take great care not to dull his taste buds. This means forgoing any food or drink that risk throwing off his palate and skewing the results (down to his morning café). The no-go list is endless.
“No spicy food, garlic, or coffee,” he reels off. “Nothing that can affect the way you perceive aromas. You have to have a neutral palate. And you have to be a non-smoker,” he continues. “You can’t have a cold. And you have to be in good shape. Tasting is hard. You have to be really focused, and hold the tension. You need to exercise, to release the pressure,” adds Baptiste, who shoots off twice a week at lunchtime to play racket ball.
“You have to have a great capacity for concentration,” he goes on in a soft French lilt. “You have to be really aware, open, and use all your senses. But these eaux-de-vie are exceptional. Tasting is the perfect combination of pleasure and hard work. The smells, the aromas, take you back to childhood memories, like the plum jam your grandmother made. It’s an emotional experience. That’s the magical thing about cognac.”
Surprisingly perhaps, given how entirely reliant he is on his senses, nose and palate, none of his precious ‘tools’ are insured…
“I’m not Julia Roberts,” he says playfully; a nod to rumours that the Hollywood actress’s dazzling grin is insured for $10 million. “It’s my responsibility to make sure everything works the way it needs to.”
Occasionally, a handful of producers are invited into the tasting room to witness the painstaking curation process. It is a tremendous honour, and most farmers treat it as such, whipping out their Sunday best for the occasion – for better or for worse.
“When you do a tasting, you want a neutral atmosphere, so no perfume,” says Baptiste cautiously, mindful not to be unkind. “The best way for winegrowers to see that the tasting is fair, and to understand the quality we’re looking for, is to take part in it. Some of them are so impressed they’ve been invited that they wear their best clothes, and they put a lot of perfume on,” he giggles. “When they enter the tasting room the three or four of us in the room just look at each other. It smells a little too good! But we don’t say anything to them,” he recoils at the suggestion they enforce a no-cologne code for over-eager guests. “It only happens once or twice a year. They really want to impress, so we do our best in these conditions. Cognac is all about enjoying yourself, and sharing with friends and family,” he points out.
Despite his prestigious job, Baptiste is not one for ceremony, or putting on airs for that matter. My (ill-advised) throwaway comment about the ‘proper way’ of swilling cognac, i.e. neat, provokes an immediate gut response.
“The best way to drink it is with ginger ale, or tonic,” he exclaims. “For an everyday bottle of course. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy it and that’s the way people in Cognac drink it. The citrusy flavour of the ginger gives a freshness to the cognac and enhances its vanilla aroma. It’s the perfect match. In the US, most people appreciate cognac like this, mixed. But yes if it’s older, mature cognac, you should drink it neat,” he concedes.
While determined to safeguard Rémy Martin’s heritage, the industrious 36-year-old is also keen to etch his stamp on the brand and inject a touch of youthful irreverence into the craft. But the stakes are high – he knows as much. “I’m focused on consistency but I also have the opportunity to innovate. And I want to express myself, inject my identity and create something that has not been done before.”
Last year, he made his first foray with Carte Blanche à Baptiste Loiseau, a limited-edition cognac handpicked by him from the many treasures cached in the depths of the Rémy Martin cellars. He is now toiling away on his first signature blend, a make-or-break pet project which could truly prove his mettle as cellar master. A definite departure from the brand’s core range, it will still be steeped in Rémy Martin tradition, he insists.
“I’m already working on eaux-de-vie that are slightly different and I’m following the ageing closely,” he reveals. “In a few years I will be able to release something different from the classic range but still staying true to the brand.”
Any hopes of wangling any more clues are quickly nipped in the bud. He is bound by secrecy. Although quietly confident about the finished product, he is certainly no braggart.
“As a cellar master, you have to hide behind the brand,” he says firmly. “On the bottle you don’t have the name of the cellar master, you have the name of the brand. So if didn’t maintain the style of the house, I’d kill the brand. And I don’t want to be known as the man who killed Rémy Martin,” he quips. “The blend won’t be released until 2019. I’m really excited. In 2007, I never imagined I would have the opportunity to create something for Rémy Martin. I’m sure…” he catches himself. Thinking better of it, he booms proudly: “I’m sure it will be good.”
From France Today magazine