Christophe Valtaud inherited Martell’s coveted Cellar Master mantle from Benoît Fil in 2016. Perhaps the changing of the guard was a signal of changes to come—Valtaud, then 38, oversees the crafting of Martell cognacs and in a novel move, replaces the Martell VSOP Medallion with the Martell VSOP Aged in Red Barrels.
Maybe ‘replaces’ is too strong a word. Valtaud aims to stick to Martell’s style but still push the envelope with the VSOP taste. The containers used to age the cognacs in are futs roux or red barrels, named because of the colour that they take on. These barrels are ‘at the perfect maturation for both the wood and the spirit, selected to enhance the candied fruit aromas shining through this intense cognac expression’. They may not be the drinks we had at the recent Esquire Shophouse but the result of notes of fruits, faint wood overtones and a smoother taste make for an alluring pull for the new generation of drinkers. We find out more from Valtaud about the Martell VSOP Aged in Red Barrels and his work.
As a guy with a background in biochemistry, molecular biology, and plant physiology, how do you explain the Aging process of the Martell VSOP Red Barrels and its unique notes?
As a scientist, my first thought when I became Cellar Master was to understand the interaction between the wood and the eaux-de-vie. It’s very interesting for us to analyse and determine exactly what happens. The red barrels used for ageing Martell VSOP Red Barrels have in fact already been used to age eaux-de-vie. We begin with new barrels that become red after three years of ageing, and before they are aged there is some bitterness from the tannins and the vanilla notes are less pronounced. After three years, the bitterness is reduced as a result of fewer tannins and the vanilla notes are more intense, and at this stage, it is perfectly balanced. The precious red barrels have thus reached the perfect stage of maturation for both the oak and the eaux-de-vie, thus allowing for an ideally balanced exchange between the two. The wood provides the spicy, more cinnamon notes, while the fruity notes such as apricot and grape come from the wine.
For someone who is one of the few who is privy to Martell’s secrets, what kind of precautions/concession do the cognac house make for you?
I am legally bounded to the House of Martell, but beyond that when I accepted the position at Martell, I knew that it would be impossible for me to switch over to any other Houses. In the Cognac area, the Martell team is large and very renowned, and if ever I were to change my job, I would probably have to leave Cognac itself. When you decide that you want to work with Martell, you have to be clear on your decision, as it is a very small city where everybody knows each other, and it is impossible to change jobs. We are also very passionate about our Houses, and for us whenever we speak about our jobs, it’s never about the brands—but about the House; it has become our family already.
What’s your daily routine to hone your expertise as a Cellar Master?
After you have undergone training, you have to taste every day, and it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle—not too much alcohol, no smoking, no stress, no intake of overly spicy foods. You also cannot change your perfume, as it might affect your tasting. When you taste, you create a reference point with the exact scenario and environment, and if you change something, you will alter the taste and your feelings toward the spirit.
What was your first cognac like?
It was with my grandfather when I was five years old in the cellar. My grandfather was in the cellar taking samples from the barrels to check on the quality of the eaux-de-vie, and he asked if I wanted to smell the sample. And of course, I agreed. When I was 16, I tasted my first cognac at the distillery with my father, but of course, I had to spit it out. When we were younger, we would drop a few drops of cognac on a sugar cube to sweeten it, to reduce the strength of the alcohol but maintain the fragrance of the spirit so as to taste the notes.
What’s your take on the changing palates of the newer generation of cognac drinkers?
It’s very interesting because the new consumers are more sophisticated tasters, probably because we have more women drinkers compared to last time. Women are more sophisticated, and they prefer a more balanced, refined taste. Many people also want to know more about what they drink, from the provenance of the cognac to the price point, so we’re seeing more discerning consumers now.
You were raised in a cognac culture, was there ever a time that you’ve thought of doing something else outside of the industry?
Yes, I was once a scientist for five years, and it was quite interesting for me to explore a different profession for a short period. In the beginning, I had wished to work with my father in the vineyards as a distiller, and I always knew I wanted to come back to the cognac industry, especially when this opportunity with Martell came about eight years ago.
For more information and purchase of the Martell VSOP Red Barrels, click here.