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The Wine Advocate: Three Decades of Domaine Leflaive’s Chevalier-Montrachet

by William Kelley

Read the full article at robertparker.com

The theme of this fascinating tasting featuring 22 vintages of Domaine Leflaive’s Chevalier-Montrachet was conceived by the estate’s director, Brice de La Morandière, as a celebration of the pleasures of mature wines. “No one has been more candid about the problems of premature oxidation, nor the need to solve them,” he began—and with justice. “But I worry that, partly because of the fear of premature oxidation, we’ve lost the culture of drinking and taking pleasure in mature wines.”
All the bottles in this tasting had been reconditioned using the Eternam system, a machine that opens, tops up and re-corks each bottle under a blanket of inert gas; it’s a process that’s being used more and more frequently in Burgundy, and though it’s expensive, the results are impeccable. So, there were no oxidized or otherwise problematic bottles in this tasting, and we were therefore able to enjoy—as de La Morandière intended—a stunning array of white Burgundies in or approaching their plenitude. And “plenitude” seems to me the perfect word to encapsulate wines like these at maturity, evoking simultaneously the extent of their aromatic range, their enveloping textures and their striking amplitude, with no pejorative connotation of aging. For the oldest wines we sampled this afternoon were in no sense remotely past their peak, and several had not yet attained it.
At fully 1.99 hectares (4.92 acres), the Domaine Leflaive’s three parcels of Chevalier-Montrachet are the largest of their grand cru holdings. Excepting their elusively tiny production of Montrachet, it’s routinely the domaine’s finest wine, too. Vine age varies by parcel: A 6.5-ouvrée (0.69 acre) block at the bottom of the slope and to the south was planted in 1957 and 1958; an additional 21-ouvrée (2.22 acres) parcel at the bottom of the slope but to the north was planted in 1955, 1964 and 1980; and the domaine’s holdings at the top of the slope, amounting to some 19 ouvrées (2.01 acres), were planted in 1974.
The gradient of the slope becomes appreciably steeper as one ascends the Chevalier-Montrachet, at its most extreme amounting to almost 20%, compared to the 1% to 3% of Le Montrachet. The soils are deeper and richer at the bottom of the slope and poorer further up, but the underlying strata are the same, consisting of oolitic limestone interfingered with the so-called Pierre de Chassagne and pholadomya bellona marls. These strata are separated from the strata that characterize Le Montrachet and the three Bâtards by a geological fault. By virtue of its thinner soils and higher altitude, Chevalier is invariably the more incisive and tight-knit of the domaine’s four grands crus, though it isn’t necessarily the lowest in pH. The great, sunny vintages in this tasting such as 1989, 1990, 1992 and 2005 might all, however, be said to bear more than a passing resemblance to Le Montrachet itself.
Until the Leflaive family acquired their tiny parcel of Montrachet in 1991, the Chevalier-Montrachet was the domaine’s grandest wine, and it occupies an accordingly important place in the family’s history. At the baptism of each new Leflaive generation, newborn boys traditionally taste a drop of wine from a finger dipped in Chevalier-Montrachet (newborn girls are offered a drop of Pucelles). A flat, sloping stone in the upper part of Chevalier-Montrachet was also a favorite spot for the domaine’s founder, Joseph Leflaive (1870-1953), who used to slide down it as a child, wearing out the seat of his trousers. So, the Chevalier has a sentimental as well as purely qualitative significance for the Domaine Leflaive.
While the wines at this tasting only encompassed three decades of Domaine Leflaive’s century-long history, that longer history is an essential context for truly understanding the Leflaive style. It was Joseph Leflaive who founded the domaine, purchasing some 25 hectares of prime Puligny terroir between 1905 and 1925—a period that represented a buyer’s market in Burgundy. In 1918, Joseph hired François Virot (1890–1964) as the domaine’s regisseur. Virot was the son of a local winegrower renowned as an outstanding taster, and beginning in 1920, Virot oversaw the replanting of the domaine’s holdings to exclusively Chardonnay (with the exception of their Pinot Noir plantings in Blagny), as well as the beginning of estate bottling.
As one of the more aristocratic domaines of the Côte d’Or, the Leflaive wines have always been the fruit of a collaboration between proprietor, vineyard manager and régisseur, and Virot was thus a decisive figure in the history of the estate—as well as the village of Puligny. When neighbors had problems during vinification, it was to Virot that they turned for advice. In the village today, his descendant François Carillon is named after him. And chez Leflaive, it was Virot and Joseph who defined the style of vinification, with the wines fermenting in barrels and—for the Puligny-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet Clavaillon—foudres, before completing their élevage sur lies in steel tanks. That approach represents an adaptation to the low water table of Puligny-Montrachet, which doesn’t permit the deep, cool cellars successful for keeping wines fresh while they undergo a long maturation in small oak barrels.
