Balancing innovation with tradition is the ultimate goal of St-Rémy master blender Cécile Roudaut

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      Endlessly informative as she is today as the master blender at St-Rémy in France’s scenic Loire Valley, Cécile Roudaut had some learning to do after deciding to enter the wine and spirits industry. Her journey to the celebrated French distillery started with the decision to study biology. That led to laboratory work in the cosmetics industry, where she began in quality control and then moved into research and development. Roudaut remembers the first time she saw a product she’d worked on appear on a shelf.

      “I was so proud,” she says in charmingly accented French, interviewed at Vancouver’s Rosewood Hotel Georgia. “It was a real revelation for me—that I wanted to work doing something where I was creating things.”

      A stop in the pharmaceutical industry drove home the importance of precision and keeping to rigorous standards, after which Roudaut decided to step out of her comfort zone with a jump into a job with a Loire Valley winery.

      “At first in wine, I knew nothing,” she says with a laugh. “When I had the interview, I said ‘Well, when they are in transparent glasses, I know white, red, and rose. But that’s all.’ ”

      That might be a bit of exaggeration for comedic effect. Born in Saumur in the Loire Valley, Roudaut’s introduction to the region’s wine industry came through her father.

      “He taught me things about wine, but only from the Loire Valley,” she reminisces. “I had no idea about wines like Bordeaux or Burgundy other than I liked them. But they gave me the chance to do training, which I did every evening and Saturday for two years. I learned about grapes, about tasting, and blending, and it was marvellous. I learned a lot.”

      That led Roudaut to the Rémy Cointreau group in the mid-’90s, and a research and development role for everything from wine and brandy to whisky to tequila. Over the years she would become a trusted sounding board to St-Rémy’s legendary master blender Martine Pain.

      “We worked together on limited editions, and in 2016 when Martine retired, Rémy Cointreau group proposed to me the position of master blender,” she recalls. “I accepted with a lot of happiness.”

      On this day, Roudaut is in Vancouver for a launch of her St-Rémy Signature brandy. Over the course of an hour at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, she’s part educator, part historian, and part endlessly enthusiastic raconteur. What comes through immediately is that she’s immensely proud to be part of a brand-making tradition that dates back to the late 1800s.

      St-Rémy’s brandy-making process starts with the harvesting of select red and white grapes from France’s most distinguished wine-growing regions, including the Loire Valley, Rhône, Champagne, and Languedoc-Roussillon. First comes the distillation where wine is turned into eau de vie by heating in signature copper columns.

      “Copper is a tradition for St-Rémy for cognac—it is very important,” Roudaut says. “Why? Because copper has two properties. The first is for heating—it is a very good conductor, and second it’s a very good catalyst for chemical reaction. We don’t know exactly how it works, but we do know if you put wine in stainless-steel columns you don’t have the same results as copper. The eau de vie is fatter, not fruity, and not elegant the way it is when you put it in a copper column.”

      After distillation, complex eau de vie is matured in small virgin oak casks before finishing in traditional oak casks. A key word for Roudaut when it comes to the creation of St-Rémy brandy is “small”.

      “The maturation process is done in small casks of 350 litres,” she relates. “That’s very important—the ratio of contact between the wood and the liquid is high at 70 square centimetres. Competitors in French brandy often use big vats, and the contact ratio for them is only 16 square centimetres. After one year in small casks, you obtain marvellous results. It takes eight-and-a-half years to obtain those same results in big casks.”

      While innovation is important to Roudaut, she places just as high a value on tradition as St-Rémy’s master distiller. Both came together with Signature.

      “I wanted to put St-Rémy in new barrels to see if the results were good or not,” she says. “And the results were good—lots of coconut and vanilla. But the DNA of St-Rémy wasn’t respected, so I had the idea to do the second maturation process using our traditional casks. And that led to Signature.”

      As for what’s inside that bottle, Roudaut couldn’t be more excited to break things down at the Rosewood. After pouring two glasses she says: “Explanations are good, but it’s better to smell and taste. Inside your glass you have a beautiful golden amber colour and a richness. You can see the legs on the glass, and on-the-nose vanilla and coconut with no aggressivity—it doesn’t burn.

      “On the front notes there are apricots, peach, and almond,” Roudaut continues. “On the back, again no aggressivity—it’s very smooth with no deception between the nose and the palate. What you smell is what you have in the mouth—the virgin wood, coconut, charred fruits.”

      The beauty of St-Rémy Signature is, she suggests, its versatility. We’ve been conditioned to think of brandy as something to be consumed neat.

      “Signature is a very versatile product—so smooth and balanced that you can easily use it in many cocktails,” Roudaut opines. 

      The key to changing perceptions is education. On that front, swap out whisky for St-Rémy Signature brandy in an Old-Fashioned and prepare for a whole new experience.

      Understandably, Roudaut gets excited when she talks about possibilities on the cocktail front. In fact, excitable, not to mention endlessly enthusiastic, are pretty much perfect descriptors to describe her in person. Some life decisions pay off more handsomely than others, with Roudaut a great example of someone who took a chance and dove into an industry that was a mystery to her at first.

      Asked if she loves her job, she takes a sip of Signature, laughs, and then beamingly says: “Look at my face. And then tell me what you do you think?”