Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: A Visit to Domaine Robert Ampeau

The concept of the current release has virtually no meaning at Robert Ampeau. All week I’ve been tasting current releases in Burgundy, varying from 2017 to 2018 depending on whether producers want to show bottled wines or barrel samples. But tastings at Robert Ampeau start way beyond where others leave off. A tasting in the cellars yesterday included only one wine from the present century, a 2002 Meursault Charmes, while all the others, red or white, were between 1999 and 1976.

Wines are released when they are ready, or perhaps more to the point when the domain feels like selling them. I asked Michel Ampeau, who has been making the wines since Robert died in 2004, what vintages were on sale now. I thought I must have mistranslated the years from French when he said 1993-1996, and wondered whether perhaps he had really said 2013-2016, but no mistake: both reds and whites from the mid 1990s are on sale now, giving an almost unique opportunity to start with mature wines.

Production is 60% red and 40% white. There are holdings in ten premier crus, including four in Meursault. The wines are meant to age, or perhaps more to the point, have reached an interesting stage of maturity when released. Since current releases haven’t really reached the era of premox, it’s impossible to say if that will be a problem for the whites, but typically they peak around fifteen years of age and hold until twenty. I suspect that the traditional style of winemaking in an oxidative manner will avert any problem.

The style of the whites is rich and full, so I wondered about late harvest, but Michel says he is an early picker. This may explain why they maintain their freshness for decades. Meursault Sous Le Pièce shows a classically nutty flavor spectrum, Meursault Sous Le Pièce adds hints of honey and spices, and the Charmes premier cru adds a subtle hint of minerality. The complexity of Meursault Perrières shows at one why it is considered a candidate for promotion to grand cru, with complex layers of flavor on a seamless palate. This is the epitome of the classic style of Meursault. Puligny Combettes is a textbook example of the purity and precision of the appellation.

The reds show a great combination of a sheen to the palate masking great fruit density with a structure of supple tannins faintly evident in the background. Although they show development (the youngest we tasted was 1999), all have a sense of liveliness that gives an impression of being a decade younger than the real age. Savigny-lès-Beaune and La Pièce Sous le Bois from Blagny age much longer than you might expect for those appellation, in the generally soft, earthy style of the house, and Auxey-les-Duresses Les Ecussaux adds faintly herbal notes. Beaune Clos du Roi shows a smooth opulence, Pommard is broader but still sophisticated, while the Volnay Les Santenots premier cru tends to earthiness. Reds age easily for 30 years.

Wines from the great appellations show great typicity and ageability, but the surprise and the bargain are the wines from lesser appellations: and the domain is also remarkable for its ability to produce high quality in lesser years, vintages such as 1994 or 1997 showing well today.

Domaine Leflaive and the 2017 Vintage

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.

Premox Meets New Oak: a New Experience

As I finish off my 2005 white Burgundies, I am continually having surprises. I had a new experience with the last bottle of a half case of Jadot’s Clos de la Garenne from Puligny Montrachet (the Duc de Magenta cuvée). Previous bottles have been wildly erratic: the previous one showed clear notes of oxidation, while the one before still showed new oak. That makes for a pretty narrow window for drinking between the oak resolving and the oxidation taking over.

Well this bottle showed both influences: oxidation in the form of Sherry-like notes at the end of the palate, but wood spices in the form of cinnamon at the forefront. That narrows the window for drinking to zero. It was actually quite interesting until after a while the oxidation took over and all remaining evidence of youthful fruits disappeared.

Beyond the fact that I’ve been unable to enjoy a single bottle in perfect condition, my concern is the sheer unpredictability. None of my white Burgundies have followed a clear path of development so that you might try at least to seize a moment to drink them, even if it’s only a brief opening. The path has been more of a zigzag, with one bottle showing oxidative problems, the next one much better, then a step backward and so on. I remember a conversation with the chef at a restaurant in France. When I asked about the reasons for his success, he said one was the “regularité.” We could certainly do with more of that in Burgundy.

One major surprise has been that just when I was about to give up on the vintage altogether, I had a series of bottles that were much better than the earlier ones. I am sure this is a coincidence, but I am reminded of a conversation with a producer in Burgundy last summer. He had been visited just previously by his English importer, who wanted to try some older bottles. “I’m afraid they are all oxidized,” the producer said. The importer want to try them anyway, and voila! they appeared to have returned to form.

This brings to mind a warning from Mercedes in the manual for one of its cars. “Even Mercedes cannot repeal the laws of physics,” it said. Well you can’t repeal the laws of oxidation either: it’s a one way process once oxidative products have been formed in wine. So I am not going to hold on to my bottles to see if a miracle of chemistry occurs, but I’m not going to assume they are all undrinkable either.

Playing Russian Roulette with Puligny Montrachet

I have got fed up with the premox problem and am drinking all my 2002 and 2005 white Burgundies, whether they are Chablis premier or grand cru, or Côte d’Or premier cru (alas I do not have much in the way of grand crus, except for a couple of bottles of Le Montrachet).

