Cognac with an Attitude: A Visit at Léopold Gourmel
When it comes to having an extraordinary reputation, an evocative name and the production of high quality cognacs in a low volume, then Cognac Leopold Gourmel certainly ticks all the boxes.
The house was founded in 1972, and being a Cognac producer myself, I certainly am aware of this renowned brand. But up until recently, I’d never had the opportunity to taste it. Last week at Genté in Charente, I had the privilege of meeting up with the founder and sole owner of the brand, Olivier Blanc, and was able to make put this to right.
A respect for natural balance and order
The production of Gourmel Cognacs is designed to have respect for natural balance and order, with the end result of crafting a modern cognac; one that’s fresh, rich and elegant:
Their wines come from the older soils of the region, where the strata of the earth is disturbed, allowing the roots of the vines to settle, thus creating wines of deep expression. They are located in the region of Fins Bois, the largest of all the growing regions, the one encircling the first three Crus (=terroirs). The quality of the soil in Fins Bois is very diverse. For this reason, a specific spot has been chosen : a hilly, triangular shaped area located between Hiersac, Blanzac and Chateauneuf-sur-Charente.
The house takes care of everything to do with the cognac production process. From pruning to harvesting, in contrast to some other houses in the region, everything is done to concentrate flavour in the grapes. It’s certainly not about the quantity, and the house of Gourmel is not afraid to produce wines with a high alcohol content…
The distillation only occurs when the wines have reached their peak maturity while aging on lees (=natural deposit). That is to say, when the wines are no longer gaining in volume, and are at maximum corpulence. Distillation is a sensory experience that lasts (cut at 40–50% alc. instead of the traditional 60% alc.), in order to obtain rich and naturally creamy eaux-de-vie.
The aging takes place in oak barrels that are renowned for their fine grains. Olivier chooses to use 30 per cent new wood barrels – a high percentage for the region but the quality of the wood brings structure to the Cognac and enhances the fruit and floral aromas instead of covering them.
Cognac is “trained” for 4-5 years, according to the “accordion” principle. Every 6 months, the eau-de-vie is pumped/married into a tank and then redistributed into the barrels from whence it came. This operation is repeated as many times as is necessary for the complete harmonization of the vintage. After this, the Cognacs continue to be “raised” in their barrels, with sampling being carried out on a yearly basis until they are deemed ready to be bottled.
Due to evaporation, cognac loses some volume every year during the aging process. But when it comes to the alcohol content, it would take more than a century of aging in wooden barrels to naturally come down from 70% to 40% alcohol. It’s therefore necessary to manually create this reduction (by the addition of sterile water). Leopold Gourmel found that adding water to cognac (the weak on the strong) created a “saponification” giving soapy aromas. However, adding cognac to water (the strong on the weak), created an “esterification” revealing the aromas. So, from year 5, Leopold Gourmel pours the complete vintage (that is still around 66-68°) over the weak to create two separate batches: the strong being around 55o and the weak being around 250. Over the following years, this last batch will level out to reach 40, 41, 42, 43 or 46o. Here, “alcoolise” is a substitute for “reduction”now, I can’t verify the accuracy of these statements, but “alcoolise” is certainly a flattering term for the process… It is also a known fact that a gradual process of adding water is far more qualitative than a brutal one.
Before bottling, it’s traditional for cognacs to go through a cold filtration process to improve the brightness of the liquid. However, this can result in the loss of some flavors. Oliver Blanc has banned this method in favour of a soft filtration that preserves the intrinsic qualities of the product.
Each Gourmel batch is certified as not being mixed in crus or years. To preserve the purity of the flavours, the vintages are not mixed, contrary to traditional practice.
After a lengthy discussion about the tremendous work done by the team at Gourmel, I had the pleasure of tasting the full range… in the waiting room! No, it’s not a bland room full of out of date magazines, it’s actually a barrel cellar where cognacs wait patiently to be bottled. For the tasting, Oliver Blanc has brought me directly to the source…
All cognacs produced by Leopold Gourmel are named according to their age and their aromatic tendencies. Their quality is measured in carats, following a name that is easy for anyone to interpret. These are names such as Premières Saveurs (6 carats), Age du Fruit (10 carats), Age des Fleurs (15 carats), Age des Epices (20 carats) and Quintessence (30 carats).
