Hubert Burda Media

Angel’s Share

Heir to a cognac dynasty, UK-raised graphic designer MELANIE TESSERON — a rare female in the world of spirits — is showcasing the liquor’s deliciously softer side. By Lauren Tan

Since cognac collector Abel Tesseron founded the Tesseron Cognac House in Châteauneuf-sur-Charente in 1905, the family business has been handed down through the generations. Abel’s son, Guy, guided the firm for over 30 years, before passing the reigns to his sons Gérard and Alfred, who also run Pauillac classified growth Château Pontet-Canet, the wine estate Guy purchased in 1975.
Favoured for its superlative eaux de vie, the Tesseron Cognac House made its name as a major supplier to all the famed cognac houses — Martell, Courvoisier, Hennessy, Remy Martin — before (finally) thinking to emblazon its own bottles with the family label in 2003.
Two years later in 2005 — the same year Robert Parker scored the Lot 29 a full 100 points — Gérard’s daughter Melanie inherited his shares and stepped up to the plate to steer the celebrated cognac and wine businesses alongside her uncle Alfred.
Born and raised in the UK, the fourth-generation Tesseron had spent little time at the family wineries in her youth, but her keen senses (a requisite in the business), go-getter spirit and flair for marketing has since propelled her to the top of her field.
Ranked number 23 on The Drinks Business’ list of Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Wine last year, Tesseron was recently in town to introduce an emblematic range of Tesseron cognacs to the Singapore market.
But asked to describe herself in terms of grape varietals, Tesseron is decidedly more Bordelais (sorry, Cognac): “I’d have to say I’d be a Cabernet Sauvignon. Because it’s powerful, yet elegant!”
You were living in England at the time you were asked back to be a part of Tesseron and Pontet-Canet. What did you do there?
I’m actually born and bred in London. My mother is English and my father is French. I was originally a graphic designer working in television at the time I got the call from the family to come join the business. I had just gotten into experimental film work and was beginning to win a few awards. So to be honest, I didn’t think I would last long in France because London, Charente and Pauillac are not exactly the same thing! But I gained a passion for the work. I was attracted to the fact that Pontet-Canet followed organic and biodynamic practices, and that we had something very special going on at Tesseron that is a true art form.
In 2005, just two years after Tesseron Cognac was started, Robert Parker described one of the cognacs as “just ethereal”.
It was great recognition for us. He did mention that he wasn’t a cognac connoisseur, but he does recognise that anything this smooth and ethereal deserved a notation. That opened us up to a whole different world — the wine connoisseur market.
Do reviews matters?
Yes, of course they do. All press does. It gets the product out there and by a third-party who would have tasted quite a few other cognacs and spirits, and have a much broader view than us or the regular consumer. We believe consumers do read and consider them. I certainly do.
One of the unique things at Tesseron is that you are one of the very few who still grow the three traditional grapes that go into cognac.
Exactly. We have Ugni Blanc, which is the main grape variety in Cognac, Colombard and Folle Blanche. Colombard gives very rich tones and Folle Blanche gives very floral tones, but they are very sensitive varietals and so they’re very rare. One day the grapes are ripe, the next they perish. But we believe it is important to maintain them because they enable us to have a variety of notes that you do not necessarily come across in other cognacs.
Pontet-Canet is known for its biodynamic practices. Are the cognac vineyards biodynamic too?
No. With wine, it’s all about bringing out the terroir, whereas with cognac we make a dry white wine, double distil it and age it in barrels. So it’s not about making the best wine possible, but one with good acidity, because what is left after distillation is a very purified wine with all its residues completely burned off. With organic or biodynamic farming, you loose a lot of the rendement (yield), but for cognac, you want production to be high because the wine will be reduced during distillation and aging. In barrel, you lose about three percent a year through evaporation.
And you age the cognacs in an extraordinary cellar, I hear.
We’re located right in the centre of town and what we’ve done is converted a 13th-century crypt that used to be part of an old monastery into a cellar. It’s where we’ve been ageing cognac for over 100 years. We’ve created our own, but we’ve also bought a lot. My great-grandfather and grandfather were big collectors of old demijohns and we have some very old stocks dating back to the 1700s.
Is cognac making a comeback? There seems to be quite an industry-wide marketing blitz.
There’s definitely been a massive comeback in the last couple of years, mainly because of the Chinese market’s practice of gifting. Whiskies really took over the market for a while and people forgot how soft, complex and aromatic great cognacs can be, because of all the younger, more aggressive cognacs that were more readily available. But this gives Tesseron a window in, because what’s interesting is that a lot of people who now taste our cognac go: “This is the cognac I like.” People are rediscovering what a great cognac should be.
There’s a stereotype though, of middle-aged men in three-piece suits and a cigar in one hand.
That’s the thing. It’s a shame that cognac has this image or is seen as a mixer. But I’ve found that at tastings, a lot of women enjoy our cognacs. They start out saying they don’t drink cognac because it’s too strong for them. But, they go on to appreciate ours because they can taste the complexity and delicateness. We still need to bring the message across though.
Of the Tesseron cognacs, which are your favourites?
I love them all for different reasons. The Lot 90 is good as a cocktail with a little bit of soda and lime. For me, it’s better than champagne. The 76 is a little drier with notes of nuts and tobacco, making it quite good as a digestif. The 53 and 29 are more connoisseur and are for after dinner, but actually go very well with quite a few dishes as well. And then there’s our Royal Blend, Masterblends and Extreme, which are for when you want to feel really decadent.
Which would be your last sip?
I guess it would be the Royal Blend, a beautifully round cognac that’s very soft, very complex and feminine. If I could finish my days with that, that’ll be a great way to go.
Do you remember your first taste of wine or cognac?
It was when I was 18 and I remember being at the Christmas table when my great-grandmother looked at me and asked: “Are you not drinking wine?” I said: “No, I don’t like it.” And she looked at me with a little bit of disgust. So I tasted it — a Pontet-Canet — and finished the glass. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I kind of got more into the taste of things and also developed an appreciation for cognac.
Any inkling at all that you would one day join the business?
Not at all. I was always told to forget the family business because I was a female. That being the case, I thought: Fine, I’ll go off and do my own thing and watch me make my millions! So I became a graphic designer at a time when graphic design was becoming very pioneering. And when my uncle asked me to come and be part of the business, my immediate reaction was to forget it. Then, a few friends said it was really an amazing opportunity and that I should give it a whirl. So I did.
You are also the general director of Pontet-Canet. Tell us a little about the winemaking side of the business.
We bought the property in 1975 and started first by reinvesting in the vineyards and replanting a lot before investing in the winemaking facilities. In the last few years, we’ve started working organically and biodynamically to bring out the terroir. We’re situated in Pauillac, right beside Mouton Rothschild, Lafite and Latour, and being surrounded by such great chateaus, we always want to do better. We made good wine, but we want to make great wine. And we found that a more natural way of working the vineyards brought out the minerality of the terroir and gave tannins that were softer and more profound. We’re the first of the 1855 Grand Cru Classe classification to be certified both 100-percent organic and biodynamic.
Researchers seem to think that traditional wine regions will be wiped out by climate change. What are your thoughts?
We’ll just have to wait and see. It’s hard to predict if it’ll happen. We have seen warmer vintages like 2009 and 2010, but there were vintages like that in the past as well. I think if it’s to be wiped out, so be it. We are at the mercy of the gods and just have to take every day as it comes. There’s not much we can do unless we stop all industries and stop driving around in cars. I don’t think society is prepared to look at ourselves and the way we consume just yet.
Tesseron is available through Vinum Fine Wines.