After hearing French-born Caroline Fiot talk animatedly about her passion for her job in viticulture (winemaking), it's hard to imagine there was once a time where she considered a career in the fragrance industry. "[I wanted] to become a scientist as I was completely in love with science and biology ... I love nature, of course, and so I decided to follow an engineering school in Montpellier, after my prep school," she explains on her recent trip to Sydney, ahead of her weekend hosting the fifth Ruinart Sommelier Challenge in Melbourne. "I was choosing between perfume and wine, because I really love chemistry, and finally I chose viticulture because I really like the values that reflect in the wine industry and the terroir."
"I was very into it [viticulture]. I first did an internship in the Bordeaux region in a small family winery, and actually the winemaker was a lady, and she was so passionate ... I really knew that I wanted to become a winemaker really from that day."
Fiot's smile is wide, earnest and constant throughout our interview, and she talks enthusiastically about her childhood split between Paris, Normandy and the French Alps, her studies and her travels, including internships in Vietnam and a brief spell in New York. She doesn't fit the mould of the oft-imagined 'traditional' winemaker, and her enthusiasm, insatiable curiosity and pervading desire to expand her horizons into luxury marketing eventually lead her to her first winemaking position. "I wanted to get more knowledge about marketing and luxury – not the consumer side of luxury, but more about how to build a business model, and how to build a strong brand in luxury as well," she explains. "I did a business school in Paris, then I got hired by [French champagne maison] Ruinart – I had come back to my first love, which was winemaking, and I’ve been with Ruinart for two years now."
"Ruinart was (and is) my first job – it’s winemaking, but I’m not staying in the winery all day long. None of my days look like each other."
"One day I will be in the winery controlling the fermentation, sniffing the tanks, making sure the fermentation is going well, and the next day I will be in the tasting room thinking about the blending decisions with all the winemaking team, to understand the vintage ... to think about the future, and anticipate the evolution of the wines."
Fiot possesses an obvious passion for the the history and traditions of Ruinart, a wine house which dates back to 1729 as the first established house of champagne. "It's a maison that exists between tradition and innovation," she says. "I will always remember the way I was hired at Ruinart – I was interviewed seven times - it was a very long process. I got a couple of interviews with my current boss Frederic Panaitois, the cellarmaster, and one of the interviews I will always remember ... He asked me to go to the offices of Ruinart in Paris, where we met, and actually it was a surprise – we didn’t stay in the offices. He told me we were going to leave, and actually he took me to a Michelin Star restaurant.
"He said 'I’ll leave you here. In one hour, I’ll be back'. I didn’t even know what to do," laughs Fiot."And then the chef of the Michelin Star restaurant arrived, and said 'OK, let’s go to the cuisine', and I was thinking what is going to happen, I have no idea what this exercise is about? The chef didn’t tell me anything – he just showed me spices, vegetables, a plate of cheeses, and he asked me if I could tell him the stories of the cheeses, of the vegetables, about what it is and the flavours. "[They were testing me], because Ruinart is very involved in the gastronomy and focuses on so many different pairings. So, if you want to work in the Ruinart winemaking team, you also have to have the sensibility for food and for gastronomy."
Her advice for the correct way to drink champagne? For Fiot, it simply comes down to personal taste. "I don’t think there is a single good way of drinking champagne," she muses. "I mean, I could give a technical answer, like drinking with a certain kind of glass, or temperature, the time of the day. Of course we have some preferred moments, for example we are always tasting before noon when you are indulging your senses, at a certain temperature, of course. So yes, there is always a ritual around the wines, but it’s always a question of taste and about how much you’re enjoying this moment with champagne. It’s really personal." As for where she sees herself in the future, Fiot explains that "for every winemaker, the ultimate goal is to become a cellar master – but it takes years and patience, so I’m very happy to learn new things every day. But one day, I’d like to become a cellar master."
PHOTOGRAPHY Nick Tsindos
FASHION Ellen Presbury
TALENT Caroline Fiot
HAIR & MAKEUP Corinna Wilmshurst
PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISANT Amanda Chadwick