This innovative approach allows for anyone to easily choose a cognac for its taste, not by the label or the bottle.
Bio Attitude, 100% certified organic VSOP
I used to say that cognac is interesting at all ages, but even I was surprised by this young VSOP. The value certainly doesn’t account for the number of years. A lot of freshness, delicacy and finesse! Pale yellow in colour with hints of gold, it’s certainly easy on the eye. And the nose delights with soft, harmonious flavours of tart fruits even water-gorged fruits (grapes, watermelon, grapefruit). If that’s not enough, there are also exotic floral notes of vanilla and hibiscus (produced by aging with 20 per cent new oak). On the palate the cognac is pleasant, bringing to mind the season of spring.
Premières Saveurs VSOP 6 Carats – 40% abv
Olivier Blanc is very proud of this expression he affectionately refers to as “Le P’tit Gourmel”. The same age as Bio Attitude, the same pale yellow colour but a totally different character. This is a more masculine cognac (which is probably why it was not to my taste). More in the ‘woody’ region, this cognac has a slightly bitter finish (as opposed to the rest of the range). But very fragrant – this cognac is perfect with an espresso! It will also be the highlight in your favourite cocktails…
Age du Fruit XO 10 Carats – 41% abv
Creamier, more structured, this Cognac has refined with age, and is now sporting a pale golden color. The taste is pleasant, fruity and contains a delicate wood touch. There are hints of truffle, hazelnut, peach, apricot, candied fruit, orange and quince… Olivier Blanc recommended this to be drunk “after a good white wine, white meat, delicious fish or to accompany an Asian meal”.
Age des Fleurs Extra 15 Carats – 42% abv
With this Extra, the term ‘aromatic bouquet’ makes perfect sense. I don’t think that I have ever tasted a cognac with such a floral complexity! It was a real explosion; rose, lilac, vines, jasmine, honeysuckle… In fact, it’s so dominant you almost forget to notice the fruit flavors present. Straw yellow in color, the Age des Fleurs is a surprising cognac; rich yet delicate, with a long finish.
Age des Epices Extra 20 Carats – 43% abv
With aging, the color of a cognac changes to a deeper, amber hue. This cognac, as its name suggests, is spicy. Think cloves, pepper, musk, white chocolate and ginger. It’s lovely and warm in the mouth – a full-bodied attack on the senses that slowly fades. This is a cognac that will be delightful during the winter, but is also a decadent treat to consume with pure dark chocolate.
Quintessence 30 Carats – 42% abv
A magnificent amber eau-de-vie. A subtle “minerality” and concentrated perfumes of fruits, flowers and spices, reminiscent of a bygone age. Quintessence reminds me of a superb sweet dessert wine, with its intense smoothness, its notes of candied fruit, quince, pastry, honeysuckle, sweet spices… This very old cognac is remarkable; it has kept its freshness and presents an incomparable softness, but is yet somehow managing to remain balanced. This is the essence of the Gourmel style. Olivier Blanc says of his creation, “in a world of cognac where taste has changed very little since the nineteenth century, Quintessence is [his] vision of an exceptional cognac of our time, inspired by [his] admiration for the great vintages of 1er Cru de Bordeaux”.
The pleasure on the taste buds is matched by the pleasure to the eye. The clear glass allows you to admire the natural color of the cognac. The house has recently changed their packaging. The carafes are still distinguished and elegant. The bottles are still beautiful, modern and with clean lines – but now heavier than they were previously, reaffirming the sense of an established brand. After contributing to the development of the famous “Cognaçaise” bottle, which is now a regional standard, Leopold Gourmel is once again being taking the lead in innovation with the use of original labels that blend paper and metal in an artistic manner.
Apart from their main range of cognacs, Leopold Gourmel also offer Millésimés cognacs. I had the unique chance to enjoy a cognac from the year of my birth – a 1990 Grande Champagne, thank you very much. I will never forget this experience. The cognac was extremely harmonious, elegant, deep, crisp and yet creamy at the same time, with the perfect balance between fruity and spicy.
So, what is my conclusion as to my preferred cognac? Well, I have to admit that it’s impossible to say. It would all depend on the circumstance, the season, the mood of the moment…
And I’d like to finish by thanking Olivier Blanc for his passion that drives him to constantly innovate and to allow his cognacs to be discovered around the world.