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Cognac’s hidden houses

We all know the big Cognac names, even if only from our favourite hip-hop tracks. But, says Richard Woodard, a smattering of smaller, boutique producers are quietly making their voices heard, and are well worth seeking out. Can this family-owned model survive?

Words by Richard Woodard

Photography by Allen Jenkins

christophe fillioux
The Collection
Christophe Fillioux is concerned that there are ‘fewer and fewer’ family producers

It was in 1870 that Maurice Hennessy instructed Emile Fillioux to create a new Cognac. Fillioux was Hennessy’s master blender, and Hennessy XO was the first of its kind, with a style and expression that would come to define Cognac’s place in the luxury firmament. For the subsequent seven generations, the Fillioux family has been at the heart of Hennessy, the world’s bestselling Cognac producer. From father to son, uncle to nephew, the skills and secrets of the trade have been handed down, all the way to the current incumbent, Renaud Fillioux de Gironde.

Emile Fillioux had two sons. One would continue his work with Hennessy, but the other – Honoré Fillioux – chose a different path. He sold his shares in 1880 and began to make his own brandy, buying the family’s La Pouyade estate and distillery 14 years later and establishing the house that came to bear his son’s name: Jean Fillioux. Today, Hennessy and Jean Fillioux are, in many ways, Cognac’s polar opposites: one a vast super-brand that shares an owner with Louis Vuitton, Dior and Tiffany; the other a deliberately artisanal operation, independent and family-owned, performing every function from grape to bottle.

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fillioux stamps
Pascal Fillioux passed on the family estate to his son Christophe, who warns there’s no guarantee that new generations will want to continue

Cognac is dominated by the ‘big four’ houses – Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier – which, together, are responsible for roughly nine out of every 10 bottles consumed around the world. Of the 300 or so houses that make up that other 10%, many remain either utterly anonymous, quietly supplying the big houses with eaux-de-vie for them to blend. And then there are the small estates bottling their own Cognacs, often known only to insiders.

This is where the likes of Fillioux fit in. They may not be namechecked by rappers or enjoy high-end associations with fashion and architecture, but they represent an often more tangible link between the Cognac in your glass and the land that created it. And they are well worth getting to know. ‘With Cognac, I always feel that the flavour profile compared to whisky is much narrower, but it’s when you put these small domaines side by side and taste them that you see the nuances,’ says Sukhinder Singh, co-founder and managing director of drinks retailer The Whisky Exchange. ‘Some are light and elegant, some are richer, and some are in that big Hennessy style. These [smaller] domaines bring those nuances to life.’

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Old barrels finding a new use at Jean Fillioux

Over the years, largely through word of mouth, Singh has unearthed several of these independent producers, sometimes importing only two or three bottles at a time because of limited availability, and publicising them through events such as The Cognac Show. ‘What I like is that we can use these domaines to bring out those nuances and show how different the style of each of these Cognacs is,’ he says. ‘You get beautiful liquid and superb value for money. When you try these 40-year-old Cognacs and you realise they’re only £100 or so a bottle… It just doesn’t make sense when you compare that to whisky.’

There is a unique character for sure – an atmosphere in a glass

Jean Fillioux is rooted in the vaunted Grande Champagne, its 25ha vineyard of deep chalk soils sitting in the fêted ‘golden triangle’ linking Juillac-le-Coq with Verrières and Angeac-Champagne. Manager Christophe Fillioux is reluctant to be pinned down to a specific style, however. ‘I’m not sure there’s one typical to Jean Fillioux,’ he says. ‘There is a unique character for sure – an atmosphere in a glass. But I’m not able to put words to it, and I’m not sure there is any point in doing so, because everybody has their own palate.’ Still, let’s try.

The Fillioux Cognacs fall into two camps: younger expressions aged in ‘red barrels’ – used oak, similar to refill casks in whisky – with fresh, vibrant characteristics; and longer-aged products, which start life in new oak before being transferred into older barrels. Here you find the depth, along with the secondary and tertiary aromas that characterise Grande Champagne Cognacs after decades in cask. Both styles benefit from a delayed distillation (often December at the earliest) until after malolactic fermentation is finished, teasing out the full array of the wine’s aromatics.

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Christophe Fillioux: 'Our fear is that Cognac becomes a standardised product'

Where Jean Fillioux traces a history of almost 130 years and five generations, Michel Forgeron is, in Cognac terms, an upstart, having been established only in 1977 at Chez Richon, a few kilometres east of Segonzac. When the young Forgeron returned to the family farm from military service in 1960, he found 2ha of vines and 4ha of arable land. By 1965, he had planted vines everywhere he could and, with his wife Francine, turned the stable into a distillery, and the barns into a cellar.

