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Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet: 1981-2012
BY STEPHEN TANZER | SEPTEMBER 17, 2019
Domaine Leflaive, the most famous wine address in Puligny-Montrachet, has a glorious track record for bottling seamless, elegant terroir-driven wines with class and staying power thanks to their firm but harmonious acid/mineral spines. I had the extraordinary opportunity one sunny afternoon this past spring to taste 23 vintages of Domaine Leflaive’s splendid Chevalier-Montrachet with Brice de la Morandière, the great-grandson of the estate’s founder Joseph Leflaive, who took over direction of the estate following the untimely passing of his aunt Anne-Claude Leflaive in 2015 at the age of 59.
Morandière told me that he had at least two motives for staging the tasting. First, I had been bugging him about it for nearly a year, although I would have been perfectly happy to have tasted one of the estate’s top Premier Crus or its Grand Crus Bâtard-Montrachet or Bienvenues-Bâtard. Second, Morandière had heard what he described as a disturbing comment three years ago at a tasting in New York, when a consumer expressed displeasure with the condition of a bottle of the estate’s 1986 Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles, which the taster thought was prematurely oxidized despite the fact that it was 30 years old at the time. When I asked Morandière if he thought that it was unfair for drinkers to expect even the best Premier Cru white Burgundies to age impeccably for 30 years, his response was quite charitable under the circumstances. He simply said: “Every decade of a white Burgundy’s life is different, and should be different.”
In fact, then, Morandière’s primary goal in presenting his Chevalier-Montrachet was to demonstrate how a white Burgundy evolves over time—by showing vintages back to the 1989. “We hoped to show in the tasting that aged white Burgundies are fantastic, but for different reasons than what we like in younger wines,” Morandière explained. “The peak drinking window for a given wine is highly personal. But you should expect something different every decade. Younger wines are different from older wines, but a lot of tasters drink mostly young wines and look for those characteristics in older wines. But tertiary aromas are the fun of mature wines.”
A Very Brief History of Domaine Leflaive
The Leflaive family has been established as winemakers in Puligny-Montrachet since 1717. But Domaine Leflaive was created in 1910 by Joseph Leflaive (a maritime engineer who was involved in the design and construction of France’s first submarine), using five acres of vines inherited from his family in 1905. In fairly short order, Leflaive expanded his estate to nearly 50 acres by buying up choice parcels of land in Chevalier-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet and the Premier Crus Les Pucelles and Clavoillon, as many vineyard owners were selling their land in the aftermath of the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century.
Following Joseph’s death in 1953, his four children elected to keep the family estate intact, with brothers Vincent and Joseph-Régis running the property together. (It was Vincent who acquired a tiny parcel of Le Montrachet in 1991, enough to make a single barrique of wine.) Joseph-Régis’s son Olivier helped his uncle Vincent run the estate from 1982 to 1990, and in 1990 Vincent’s daughter Anne-Claude Leflaive and Olivier became co-directors. By that point, Olivier had begun to build his own négociant business and with the death of Vincent Leflaive in 1993, Anne-Claude took over direction of the family domain. Olivier left to devote full time to his merchant business.
Along with Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy, Anne-Claude was one of Burgundy’s pioneers of biodynamic viticulture. From the beginning of her tenure, her prime objective was to adopt ecologically correct agricultural techniques that would enable her to restore the health of the family’s vineyards, which had long been cultivated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In 1990, she began experimenting with organic and biodynamic techniques in a hectare of the estate’s vines. By 1997, Domaine Leflaive was being farmed entirely according to biodynamic precepts and the charismatic Anne-Claude had become one of the wine world’s staunchest proponents of biodynamie. Since 2004 Domaine Leflaive has expanded into the Mâconnais, where it now cultivates about 20 hectares of vines, mostly in Mâcon-Verzé and Solutré-Pouilly, farming biodynamically from the outset.
Domaine Leflaive’s three parcels of Chevalier-Montrachet
Upon Anne-Claude’s death from cancer in 2015, Brice de la Morandière, Anne-Claude’s nephew and the great grandson of the founder Joseph Leflaive, took over as managing partner of the estate, following a nearly 30-year career as an executive for a number of international manufacturing firms. By coincidence, Morandière’s great-grandfather Joseph also had a career in manufacturing before establishing Domaine Leflaive. Both men purchased some land in Puligny-Montrachet at the age of 40, and both came back to live in the village at the age of 50.
