Olivier Blanc, Director of Leopold Gourmel, is somewhat of an iconoclast. His cognac company was born out of a family’s love for the spirit, and a desire to take a hobby and turn it into something much bigger. In 1972 Olivier started Leopold with a driving philosophy of questioning everything that people accepted to be true about cognac and making cognac. Olivier credits the standardized grading scale of cognac for its worldwide success, but thinks that it’s become dated. “Communication in the late 19th century wasn’t what it is now, and so a grading code common to all the different houses helped communicate to the world a consistent quality for cognac. But cognac is a natural product that varies from year to year, and so it’s not a good fit with the world of standardization.”
For many years Olivier fought the accepted establishment of cognac conventions, from the constrained grape selection to the ability to put age statements on his bottles. Ultimately Olivier has navigated the system to express his own unique sensibilities about cognac and innovate within the constrains. On the back of his organic cognac, he shows the dates of distillation and bottling. “We wanted the organic board to be involved at every step so we could proudly state when and how we put something in the bottle.” Instead of releasing cognac under the standard grading system, Olivier uses the Parisian slang “carats” to express years. It’s pretty sly, which fits Olivier to a T – he’s immensely passionate about what he does and pushes the boundaries as far as he can to make great cognac.
“For my grapes, I wanted grapes from plants with deeper roots. I wanted to capture more of the qualities from the earth. Deeper roots make richer wine.” Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne vines have fairly shallow roots because of the chalky soil of the region. This gives them the lighter and floral qualities which are prized. But Olivier wanted something different and looked to the “First Growth Fois Bois” area which had mixed soil with chalk and clay. “This is a hilly area where the vines have to fight through different soil types to plant their roots in deep.” It’s no surprise that Olivier is attracted to vines who have to fight their way to survive and thrive.
Once harvested, Olivier distills these grapes differently that many of the other cognac houses, with a deeper cut into the more heavy elements of the distillate. “I want to capture more of the flavor of these grapes and create something that reflects more of the natural product. A natural product is truly alive.” Olivier’s unique process continues through the maturation process, where he uses a combination of barrels including some which are completely untoasted. Every six months Olivier harmonizes his barrels, putting the same vintage and grape varietal in a vat to marry them. He also goes through the painstaking process of slowly adding water to the spirit so that it will reach the desired proof upon full maturation. “You have to add water extremely slowly to the mix or you will sappaphonate it, giving it a soapy, creamy taste. Instead, when you add water slowly, it goes through esterification which opens up the aromas in the spirit.”
When producing his cognac, Olivier never blends vintages and only works with grapes from the same season. Cognac producers are allowed to add water, small amounts of caramel color, sugar, and boise (wood essence) to their cognacs, but Oliver is one of the few cognac producers who refuses to use any of these. “A standardized product can still be a good product, but it’s dead. I want to make something that’s truly alive.”
Leopold Gourmel also is one of the few cognac producers not to chill filter his cognac. When you chill filter a spirit, you filter out some of the heavier ‘fats’ which help provide the exceptionally smooth mouth feel and rich flavor. But these fats can cloud up when the spirit is chilled, so for purely cosmetic reasons these fats are filtered out. The result is a spirit with a much flatter taste. Many Scotch Whisky producers have stopped chill filtering their products and the difference is remarkable.
Leopold Gourmel‘s cognacs are simply amazing. In the glass, everything Olivier said about great cognac being ‘alive’ is clear. With the 10 Carats (Age du Fruit), there’s a union of orange, spice, and apricot, with some fantastic toasted almond; the 15 Carats (Age des Fleurs) is soft, lush, and beautiful, with jasmine and vanilla notes that come together superbly; 20 carats (Age des Espices) is leather, honey, pepper, tobacco, and ginger and it dances on the palate. Olivier’s ultimate expression is Quintessence which is one of the best cognacs I’ve tasted, with nearly infinite complexity that draws you in with a journey through fruit, floral, and spice notes combined with “rancio” which is a flavor element only present in very old spirits.
Olivier isn’t just one of these iconoclasts who shakes his fist at the establishment; like the very vines he gets his grapes from, he fights to plant deep roots and produce rich cognac. He’s also a very important voice for cognac, showing that you can do things differently and succeed, and that certain aspects of the production of cognac should be challenged and questioned. Ultimately Olivier’s greatest triumph is what he puts in the bottle, which speaks more loudly and clearly than Olivier ever could.
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