Burgundy Diary part 4: a Visit with Olivier Leflaive (a Force of Nature)

Officially retired, but in practice evident everywhere, Olivier Leflaive is a force of nature. He greets the diners every night at his restaurant and hotel in the town (recommended as an excellent base for visiting producers south of Beaune), and he or his brother conduct tours and tastings every morning at the winery, a modern building on the outskirts of the town.

OlivierLeflaiveTW3Olivier Leflaive’s winery was built in 7 stages over several years

The history of Maison Leflaive is a series of happy accidents. Olivier likes to start at the beginning, in 1635 when Domaine Leflaive already owned vineyards in Puligny, but then he fast-forwards to 1981 when his father Joseph and uncle Vincent were co-managers of Domaine Leflaive. Olivier became co-manager when his father died, and he remained until 1994. “But Leflaive was a small domain, and it had a maître de chai, and it was famous so it wasn’t difficult to sell, it wasn’t challenging enough, and in 1985 I decided to create a negociant. Everyone in Leflaive put in some money.” The business started in the old cellars of Domaine Leflaive – it was big enough for tanks, barrels and bottling; we made 10,000 cases then. The office was my living room and the lab was in the bathroom.” But it expanded rapidly when Frederick Wildman came to Olivier to say they needed a new source of white Burgundy.

The emphasis of the domain is on buying grapes and making the wine. Today there are 120 growers and 80,000 cases. Most of the wine (about 85%) is white; there are 80 different white wines from Montagny to Corton Charlemagne, and a dozen red wines complete the range. “In terms of philosophy and character of wine, I was born in Leflaive style which is finesse and elegance. We don’t want to be champion of the world, for example in alcohol. I don’t want to make wine at 14%. And we use reasonable amounts of new oak, it’s usually about 15%. We don’t want to make excessive battonage. For me I don’t like the garage wines at 15-20 hl/ha, they are too heavy. All this is to explain that my philosophy is to be reasonable, never to excess.”

The profits of the business went into buying vineyards, mainly in Chassagne and Puligny, today totaling about 15 ha. There are also some vineyards that represent Olivier’s part of Domaine Leflaive, which he took over after ownership of the Domaine and Maison separated in 1994. When a wine comes solely from estate grapes, it’s indicated on the label as Récolte de Domaine. This is always true for Chevalier Montrachet, for which the only source is estate grapes: in other locations, there are also purchased grapes, and usually but not always they are blended with the estate grapes.

Control of the vineyards varies according to the arrangement with the grower. “We harvest 35 ha (including our own 15 ha), but we go to each vineyard and check the grapes as they are harvested and brought here. We stay in the vineyard until harvest is finished. We don’t believe anybody here,” is part of the reason for success. About half the white grapes are pressed at source, by the grower, and then the must is immediately transported to the winery. Typical élevage is 10 months in barrique, assemblage, and then tank for several months. There is never more than 20% new oak.

The difficulty in visiting Maison Leflaive is what to taste. “You can taste all 92 wines, from all three vintages that we have at the moment, but then you will have to stay for three days,” Olivier says. We compromise on a selection from the 2012 vintage including premier crus from the three principal communes (Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet, and Meursault), and then taking in Corton Charlemagne. The Puligny Folatières shows focused minerality, Pucelles is richer, Meursault Poruzots has a fuller, broader impression than the Puligny’s, and the Abbaye de Morgeots from Chassagne is the broadest in its expression, with oak just a touch more evident. The Corton Charlemagne has the backbone of the grand cru, with rich fruits of stewed citrus. If I had to choose a single word to describe the style at Maison Leflaive, it would be flavorful.

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