Thierry and Amaury Firino-Martell are the kind of siblings who are poles apart, in both looks and personality. Thierry is a lawyer based in Bordeaux, and speaks with an elegant comportment that indicates the years spent studying his craft. There is not a hair out of place, his chin is perfectly clean-shaven and suit flawless with nary a crease in sight. Meanwhile, the Amaury’s reddish-brown curls tumble over his forehead charmingly every time he laughs — which is often — while his ruddy, tanned complexion points to the time he spends in the vineyards as winegrower and distiller.
The brothers come to Malaysia often in their roles as brand ambassadors for the storied cognac house, and it is the intrinsic differences that make up their appeal — because, despite their contrasts, they are united in their passion for and commitment to the company that bears their name. Their trip last month — the first in quite a while, owing to the pandemic — was one of many they have done over the years, during which time they embark on a series of dinners around the country as they regale guests with stories about the long-running cognac house.
“It is called the ‘Commando’ programme,” Amaury begins, speaking in a lilting French accent very different from that of the clipped inflection of his brother. “It started in China for the Lunar New Year, during which we organise events and meet our clients. Now, it is also organised in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia. Asia is our No 1 market, and it’s why we come back again after again.”
The Commando programme involves daytime training sessions run by Thierry and Amaury, curated dining experiences paired with Martell’s range of cognacs and leisurely opportunities for the brothers to meet with customers. As one might imagine, the Martell name inspires a great deal of excitement.
“People respond so well to the Martell name, every single time, and it’s great for us to see that reaction,” Amaury says proudly.
Indeed, it would stand to reason that their growing-up years would be a source of constant curiosity, with people also wanting to know what it is like to carry the name of Martell. The way the brothers tell it, they had a happy childhood in Cognac, the bucolic town beloved around the world for the spirit that bears the same name.
“It’s a very small town, but very beautiful,” Amaury describes. “There are so many vineyards, which is very nice.”
By the time the siblings were in their teens, they were already regulars in the vineyards, helping their father Patrick as he tended to the crops.
Most people have a distinct memory of their first cognac — the many babies whose teething pains were soothed by a few drops might attest to this — and Thierry is no different.
He says: “I was with our father, and we were by the Charente River. He gave me a very small bit with a few drops of water, and asked me to describe what I could smell — he put his hand over the glass, gave it a shake and let me sniff it. It is something I do with my son now, who is seven.”
Conversely, Amaury’s memories are not as specific and are instead related to childhood experiences that are probably typical of life in Cognac.
“I don’t have a special memory like Thierry,” he grins. “For me, the best memories — and I have many — is sharing cognac with family, especially during big events like Christmas. Our mum is an excellent cook and I like to enjoy some Cordon Bleu after a good meal. I can, of course, recall being in the vineyards with our father when I was young, but, to me, cognac is always about family.”
Despite the gravitas of their lineage, there were never any expectations placed on the two brothers to join Martell or be involved in the family business as adults.
“Our father used to come to Asia in the 1980s and would tell us stories about what it was like in China,” Thierry recalls. “And, of course, when you have issues or challenges relating to the vineyards, we do talk about those, but I do not remember our parents putting any expectations on us — we were allowed to do anything we wanted. Our present roles as brand ambassadors today came about organically.”
“Our father always said, ‘Do what you want.’ But when we were young, to earn money, we would always go to the vineyards,” Amaury laughs. “I need to be outdoors; I cannot be in an office. So, working in the vineyards today is ideal for me.”
Thierry, who certainly looks more suited to an office-bound role, protests animatedly when we point out the distinction between the two brothers.
“I also love the outdoors,” he grins. “Even as a lawyer, I am so interested in winemaking and I return to Cognac every weekend. What is important to me is doing with my son all the things our father did with us — jump on the tractor and go around the vineyards. It is a really nice legacy to pass on.”
Amaury has chosen to continue their father’s legacy in a more direct way — he has adopted the passion for vine-growing that has been passed down in the Martell family from generation to generation for more than 300 years. His work consists of taking care of the soil and the vines throughout the different seasons, from pruning to harvesting. In winter comes the distillation period, during which he spends six months next to the stills to extract the best aromatic potential from the wines to produce the eaux de vie (“water of life”) that will then be blended to make Martell cognacs.
Working in the vineyards every day has nurtured Amaury’s interest in sustainability, which is also a key focus area for Martell.
“It has always been in Martell’s mind to be aware of where the grapes come from. You cannot make good cognac if you do not have good winemakers and good wine. This has never changed for the company. We have people in Martell who are doing the same thing as [founder] Jean Martell by working with winemakers like me in order to get eaux de vie of the highest quality. Today, we also talk a lot about the nature and the quality of soil. There is a new type of grape we are working on that puts fewer chemicals in the ground, which is great!”
Amaury is referring to an ongoing initiative Martell has been working on with research institutes Conservatoire du Vignoble Charentais, INRA and BNIC to produce new natural hybrid grape varieties that are resistant to downy and powdery mildew, which are the two main vine diseases. The first 300 candidate varieties were planted in 2020, with the first harvest expected in two to three years. That is the moment when oenological analysis can begin to assess whether the grapes meet Martell’s exacting standards.
“These days, people drink cognac wanting to know where it comes from and the impact it has on the planet. The cognac we are producing now will be enjoyed in many years to come, and we must think about what people will want then,” Thierry says thoughtfully. “When Jean Martell died, the company was owned by his wife, Jeanne Brunet, and she said, ‘I want the best without anything artificial in it.’ Women are always right, and she knew even then that this should be the company’s direction.”
Future-proofing a company such as Martell lies in protecting the terroir from which its grapes are grown, Amaury says. “We must make a clean cognac — and it is not that we made unclean cognac before — but even now, people care about what they eat and drink. Can you imagine what they would want in 30 years? This is a good thing; I think people should be looking at what they consume. Our goal is to ensure the quality of our cognac while reducing the impact on the planet — using fewer chemicals, for example. There are many new challenges winemakers face because of climate change. When weather patterns are too different, this affects the grapes and the cognac. We are looking at ways to ensure the quality is maintained despite the challenges.”
Thierry offers up an interesting anecdote that connects to the maison’s commitment to creating a sustainable business. “Going back in history, the Martell family always fought for the winemakers. There are multiple documents in the archives dating back to 1720 that showcase how Jean Martell fought to ensure cognac production would not be reduced or its formula changed. Over the generations, this has continued in the way the company has stood up for the town of Cognac and upheld the company’s principles of excellence.”
Listening to its customers is critical to Martell’s success, Amaury shares, both in terms of long-term goals and short-term ideals. “Always listen to the consumers, to what they want and don’t want. Without our consumers, we are nothing, and we will always listen to what they are looking for. For example, NCF was created for a younger generation who wanted to drink cognac in a nightclub. And it is a great-looking bottle, too! Although we will always introduce new products, our icons will forever remain — even in 100 years, we will keep Cordon Bleu on our shelves.”
Longevity is a key aspect of Martell’s DNA, expressed in the way the ninth generation of the founding family remains a part of the business. The brothers are incredibly proud to do the work they do, adhering to punishing travel schedules and time away from family in the name of noblesse oblige.
“It is because the family loves people,” Thierry says. “We are very attached to the products we are making and to the people who enjoy them and I believe this will never change.”
It is our hope that it never does.
This article first appeared on Jan 16, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.