Through much of her tenure, Anne-Claude Leflaive worked with régisseur Pierre Morey, who also had his own domain and négociant operation (Maison Morey-Blanc) in Meursault. Morey went to work at Domaine Leflaive in 1988 and took over responsibility for winemaking and vineyard management in 1990—although Anne-Claude remained closely involved in the vineyards. Morey had previously worked as cellarmaster alongside longtime Domaine Leflaive régisseur Jean Virot for several years (Virot was the son of François Virot, who had helped Joseph Leflaive replant his vineyards using phylloxera-resistant rootstock in the 1920s and 1930s and had subsequently been involved in a second wave of replanting in the 1950s). Morey retired from Domaine Leflaive in July of 2008, after bottling the 2006s, at which point Eric Rémy, who had assisted Morey for five years, took over as régisseur, which nowadays essentially means general manager. Rémy subsequently left in early 2017 and Morandière hired Pierre Vincent, who had previously been winemaker at Domaine de la Vougeraie for ten years. Vincent is also in charge of winemaking and vineyard management, but his responsibilities as régisseur are more extensive than past occupants of this position, as Morandière, in addition to undertaking a major renovation project at Domaine Leflaive, has increased the size of the estate’s holdings in Puligny-Montrachet, added seven hectares in the Mâconnais, and purchased and begun to plant four hectares in the Hautes Côtes de Beaune. He has also created a négociant operation, with the first grapes purchased in 2018.
Managing director Brice de la Morandière and winemaker Pierre Vincent
Domaine Leflaive’s Holdings in Chevalier-Montrachet
Domaine Leflaive owns 28 hectares (about 69 acres) of vines on the Côte de Beaune, nearly all of it within the village of Puligny-Montrachet, of which 4.8 are in Grand Crus. (These holdings include the estate’s village vines in Meursault Sous le Dos d’Âne and the four hectares of Bourgogne Blanc that Leflaive has gained the right to plant since Morandière took over.) Domaine Leflaive is the second largest owner of Chevalier-Montrachet, with 1.8 hectares out of a total of 7.47 (Bouchard Père & Fils owns 2.54 hectares). The estate owns a large piece of land (slightly more than 0.8 hectare) in the upper portion of the cru, with vines planted in 1974. It also possesses two parcels in Chevalier du bas, one in the northern portion of the appellation (about 0.7 hectare, planted in 1955, 1964 and 1980) and the other in the southern part of the cru (nearly 0.3 hectare, planted in 1957 and 1958). There has not been a substantial replanting in Chevalier-Montrachet since 1980; rather, the estate has simply replaced individual vines as they die.
The soil in Chevalier-Montrachet is calcareous clay, with the especially steep upper section of the vineyard featuring thinner soil with a higher limestone content and the lower part featuring slightly deeper soil with more of a clay component. Domaine Leflaive has offered its Chevalier-Montrachet for a long time: although Morandière is not sure what the first vintage was, he told me that the oldest vintage in his office was 1929. The estate normally picks its Chevalier-Montrachet and other Grand Crus during the first half of their harvest, which generally lasts about six days, with the different parcels typically brought in on the same day—“generally in the morning,” says Morandière, “as the vineyards are steep and the team needs to be fresh.”
Although Chevalier-Montrachet cedes prime position to Montrachet in the hierarchy of white Burgundy terroirs, you would not necessarily know that from the wines themselves, as land owners in Chevalier-Montrachet tend to be among the most fastidious farmers and winemakers on the Côte de Beaune. Some owners of Montrachet, on the other hand, seem satisfied to allow their wines to sell on the power of their name, often at nosebleed prices, rather than on the class and staying power of the juice in the bottle.
Vines at the steep top of Chevalier-Montrachet
Vinification and Elévage at Domaine Leflaive: Changes Under the New Regime
Since the early 1980s, the estate has done a long, gentle pneumatic pressing. Following a débourbage, or settling of the juice, lasting 12 to 18 hours, the must is racked into casks for the alcoholic fermentation, which is done with wild yeasts. The wine is then aged 12 months in casks until just prior to the following vintage, when it is transferred to stainless steel tanks for bottling the following spring. The bottling takes place with what Morandière described as a homeopathic fining and very light filtration, if necessary. The estate has typically used about 25% new oak for its Côte de Beaune wines (a maximum of one-third Vosges oak and a minimum of two-thirds Allier), except for the Montrachet, which is made in a single new barrel.
