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The wines of Domaine Leflaive, Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy

Place des Marronniers, 21190 Puligny Montrachet, France
Tel: +33 (0)3 80 21 30 13 Fax: +33 (0)3 80 21 39 57
Website: www.leflaive.fr 

A Corney & Barrow Domaine Leflaive masterclass, with Anne-Claude Leflaive
June 2008, London

Domaine Leflaive needs little introduction to wine lovers. It has been described as Burgundy’s greatest white wine domaine, and while this is a pretty strong claim, it is a justifiable one. It’s a family estate that was initially created by Anne-Claude’s grandfather Joseph, who was born in Puligny-Montrachet but left to become an engineer. At one stage he had a factory in St Etienne and was part of the team that made the first French submarine, but things went badly and bankruptcy followed.

Not deterred by this misfortune, he returned to Puligny-Montrachet in 1905. This was just after the phylloxera crisis, and so land was pretty cheap. ‘No one believed any more in the vines’, says Anne-Claude, ‘so he bought 25 hectares for virtually nothing.’ Joseph certainly believed, though: he thought that these vines had value, and set about building the domaine. Of his five children, four, including Anne-Claude’s father Vincent, became involved in the domaine. After Joseph died in 1953, Vincent along with his brother Jo were responsible for its development. Together, they established the reputation of the domaine as one of the best in Burgundy.

In 1990, Joseph was 90, and it was time for the next generation to take the reins. Anne-Claude and her cousin Olivier Leflaive took over from Joseph, and this arrangement continued for four years. However, Olivier was also running a negociant business, and in 1994 the shareholders (made up of some 30 family members) decided they wanted just one person running things – Anne-Claude – and so the businesses were separated. ‘I was a hard task for me’, she recalls, ‘but also a challenge’. She decided to change the way the vines were cultivated, moving to a more natural approach. ‘I asked the people who had been working there for 25 years to change the way they worked: forget weedkiller, fertilizer and phytosanitary products. I thought it was important to put the soil in good health, and I was convinced that something should change, but I didn’t know what’.

‘I think that in your life, if you really want something, heaven helps you and you find people in front of you to help you’, says Anne-Claude, rather philosophically. It was at this stage she met biodynamic consultant François Brochet and soil expert Claude Bourguignon, both of whom would lead her towards the biodynamic wine growing that she now practices.

For several years Anne-Claude experimented, doing direct comparisons between biodynamics and organics on the same blocks of vines. Together with her right-hand man Pierre Morey and the rest of the team, the final decision was taken to shift all viticulture to biodynamics in 1997. ‘I didn’t want to just take the decision myself,’ she recalls. ‘I asked the team to make the decision, and fortunately they decided to go for biodynamics. They saw it was better for the soil, the health of the vines and the wines. For seven years we had tasted the wines blind and most of the time the biodynamic wines showed more complexity and purity’.

It was a brave choice. As Adam Brett-Smith of her UK importers Corney & Barrow puts it, ‘It took tremendous courage to make revolutionary changes at a domaine basking in the adulation of the world. A lot of people were waiting for her to fail, but she has taken this domaine to impossibly high levels’. Brett-Smith continues his eulogy by adding, ‘Anne Claude is the daughter of a legend who took over and became a legend herself.’

Biodynamics proved to be particularly effective in 2004, a difficult vintage for most growers. ‘It was wet and cold, which was very good for oidium [a fungal disease], which was present everywhere,’ recalls Anne-Claude. ‘Biodynamics helped our harvest in 2004 to be incredibly healthy. I was shocked by the health of the grapes around us: most were black, attacked by oidium, especially for the winegrowers still working with chemicals.’

It also helped with the vines in their plot in Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet. In 1990 the then 30 year old vines were in bad health, and they were advised to replant. The leaves were chlorotic and the wood was small; the vines had been yielding badly. The new team of Pierre Morey and Anne-Claude decided to do an experiment on these ‘lost’ vines. They stopped using herbicides, opened up the soil and employed the biodynamic preparations. ‘We were the first to be astonished by the response of the vines to the new treatment’, she recalls. ‘Now these vines are the oldest of the domaine, over 50 years old’.  