This evening was Leflaive’s Clavoillon Puligny 2005, the last bottle of a half case. I did not have high expectations, because there’s been significant variation among previous bottles: some have showed obvious touches of oxidation, some have showed signs of fruits drying out, some have been overly phenolic. This one was perfect.

I was just amazed to have a bottle that showed the sheer perfection of what a top premier cru from Puligny should achieve at ten years of age. Here’s the tasting note:

Noticeably paler than previous bottles. Forceful citrus and stone fruits show with touches of grapefruit and apricots, slowly developing those steely mineral overtones that epitomize Puligny. The phenolic overtones that were overly evident in some previous bottles develop more slowly here and are integrated into the granular texture of the palate. Palate is complex, hard to disentangle flavor and texture – if only they were all like this.

I don’t know whether to lament the fact that the previous five bottles were all in some way at least slightly disappointing due to premox or associated problems, or whether to say Hallelujah! now we see what it’s all about. Given the cost of white Burgundy these days, I’m temperamentally inclined to sackcloth and ashes rather than celebration.

This seems an appropriate point to consider the premox problem, as the first vintage to show the premox problem was 1995, twenty years ago. Today’s wine is ten years old, so it marks the halfway point. The problem wasn’t solved then, and I’m not completely convinced it is now. Should they be considering screwcaps in Burgundy?

Burgundy Diary part 6: Sea Change in Meursault – Visits to Comtes Lafon, Guy Roulot, Michel Bouzereau, and Pierre Morey

My recent visit to Meursault showed a real change in style from the old view that Meursault is soft, nutty, and buttery (compared with Chassagne Montrachet that has a more citrus edge, and Puligny Montrachet which is taut, precise, and mineral). As Jean-Baptiste Bouzereau explains, “There has been an evolution in Meursault over 20 years, the wines are less rich and opulent than before. People are looking for a finer style.” This applies especially to the premier crus, as “the exposure naturally makes the village wines a little heavier.”

Dominique Lafon has made a similar transition since he took over in 1987 at Comtes Lafon. “During this period (the late eighties and early nineties), winemaking was close to what my father had been doing; he was a classical winemaker, so there was long aging, two years in barrel, with lots of new oak. The premier crus were 100% new oak. That’s what people wanted at the time: big round toasty white Burgundy became very successful, especially in the U.S.A. All the work we’ve done since then has been focused on a move towards elegance. We use just enough new oak for each vineyard but I don’t want to taste it in the wine. Now aging depends on the cru and some spend longer than others.” Is this change typical for Meursault, I asked. “I think it’s typical for the good producers,” is Dominique’s view.

What is the typicity of Meursault, I asked Anne-Marie Morey at Domaine Pierre Morey. “What sort of style should Meursault be: buttery or mineral? Meursault is more butter, Puligny is more mineral, but Meursault is the largest appellation and has terroirs that express both styles. We have the chance to have terroirs that express minerality,” she says. But when asked what changes she has made since taking over, she says, “I think we are not great revolutionaries in Burgundy.”

So you might ask: if there’s something of a consensus to move to a lighter, more mineral style, away from oak and vanillin, what’s the real typicity of Meursault, and what price terroir? If the distinction between Meursault and Puligny is less clear than it used to be, the distinctions between different terroirs within Meursault seem clearer now that the cover of oak and vanillin and butter has been removed. Take the lieu-dits at Domaine Guy Roulot, where Jean-Marc Roulot says, “The style was defined in the sixties by the decisions my father made to separate the cuvees. If you see the difference in the glass it’s justified, but if you don’t there is no point. Excess is the enemy of terroir – too much alcohol or too much oak… Our wine is lightly colored for three reasons: early harvest dates, not too much oak, and not too much battonage.”

“The first difference between the lieu-dits is the exposition, then elevation on the slope, finally the clay-limestone proportions. There’s about a week’s difference in harvest between Luchets and Narvaux.” Going through the 2013s with Jean-Marc, you move from the restraint of Meix Chavaux or Tillets to the rounder impression of Luchets, the gritty texture of Narvaux, and the more powerful Tessons. Each is distinct.

Comtes Lafon may have the widest range of premier crus in Meursault. I tasted all six from 2012 with Dominique Lafon. Bouchères is vibrant and lively, pointing towards citrus, then Poruzots is more stone fruits, Genevrières is rounder with a silky sheen, Charmes, always more backwards, has a smoky restraint, and Perrières is the most powerful. Once again, all are distinct, yet showing that commonality of Lafon’s elegant style.

I didn’t mention Coche Dury because I didn’t visit on this trip, but his wines are really the epitome of minerality in Meursault. Some feel that Arnaud Ente is a very close second in this style. No doubt there are still Meursaults in the old style, fat and oaky, but I have to say that I didn’t encounter any on this trip. Previously I’ve always been a devotée of Puligny for expressing terroir in that ineffably steely, mineral style, but Meursault is now running it a close second. Here are four examples to make the point.