Morandière emphasized to me that he is highly committed to biodynamics, both in the vineyards and in winemaking, but added that he is pragmatic, not dogmatic, about it. He noted that “concretely, it means no chemicals in our vines and also no external yeasts, enzymes and all those ‘wonders’ of modern enology.” But Morandière stressed that when he took over direction of the estate, and especially after he hired winemaker Pierre Vincent, “we rethought every step of the process, beginning in the vineyards, and we didn’t hesitate to change anything that would have little or no impact on the taste of the wines. Winemaker Vincent now routinely crushes the fruit so that there is no intracellular fermentation (i.e., carbonic maceration), which can raise a wine’s pH by breaking down its malic acidity. (Before Morandière went to “systematic” crushing of the grapes in 2015, the decision of whether to crush or not was made vintage by vintage.) He also carries out a longer, gentler pressing to intentionally oxidize oxidizable material, which is left behind in the tank after the débourbage. And he separates the last of the press juice in order to treat it differently—for example, by fining it.
Vincent avoids long fermentations, which he believes can "soften and fatigue the wines." He’s now introducing yeasts to get the fermentations off to a quick start, ensuring that they are shorter and more even. Previously, the team simply put the must into barrels and then waited for the fermentations to kick in. “But that can take up to two weeks or even longer, which raises the risk of premature oxidation,” said Morandière. “Now we start part of the harvest early, so that we have some fermenting must to inoculate our barrels with. But we have always made our wines with wild yeasts,” Morandière noted.
A barrel cellar at Domaine Leflaive
Morandière and Vincent continue to believe that batonnage (lees stirring) is not a culprit in premature oxidation because it puts reductive agents back into the wine. They regularly stir the lees between the end of the alcohol fermentation and the end of the malolactic—and sometimes later than that. Since 2016 the estate has ended its practice of moving the wine in late summer to stainless steel tanks in another cellar across the village, which required an additional racking and pumping, not to mention the physical strain on the wine of being moved a considerable distance and losing some of its CO2. The wines are now racked just once, and the bottling process has also been adjusted, to minimize the level of dissolved oxygen in the finished wines.
Vincent did not filter the ‘15s prior to bottling and he fined them lightly, using colle de poisson, a fish-based agent, for the first time at Leflaive. Vincent had used this fining agent at Domaine de la Vougeraie and found it "less brutal" than casein, which is made from milk protein. With the bottling of the ‘14s, Leflaive switched to DIAM corks—the extra-dense DIAM 30s for all of the cru bottlings and DIAM 10s for village wines and Bourgogne Blanc. Owing to the lower oxygen transmission rates of DIAMs, free sulfur at bottling is now a modest 20 to 25 parts per million, compared to nearly 30 previously. Morandière summarized: “2014 was the first vintage we closed with DIAMs, but our first vintage with a full reappraisal of the vinification process was 2015.”
At the same time, the team has made changes in the vineyards to promote vigor, such as by using smaller but more frequent additions of fresher, “more active” compost. The objective, according to Morandière, is to increase the vines’ vigor in order to ensure the highest possible level of anti-oxidants in the must. In addition, the estate now turns over the topsoil at the beginning of the spring to bring more nitrogen into the soil, a process Morandière described as “sowing the légumineuses.”
A rare vertical tasting of Domaine Leflaive’s Chevalier-Montrachet
Some Notes on the Tasting
The vertical extravaganza began with a surprise announcement: Morandière informed us that all of the bottles we’d be tasting had been opened, tasted and recorked in recent years. Indeed, one of Morandière’s first decisions after taking over direction of Domaine Leflaive was to carry out this procedure for all pre-2014 Grand Crus and Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles remaining in the estate’s cellars—23,000 bottles were “reconditioned” over a period of three years. Morandière made it clear that this process was not undertaken to “refresh” older bottles: “Our main objective was to get rid of the traditional corks and replace them with DIAM closures, which we feel more confident about.”