It was in the last months of Joseph’s life, in 1952, that he entrusted the direction of the Domaine Leflaive to his sons, Jo (1908-1982) and Vincent (1912-1993). Jo and Vincent invested heavily in replanting the vineyards and renovating the winery, and the estate’s oldest vines in Chevalier-Montrachet date back to this period. With François Virot’s death in 1964, he was succeeded by his tall, placid son Jean Virot. While I have never tasted any of Leflaive’s wines from the François Virot-era, it was with the Jean Virot’s wines of the 1973, 1979 and 1982 vintages—available as “bin ends” at my Oxford college—that I developed a passion for mature white Burgundy. The style in that era was ample, fleshy and enveloping, with lively but not obtrusive acids and very little in the way of reductive signatures. Pure and classically balanced, many commentators—and Vincent Leflaive himself—were inclined to drink the wines young; yet they have aged magnificently well.
The late 1980s and early 1990s marked a turbulent period in the history of Domaine Leflaive. In 1989, Vincent Leflaive was stricken with cancer: he died in 1993, 11 years after his brother Jo. He was succeeded as director of the domaine by his daughter Anne-Claude (1956-2015) and nephew Olivier (1945- ) in 1990; Anne-Claude took sole charge in 1994, when Olivier left to pursue his own enterprise. And after the 1988 harvest, Jean Virot had retired, to be replaced as régisseur by Meursault vigneron Pierre Morey. This tasting demonstrated that Morey was respectful of the Leflaive style, producing ampler, more enveloping wines in Puligny than he did at his own estate in Meursault.
This was an interesting observation, as my impression has always been that during Morey’s tenure, the domaine’s wines became more reductive in style—nodding to Morey’s own long lees-aged Meursault wines—over time. In fact, however, only the 1996 and 2004 vintages in this tasting stood out as stylistic outliers with their more reductive, iodine-inflected aromatics and still-compact, introverted palates. And these qualities are not at all uncommon in the Côte de Beaune whites of both years.
Of course, Anne-Claude Leflaive’s passion for biodynamics, so great that at one stage she even attempted to determine harvest dates by the biodynamic calendar, was clearly also exerting an influence on the kind of grapes that Morey and his successor Eric Rémy were working with, as well as practices in the cellar. So, it’s hard to disassociate the influence of director and régisseur during this period. It was also toward the end of this era that the domaine’s wines began to suffer from premature oxidation, beginning in earnest with the 2004 vintage and continuing into Remy’s brief tenure, which encompassed the 2008-2016 vintages.
Anne-Claude’s positive influence in the domaine’s vineyards during her tenure at was immense. Her journey into biodynamics began in 1989, when she saw a flyer advertising an open day at the winery of biodynamic pioneer Jean-Claude Rateau while shopping for organic vegetables in Dijon. At that fateful event, microbiologist Claude Bourguignon spoke about living soils, and Anne-Claude reflected that the domaine’s vineyards had been subjected to too many pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers. Between 1989 and 1992, she eliminated herbicides and synthetic fertilizers at the domaine, beginning a biodynamic farming trial in the Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet in 1990 and expanding it to fully one-third of the domaine’s surface area in 1992, convincing the Domaine’s shareholders to acquiesce to the change—aided by a large and healthy crop in 1996. With the 1998 vintage, Domaine Leflaive was entirely converted to biodynamic farming—a decisive change. It would be a pity if problems of premature oxidation were to overshadow her achievements.
Fortunately, Brice de La Morandière is very open to discussing these problems. During the reconditioning of the domaine’s own wine library, he tells me that no discernible pattern was perceptible: consecutive bottles off the bottling line, stored in identical conditions, have followed very different evolutionary trajectories. With the 2014 vintage, the estate has moved to DIAM technical closures, to eliminate one variable. Much more attention is now paid to dissolved oxygen during the wines’ élevage. Under Anne-Claude, the wines were moved, in barrel, from one cellar to another at the end of their élevage. Shaken around in transit, they inevitably lost much of their protecting carbon dioxide, combined with Anne-Claude’s biodynamic resistance to liberal doses of protecting sulfur dioxide, a potential recipe for disaster. Today, the wines no longer make that fatiguing journey—which has to be a positive development—and they are handled much more gently. And the estate’s new régisseur, Pierre Vincent, is evidently just as committed to solving the problem as de La Morandière.
This tasting amply illustrated how glorious the Domaine Leflaive’s wines can be at full maturity, so let’s hope that their proactive approach will guarantee new vintages’ longevity.
William Kelley, July 31, 2019
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The Wine Advocate: Three Decades of Domaine Leflaive’s Chevalier-Montrachet