Domaine Leflaive is about to enter a new era. Pierre Morey will be retiring in July 2008, and his replacement, who has already been working at the domaine for the last five years, knows about red wines. Anne-Claude revealed that she’s now going to be making some reds from Domaine Leflaive, although she didn’t want to elaborate on the specifics. ‘It’s much more interesting to vinify red wine than white wine’, she adds.

So, to the wines. We began by comparing two vintages: 2003 and 2006. Both were disappointing, to be honest. The 2003s were fat and lacking real definition: while they weren’t bad wines, they’re certainly not cheap, and this style of wine isn’t what you come to white Burgundy for. ‘2003 could have been sweet and soft, with a lack of energy, but it is not’, maintains Anne-Claude, talking about what she describes as an ‘incredibly atypical vintage’. She was sailing south of Corsica when Pierre Morey phoned her on the 16th of August, to tell her to come back because everyone was picking. She got back and they tasted the grapes, deciding that they weren’t ready. They held out until the new moon at the end of the month, which they expected to bring a change in the weather. It did, and a little rain came – the grapes tasted good, so they picked. Just a small quantity of grapes were harvested, with yields down at 25 hectolitres/hectare.

2006 was also a tricky vintage, with a cold August but then a sunny September. There was some botrytis, but September’s good weather helped avoid this. The maturity came quickly, and remarkably the Grand Cru vineyards were harvested first. ‘We had to do this to keep the minerality of the Grand Crus’, says Anne-Claude.

Then we tried the 2004s, which were a real step up. ‘2004 is a vintage with intensity, vitality and energy’, maintains Anne-Claude. ‘It will age better than 2005’. It was tricky viticulturally, with a real risk of oidium, but the domaine’s viticultural regime, as mentioned above, helped preserve the health of the grapes. These wines are showing a bit of reduction now, and Anne-Claude speculates that this might be a consequence of the vine stress in the previous vintage, the atypically hot 2003. Finally, there were a couple of treats – a pair of older wines.

Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc 2003
From a plot known as ‘Les Houllières’, near the Leflaive cellars in Puligny Montrachet, this is quite a serious effort. The complex, rich, taut toasty nose leads to a palate that is broad and rich with bold herby, toasty, mouthfilling flavours. There’s a lot of fruit here, as well as some spiciness underlying it. ‘There is no acidity,’ says Anne-Claude, ‘but we have kept the minerality of the wine. Quite a fat Chardonnay with forward richness. 90/100

Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Le Clavoillon 2003
Leflaive are one of just two growers who farm this vineyard, and almost have a monopole. The taut but rich herby, toasty nose has some minerality. The palate is broad, fat and softly textured with a minerally, spicy, toasty twist. Quite unusual, with a lack of acidity evident, and consequently quite a short finish. A soft style: there’s some interest here, but I miss the acidity. 88/100

Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Pucelles 2003
Close to Batard-Montrachet, Les Pucelles is close to Grand Cru standard. This wine has a minerally, expressive nose with some fruit sweetness, but also some finesse. The palate is quite soft, broad and fat, but with some nice minerality buttressing the otherwised unfocused fruit. A very nice wine, but you can’t help wondering what this could have been like had the vintage been a little less hot. 90/100

Domaine Leflaive Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru 2003
Taut, powerful, rich nose with ripe fruit meshing well with the oak. Quite seamless and broad with some waxy, herby notes. The palate is powerful, rich, rounded and fat with some spicy, minerally notes in the background. A broad wine that lacks real excitement. 91/100

Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Pucelles 2006
Bottled just 15 days previously. Some sweet, attractive ripe fruit on the nose, with finesse and subtle mealy, toasty notes. Quite pretty if a bit light. The palate is open with bright rather primary fruit. Mid-weight with some spiciness and a bit of minerality on the finish. Anne-Claude says drink from 2010. 92/100

Domaine Leflaive Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru 2006
Bottled in March 2008. Broad, herby, complex nose with lots of ripe fruit and a hint of herby, cabbagey complexity. The palate is quite soft with a lovely spicy undercurrent to the rich, dense fruit. The wood is still showing a little. An attractive midweight style: presumably, there’s lots more that this wine will show in the future. Anne-Claude says that this should be drunk from 2012. 92/100

Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc 2004
Reductive burnt match nose is very distinctive. It’s edgy, a bit smoky and toasty. The palate is dense and fresh with lovely acidity and a minerally match stick streak. Very reductive, but attractive with it. 92/100

Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Le Clavoillon 2004
Fresh, minerally nose.
The palate is quite bold with nice density of fruit and a hint of flinty reduction. This is tight and fresh with some citrussy notes and nice acidity. Taut right now, but quite serious and possibly very long lived. 93/100

Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Pucelles 2004
Broad, minerally and slightly reductive nose with citrussy freshness and also broady fruity notes. The palate has some reduction but also lovely acidity, freshness and energy. Toasty, nutty notes, too. Taut and complex, ready for long ageing. 94/100

Domaine Leflaive Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru 2004
Lovely flinty, mineral complexity on the nose, which is toasty and nutty but dominated by citrussy fruit. The palate is tight, almost stern, with reductive notes and really high acidity. Beautifully complex and tightly poised, finishing with a lemony kick. This will last forever. 95/100

Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Pucelles 1997
Yellow gold colour. Complex, rich nose showing toast, minerals, spice and vanilla, as well as lots of ripe fruit. Savoury, broad and multifaceted. The palate shows lovely evolution with bready, toasty, nutty notes and some spicy citrussy fruit. Great concentration and intensity: this almost tastes structured. A very bold, intense wine with some distance to go. Fresh, lively and profound. 96/100

Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru 1996
Yellow gold colour. Beautifully focused taut, minerally, toasty, waxy nose is savoury and fresh. The palate is complex with lovely acidity and citrussy fruit the dominant theme. There are also spicy, minerally, herby characters in the mix. This still tastes quite young and the finish is almost eternal. 96/100

From an earlier tasting, in 2004:

Simply put, Domaine Leflaive is one of the world’s great wine domains, producing some of Burgundy’s most sought-after white wines. The Leflaive family domaine has a history dating back to 1717 and has 23 hectares of holdings spread thoughout Grand Cru, 1er Cru, Village and AOC level vineyards around Puligny (see the map below).

These wines were tasted at a seminar hosted by Anne-Claude Leflaive and Nicolas Joly on the subject of biodynamics. I was fortunate to have a chance to quiz Anne-Claude after the seminar – she was very gracious in putting up with this young upstart who asked far too many questions.

Anne-Claude is now famous for her commitment to biodynamics. She first began to experiment with this in 1990. Back in 1997, the sales team and directors of Corney & Barrow visited Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy. Anne-Claude Leflaive poured them two wines, blind, and asked them which they liked best. 12 out of the 13 preferred the same wine. Both were technically the same wine: her 1996 Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Clavoillon. But the wines were made from adjacent plots of vines, one organic, the other farmed with biodynamics, an alternative system of agriculture that represents the focus of this new series. This latter wine was the one that the Corney & Barrow team had singled out almost unanimously as their favourite. The following vintage Domaine Leflaive went fully biodynamic.


The average age of vines across all Leflaive’s holdings is a creditable 28 years, and she says that they are noticing less illness in the vines since they converted to biodynamics. I tasted four wines from the 2000 vintage (three at this tasting and one more a few weeks later). It’s a vintage that Leflaive describes as well balanced. They're rather special: expressive and alluring. 

Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc 2000
From 2 hectares of vines planted in 1978. Attractive minerally, savoury nose is elegant and restrained. The palate is savoury and very minerally with some good acid structure. Nice concentration, too. Very good/excellent 90/100

Domaine Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 2000
This is a blend of several parcels that were vinified separately. 38 different cuvées were used in all. The restrained nose is classy and minerally with some herby complexity: quite tight. The concentrated, taut palate is minerally and savoury with fine acid structure. Already showing some complexity. Very good/excellent 92/100

Domaine Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Clavoillon 2000
This vineyard, with its very deep soil structure, was once planted to Pinot Noir. Full, complex nose with profound herbal complexity and a touch of smokiness. The powerful palate is herby and sense with pronounced minerality and good acid structure. Excellent 96/100

Domaine Leflaive Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru 2000
Remarkably complex nutty, toasty and expressive. Mindblowing, actually. The palate is concentrated, complex and minerally with high acid. Savoury and intense; quite profound with great elegance. Excellent 97/100

Domaine Leflaive's vineyard holdings

see also: tasting notes of Burgundy wines; Burgundy photos 

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