Martell was founded in 1715 by Jean Martell, a native from Jersey, and is the oldest of the great cognac houses.
Today, Martell has 430 hectares of vineyards and its products are sold in 86 countries worldwide. Benoît Fil, 37, was appointed Cellar Master seven years ago, and we spoke to him to find out more about this globally renowned brand.
LM: Please tell our readers about your background.
BF: My grandfather was a wine grower, and even when he was retired, he had a big garden with large vegetable patches, and this is something that had a big impact on me. This link with the earth and nature inspired me to study agriculture and oenology at the Graduate School of Life Sciences of Toulouse. I joined Pernod Ricard in 2000 to oversee the wine-growing of Georgian Wines and Spirits, and I spent almost eight years in Georgia planting new vineyards. I gradually gained more responsibility and was appointed technical director, and then overall operations director. It was very interesting in terms of professional experience, but at the same time it was challenging due to the poor economic conditions. I subsequently joined Martell almost seven years ago in the role of Cellar Master.
LM: What are your main responsibilities and what qualities make a good Cellar Master?
BF: I think one of my main responsibilities is to ensure that the cognac we made yesterday is the same today, and will be the same tomorrow, whilst maintaining the quality of the existing product. It is also about building a bridge between the past and the future, respecting the traditions and the style of Martell, and everything that my predecessors did before me. I have to somehow try and bring some innovations and new blends as well as new ways of working. For example, last year, we launched ‘Martell Distinction’ in China. This was a new concept where we made a blend that paired perfectly with their cuisine, whilst staying true to Martell tradition. In addition, for the US market, we created ‘Martell Caractère’ which was a cognac designed for mixologists making cocktails. For older cognac, it’s a bit more difficult to be innovative.
In terms of qualities, I think that the most important is passion. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing which includes learning about ageing, distillation and winemaking. The second key quality is modesty. We work as a team, and I work with people that are far more experienced than I am. I have been here for only seven years which is very little in the world of cognac. Some people have been making cognac for more than 25 years, and therefore it is important to learn from them and acknowledge that sometimes when tasting, you can be wrong. Tasting is not an exact science, and sometimes you can be sick, have slept badly, and therefore it is important to taste in a team of at least two or three. Being a good taster is not a quality in itself. You have to continue training, even if you have a natural flair for it.
In fact, at 11:30 each day, we come together to taste all the eaux-de-vie that we have purchased, and twice a week, we meet to taste all of the stocks, so it’s possible we can experience more than 50 samples every day.
LM: Do you feel under pressure to select the correct eaux de vie for the future?
BF: I don’t think it’s a pressure, but a responsibility. It’s important to use the eaux-de-vie that were produced by my predecessors very carefully and not to waste them, and of course, decide every year the quantities of eaux de vie which will be saved for future generations.
LM: How will you ensure that your experience is passed on to future generations and is not lost?
BF: This is a very important point. I have two teams – one which is in charge of stock and blending, whilst the other is responsible for the purchase of eaux-de-vie – both have tasters within them. Furthermore, my right-hand man is now in his fifties and will be retiring in a few years. Therefore, six years ago we recruited his successor. In the purchase team, we took on five young guys so that they can learn the trade and we always taste with the younger generation so that the elders can pass on their skills.
LM: What are the distinguishing features of Martell cognac?
BF: It comes mostly from the process of cognac making and there are several factors. Firstly, the selection of different growth areas. For example, we at Martell love Borderies and we buy more than 50% of the production in this zone each year, and Borderies is a real hallmark for Martell. We also mainly blend the growth areas Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois which is part of our style. Otherwise, it’s more in the process of distillation – we are the cognac house that has the most precise distillation method which was formalised by Francois Chapeau who was a Cellar Master in the middle of the 20th Century. We also choose very elegant and fine eaux-de-vie, and for the ageing process, we use fine grain oak which brings a high aromatic potential.
LM: During the last seven years, what have been your highlights?
BF: When I arrived in Cognac, it was the time that we were launching ‘L’Or de Jean Martell’, and I had the opportunity to finalise this blend. It’s a permanent feature of our product range, so I have to make sure that I can create it today, tomorrow and in 50 years’ time. For ‘Martell Premier Voyage’, it was a very different approach and we really focused on just 300 bottles, and I think it’s my most interesting creation.
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By Simon Wittenberg MIOJ