“We did indeed eradicate obviously bad bottles, and we kept and recorded the ones that seemed acceptable,” he told me. “But we did not—and frankly could not—make a selection of the best bottles given the sheer number of bottles recorded as well as the human factor involved.” The process, repeated for each bottle using the Eternam machine, was to remove the cork from each bottle, take a “splash” sample to taste a few milliliters of wine, then add inert gas and a bit of SO2 to eliminate any oxygen, finally bringing the bottle back to its intended level by adding wine from the same year and appellation—in other words, by sacrificing good bottles of each cuvée—and sealing it with a DIAM 30 while introducing only minute amounts of dissolved oxygen.
Of course I asked Morandière what he discovered during this painstaking process. Were there, for instance, some years, or some wines, that appeared to be more affected by premature oxidation? His response: “We tossed the worst bottles but we really didn’t find any patterns of damage. Some appellations were better than others within a vintage but, again, there were no patterns.”
Clearly, this process cannot turn a prematurely oxidized wine into a fresh bottle. Not surprisingly, we did find a bit of bottle variation in the tasting, as there would be in any extensive tasting of older wines, and in a few cases a second bottle was opened and poured. However, I would not describe any of the bottles we sampled as prematurely oxidized.
My own experience with tasting Domaine Leflaive wines just after the bottling goes back more than 35 years, and I have rarely, if ever, tasted tired bottles at the outset. While I don’t regularly drink these bottles 10 or 20 years later, owing to their high cost, I have certainly enjoyed more than my share of these wines through the years, with a very high rate of satisfaction. On the wiki websites devoted to premature oxidation of white Burgundies (some of whose reported results must be taken with a grain of salt owing to key variables like storage conditions and the experience of the tasters with older bottles), Leflaive’s wines have a better record than most producers’; still, some wines and vintages have been flagged by consumers. Interestingly, while premature oxidation of white Burgundies began to rear its ugly head with the 1995 and 1996 vintages, there were virtually no reports of issues at Domaine Leflaive until the 2000s (2004, 2006, 2007, 2008). The first disappointment I ever had with the Chevalier-Montrachet was a bottle of the 2006—a vintage, incidentally, that then-winemaker Pierre Morey described as “fragile” even before the wines were bottled.
Three more older vintages tasted chez moi
Perhaps more important is that very few producers of white Burgundy have addressed the issue of premature oxidation quite so thoroughly as Domaine Leflaive has since Morandière took charge—and few estate directors have been so willing to discuss this issue with candor. So while premoxed white Burgundies, owing to the host of possible contributing factors for this vinous scourge, are not yet safely in the rear-view mirror, thirsty collectors should have every reason to be confident about the ageworthiness of the wines now being made here.
I should note that a number of my accompanying tasting notes also feature input from the estate’s directors and winemakers at the time these wines were made. Although the alcohol and pH figures I have included in my notes were provided by Morandière, I have to say that some of my best sources of historical information on all of the vintages we tasted were the introductions I had written to my coverage of Domaine Leflaive in my International Wine Cellar newsletter and, in recent years, on Vinous. Especially in light of the changes in personnel that have taken place at this estate since the late ‘80s, my intros have proven to be valuable—and reliable—historical documents.
The youngest wine presented in the tasting was the 2012 Chevalier-Montrachet—in contrast to most of the verticals I’ve done in recent years, including big red wines, where we started with more recent vintages. The simple explanation for this approach is that Morandière wasn’t much interested in tasting infant wines dominated by primary aromas. When I asked him what he tends to open when he wants to enjoy drinking a wine, he told me he picks something from the late 1990s or early 2000s. “I would never open anything younger than ten years old,” he told me, “even if many collectors and friends want to do this for me.” But the period encompassed by the vertical tasting was covered quite comprehensively: we tasted every vintage from 2012 back to 1989 regardless of quality, with just two exceptions: the 2010, of which no bottles of Chevalier-Montrachet remain at the domain, and the 1994. (And I subsequently added to my tasting notes by pulling three more vintages from the ‘80s from my personal cellar in August.)
The tasting was a rare treat, as the quality of Leflaive’s Chevalier-Montrachet has been remarkably consistent and we had the chance to taste otherworldly bottles at markedly different stages of evolution from four different decades.
See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest
Read more about Stephen Tanzer's 2019 Burgundy verticals
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