Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, 39, is a cognac master blender for Hennessy, in Cognac, France.
When and how did you become the master blender at Hennessy?
On July 1 of this year I became the eighth consecutive generation of men in my family to hold this position. My uncle Yann Fillioux stepped down and passed the torch to me upon retiring after 50 years working at Hennessy.
Was it simple nepotism and a foregone conclusion that you would join Hennessy and move into that position?
No, it required a long and structured process. But growing up in this region, watching the excitement of the fall harvest, watching my parents, who owned their own distillery and sold their wines to Hennessy, I naturally came to love the whole process.
My route was different from my relatives, however. I first studied economics in Bordeaux and later in Reims before joining Hennessy. And I’m the only one in the family to take a year off from Hennessy to earn a master’s degree in the wine business, at the University of Adelaide in Australia.
What are the skills and traits of a good cognac blender?
First, I would say, is patience. Cognac is a brandy, so it takes time to distill the grapes into what we call eau de vie — meaning water of life — and then age it again in oak barrels for anywhere from three to 100 years.
Second, even more than a good palate, you need an educated nose. Recognizing the desired flavor requires a good palate, which can taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory. But the nose is even more important.
The aromas will vary with the age of the cognac, but the most present scents are vanilla, nuts, flowers. After a first smell, we slightly swirl the cognac, bring the glass a bit closer to the nose again and inhale. We call that the cognac’s second nose.
Can you suggest words used to describe great cognac, the same way winemakers talk about their vintage?
My work is to define and to make it, not so much to describe it. I taste for potential, and how I can make what exists better to meet our very high standard of excellence. That said, some words we use are delicate, elegant, refined, full-bodied, good oak, smooth and well rounded, balanced. Balance is critical.
Why is Cognac the center for distilling cognac?
The main variety used for cognac is ugni blanc, a white grape also known as trebbiano. Here in Cognac we have the elements in which it grows best: a chalky soil, and a climate that benefits from the influence of the ocean, with winters that are not too cold and summers not too warm. This produces acidic trebbiano grapes, which make a perfect wine for our distillation process.
So now, at the age of 39 and having reached this pinnacle, what can be next for you?
It’s not a destination; it’s a journey, I have plenty to learn. The beauty of doing this is that every year is different. When the climate changes, when the rainfall changes, when we get more or less sun, the grapes change and therefore we have to adjust the distillation process and length of aging time to make the best cognac we can.