Over the years, the estate has been expanded to 24ha, and a second still was added under the management of Michel’s son Christophe, master blender now for 20 years. From the outset, Christophe says, his parents set out to propose ‘something different’: blends of great age and a higher-than-usual alcoholic strength to carry the flavours on the palate. Distilled on the lees, there are echoes here of Rémy Martin, with eaux-de-vie that have a distinct opulence and fatness suited to long ageing. Where the big blends prioritise consistency, Christophe looks the other way. ‘I don’t really care to keep repeating the same taste for a given blend,’ he says. ‘I just guarantee the minimum ageing and make them according to each available vintage barrel’s taste – and, of course, my own taste, which changes over time.’

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michel forgeron cognac shelf
At Michel Forgeron, Christophe Forgeron says he tries to make Cognac ‘according to each vintage barrel’s taste’

At Château Montifaud – a Petite Champagne specialist, family-owned for six generations, since 1866 – the taste is for Cognacs that express the vineyard: fresh, floral and fruit-forward, with oak as a judicious accompaniment rather than a dominating factor. Laurent Vallet, who entered the business in 2000, has overseen an expansion of the vineyards to more than 120ha across Grande and Petite Champagne, as well as the construction of a new blending cellar. ‘It would be boring for consumers to find only five or six types of Cognac,’ Vallet says. ‘The smaller Cognac houses are very important for diversity, which comes from the terroir: the different grapes planted in the vineyard; the crus; but also the method of distillation, the ageing and the blending. This diversity is a strength for Cognac.’

michel forgeron distillery
The rustic cellars of Cognac producer Michel Forgeron

A strength it may be, but that diversity is under threat. Cognac is on a hot streak around the world, with the US and China consuming vast quantities every year, but it is the big houses that tend to reap the rewards of this success – and they are thirsty for more, snapping up smaller operators at every opportunity. There are perils and pitfalls inherent in maintaining a family-owned business in France. Will the younger generation take over? With the rising value of vineyard land and France’s tax regime – not to mention labyrinthine inheritance laws – can they even afford to? ‘The next generation must decide if they want to continue the family history or not,’ says Christophe Fillioux. ‘If not, the estate is often sold. If the family disagrees, the estate and the stock is often sold. It leads to brands disappearing, and it is a shame.’

Fillioux, Montifaud and Forgeron are all determined to maintain their independence, but every year there are fewer and fewer like them. ‘Very often, when we talk to these producers, their children just aren’t interested,’ says Singh. ‘They’ve gone to the cities, they’ve got jobs in Paris and they don’t want to come back. With a lot of these small domaines, what’s scary is that there’s nobody to take them over. They’ll be bought by a big boy for the stocks, and they’ll use their warehouses and their vineyards.’

laurent vallet
chateau montifaud cognac
Laurent Vallet of Château Montifaud: ‘It would be boring for consumers to find only five or six types of Cognac'

It would be easy to characterise this as some kind of clichéd David-and-Goliath battle, where soulless multinationals ruthlessly mop up family businesses to fuel their plans for global domination. But that’s only part of a rather more complex story. ‘Without the big brands, we just would not exist – or not as many of us – and we would be competing against each other in a French market that has no love for Cognac,’ says Christophe Forgeron.

Laurent Vallet agrees. ‘Of course the big brands overshadow the smaller ones, but the small houses have a niche market with a lot of connoisseurs,’ he says. ‘That market suits us. We don’t have millions of bottles to sell, but when a consumer wants to discover other types of Cognac, he starts to look beyond those big brands.’

chateau montifaud cognac making
While smaller players face a struggle to compete with the bigger brands, Laurent Vallet says that small Cognac producers 'have a niche market with a lot of connoisseurs'

Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, the eighth generation of his family to blend for Hennessy, is responsible for making close to 100m bottles of Cognac every 12 months. In a good year, Christophe Fillioux, his distant relative, might make 25,000 or so. Together, Hennessy and Jean Fillioux are Cognac’s yin and yang, a symbiotic blend of global success and artisanal distinctiveness. And the loss of either would leave Cognac severely diminished. ‘Our fear is that Cognac becomes seen as a standardised product,’ says Christophe Fillioux. ‘There are so many exciting bottlings to discover – fascinating stories, fantastic blends or vintages. It is our role as producers to fight and keep offering diversity. There are fewer and fewer family-owned producers, and most new brands entering the market come from big groups. But there are exceptions…’