Domaine Pierre Morey, Meursault Tessons, 2009: “This is a mineral terroir: the rock is about 30 cms down and the roots tend to run along the surface. This was a precocious vintage but the wine was slow to develop and elegant,” says Anne-Marie Morey. A slight sense of reduction brings a really savory impression to the citrus fruits – this one won’t succumb to premox. Fruits are elegant, citrusy, and emerging slowly. 89.

Domaine Guy Roulot, Meursault Charmes, 2012: Faintly smoky, mineral nose with citrus fruits. More subtle than Bouchères, more texture, less obvious gloss on surface, but deeper flavors with good extraction and depth. Very fine indeed. 92.

Domaine Comtes Lafon , Meursault Charmes, 2012: Restrained smoky nose. Most overt sense of structure among the premier crus, more granular on palate with strong impression that the structured citrus and stone fruits will last a long time. Tension and texture would be a fair summary. 93.

Domaine Michel Bouzereau, Meursault Genevrières, 2013: Similar to Charmes with citrus hiding some nuts, but more intensity. Lots of extract here, great concentration of fruits marked by citrus and apples, long finish. Deep and concentrated, this might be what Meursault would be like if it had a Grand Cru. 91.

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.

Burgundy Diary part 2: Domaine Leflaive – the Quintessence of Puligny & the 2012 Vintage

Domaine Leflaive has become very grand. The first time I visited, twenty years ago, things were casual: I called the domain when I was in Beaune, and made an appointment to visit that afternoon. I met with Anne-Claude Leflaive, who had recently started the experiment with biodynamics, and we had a long tasting, punctuated by discussion about potassium levels in the soil (a sensitive issue in Burgundy at that time, as much of the soil had been poisoned over the previous decades). This time, an email to the contact address on the web site produced an automated response to say that there are no direct sales to new customers, no visits for consumers, and professionals should contact the local importer.

Once you arrive in Puligny, you have to know where to go, as there are no signs to the domain, and no nameplate at the entrance; perhaps to discourage casual visitors, there’s a line with domestic washing hanging up at the entrance to the rather grand courtyard where the domain is located in the Place des Marronniers. But just to complicate matters further, the Place des Marronniers no longer has any chestnut trees and has been renamed the Place du Pasquier de la Fontaine, perhaps to represent its gentrification with a fountain. This is a sad turn of events for an area proud of its history. But the wines of Domaine Leflaive are more splendid than ever.

LeflaiveTW3Domaine Leflaive was one of the first to take up biodynamics, is probably the most ardent biodynamic practitioner in Burgundy, and has been fully biodynamic for almost twenty years. From 1992 to 1997 there were experiments in which some vineyards were organic and some were biodynamic, and the wines were bottled separately. As a result of the trial, Anne-Claude decided in 1997 to go biodynamic. That was a difficult vintage when acidity generally dropped fast, says general manager Antoine Lepetit, but the biodynamic vineyards retained acidity better than others. Better acidity has continued to be one of the main benefits of biodynamics.

Winemaking is fairly traditional, with everything going into oak, a delay of about 6 days before indigenous yeast start fermentation, and then a delay of some months before malolactic fermentation happens. (Because Puligny has a high water table, cellars are above ground, so temperature responds to external conditions and it’s too cold for malolactic fermentation over the winter.) After a year in barrique, there is assemblage, and then the wine rests on full lees in small stainless steel tanks for most of another year. “We keep barrels for up to five years so we buy 20% of new oak each year. Bourgogne has 10% new oak, village has 15%, there’s 20-25% for premier crus, and 30% for grand cru (apart from Montrachet which is often one barrel). It’s been the same for the past twenty years. What’s important for us is to give the wine no more oak than it can take,” says Antoine.

We tasted all the premier crus from 2012, and the grand crus from 2011. “2012 is not the easiest vintage to taste now, it has high dry extract,” Antoine warns me. Indeed, the wines are pretty reserved at the moment. The Puligny has faintly smoky notes emphasizing a mineral impression, but hasn’t yet developed that steely backbone of minerality that is the hallmark of Domaine Leflaive. Clavoillons (for which Leflaive has almost a monopole as the domain owns almost all of the Cru) shows some steel but is relatively muted, Folatières is dumb on the nose but more rounded on the palate than Clavoillons, Combettes (where there is only a tiny plot) has a more forward impression of stone fruits, and Pucelles is the knockout of the vintage, showing a delicate nose, smoky palate, and silkiness on the finish. The vines of Bienvenues Bâtard are the oldest in the domain, and the wine shows lovely citrus with notes of oak showing at the end, Bâtard Montrachet has more depth on the palate, and Chevalier Montrachet takes the prize for the most subtle mélange of citrus versus stone fruits, smoke versus minerality, fruits versus steel. It would be vinicide to drink any of these wines now, but if forced to choose one for dinner, I would have the Pucelles.