The atmosphere has certainly changed since I first visited Domaine Leflaive. Twenty-five years ago, I called one morning for an appointment. Anne-Claude answered the phone herself and said, come along this afternoon for a tasting. Today, emails to the domaine get an automated response saying that visits can be arranged only through your local distributor. Yesterday I turned up for an appointment at the domaine in Place des Marronniers in Puligny Montrachet where I have always gone in the past, wandered around until I found somebody, and was then told by a rather brusque, not to say definitely put-out, gentleman, “You are in the wrong place.” “This is Domaine Leflaive?” I asked with some puzzlement. “Yes, but it is the wrong place.” Eventually he said, “you have to go to Rue l’Église.” No further instructions emerged until finally I was able to extract a street number.
7 Rue l’Église is the original cellar of Domaine Leflaive, before they moved into Place des Marronniers. There I found Brice de la Morandière, Anne-Claude’s nephew, who returned from a career running international companies to take over after her death in 2015. He has expanded the old cellars, which are now used for fermentation and first year aging of the local wines. Place des Marronniers is used for second year aging, and there is another facility nearby for producing the wines from Mâcon.
“At Domaine Leflaive, there is only one method,” he says. “We haven’t changed anything. “One year in barriques is followed by one year in steel. First the wine likes to have the oxygen from the barriques, then it likes to have the mass from the stainless steel.” The only difference is the proportion of new oak, rising from 10% for Bourgogne to 15% for village wines, 20% for premier crus, and 25% for grand crus. The intention is that oak should be integrating when the wine is released. “With grand crus you see the oak integrating over the two years it spends with us, with Bourgogne Blanc, if it shows it’s hard to get rid of it. We would be upset if you could taste the oak.” There is battonage during aging. “I read all those articles about battonage being bad—totally unscientific and wrong. If you don’t do battonage, the wine oxidizes slowly but surely.” (Élevage is a little different for Mâcon, which ages in a mixture of concrete and steel, single-vineyard wines from Mâcon get about 10% in old barriques, and the transition to the ‘Leflaive Method’ comes with Pouilly-Fuissé.)
It was worth persevering to get to Rue l’Église because the tasting illustrated the style of Leflaive from Mâcon to grand cru. Production in Mâcon has been expanding and is now up to 24 ha. “In 2017 we decided to start some single-vineyard wines as we could see there were interesting differences,” Brice explains. There was some unconventional thinking here. “One is west-facing, the other is north-facing.” Comparing the west-facing cuvée, Les Chênes, with the Mâcon-Verzé, the single vineyard is deeper and more textured on the palate. A single-vineyard wine from Pouilly-Fuissé, En Vigneraie, comes closer in style to the wines of Puligny, with stone and citrus fruits texturing the palate, but without the characteristic minerality of Puligny.
We tasted a range of premier and grand crus from 2017. “This was the fourth-earliest ever at Leflaive, starting on August 29,” Brice says. “This is really early in our world. The first August harvest was 2003. I came back here in 2015 and three of my vintages have been August years. Although 2017 was an early vintage, the wines don’t turn out over-ripe or too alcoholic.” They are 13.5% alcohol, but taste like less. The character is very linear for an early vintage, presently showing as a somewhat understated style. “2017 is a fantastic vintage, amazingly subtle and elegant,” Brice comments.
Clavoillon shows the smoke and gunflint that is classic for Leflaive’s Pulignys. Sous le Dos d’Âne from Meursault is sweeter and broader, less austere, with less obvious minerality. Pucelles, as so often, moves towards the smoothness and roundness of the grand crus: somewhat shy and reserved right now, its minerality is in the background. Bâtard Montrachet moves to a sense of power, more obvious oak mingling with the stone and citrus fruits: a sense of holding back makes it obvious the wine is too young now. Chevalier Montrachet shows that unique property of the grand crus: it is simultaneously more powerful and has greater sense of tension. Going up the hierarchy, there is greater refinement rather than greater power. Il vaut de detour.
I will never forget my first meeting at Leflaive with Vincent in Fall,1972. Greeting me in the courtyard of the family house/cellars, He ‘set’ my sense of what to expect of great white burgundy, mainly because we were tasting the terrific ’71’s in barrel/tank, then older vintages in bottle. I noted at time the distinctive, delightful apricot/honey/citrine notes of botrytis cinerea in the 71’s, esp. Pucelles, which added immeasurably to the complexity and depth of the wines. (I had just come from germany, tasting great 71’s as well). I asked him (as I did at a later date Bernard Clerc), ‘Do you look for botrytis to give the wines greater character.? the ’71’s from LeFlaive (and others) set my ‘benchmark’ for what White Burgundy should be forever! He said yes; we want to have a little bit whenever possible, as it lifts the fruit, gives more depth and richness etc, maybe 5-10%.
I wonder, today; did you think of asking Brice that question? I remember visting Anne-Claude in 2008 on our MW visit, but stupidly forgot to ask such a question… Lost opportunities
I did not think of it because I have not detected botrytis in any of the Leflaive whites in recent years. However, I suspect policy may have changed because the tendency now seems to be to harvest earlier to avoid problems of excess maturity etc. In 2017 harvest started on 29 August and Brice feels they made better wines than people who waited. Harvest also started early in 2018 but he is concerned they might have perhaps been a day or two too early, which I would think is unlikely to indicate presence of botrytis. In short, I imagine that the overwhelming need to keep freshness in the era of global warming probably makes it more difficult to include botrytized grapes.