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LALOU BIZE-LEROY: FORCE OF NATURE

Published with the kind permission of The World Of Fine Wine. https://worldoffinewine.com/



The winemaker behind Domaines Leroy and d’Auvenay is one of the most influential figures in modern Burgundy, says William Kelley, who meets the ever-mercurial Mme Lalou to look back on her stellar career



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Lalou Bize-Leroy, Burgundy’s reigning grande dame, has confounded her critics. Those who scoffed at her wholehearted embrace of biodynamic viticulture in the 1980s are now confronted by scores of domaines following suit all along the Côte d’Or. Commentators who found Domaine Leroy’s early vintages too stylized are forced to acknowledge the graceful evolution of those first essays, as well as the immense strides the estate has made since. And anyone who doubted whether the market could sustain Leroy’s extraordinarily high prices for long is obliged to admit that the domaine’s wines dominate any list, short or long, of the world’s most expensive.

Yet if this elfin and mercurial woman feels satisfaction at having proven all the skeptics wrong, she doesn’t show it. “We’re never satisfied,” she is wont to declare. “Ours is a métier of unending doubts, whereby everything remains perpetually in question. And that’s for the best. Only the unimaginative are sure of themselves.” As Madame Bize-Leroy enters her 89th year, that unwillingness to rest on laurels endures; her two estates, Domaine Leroy and Domaine d’Auvenay, may be firmly established as Burgundy’s reference points, but they’re also—as we shall see—among the region’s most innovative. This article tells the Leroy story.

 

Origins

That story begins with François Leroy, a vigneron in Auxey- Duresses. In addition to those in his home village, François owned vines in Pommard, Volnay, and Meursault, as well as parcels in grands crus Chambertin, Clos Vougeot, Musigny, and Richebourg. Indeed, a price list printed in Beaune in 1951 for the Comptoir des Proprietaires de la Côte d’Or lists François Leroy’s 1847 Musigny and Richebourg for sale. Keen to expand further, François established Maison Leroy, a négociant business, in 1867; and from that date until the foundation of Domaine Leroy and Domaine d’Auvenay, the Leroy family’s vineyard holdings were always bottled under the Maison Leroy label. Thus, old bottles of Maison Leroy cuvées such as Meursault Les Narvaux or red Auxey-Duresses are, in fact, domaine wines.

In the later 19th century, Maison Leroy continued to expand, now under the direction of François’s son Joseph Leroy. Joseph and his wife Louise Curteley also diversified into spirits and eaux-de-vie, fashionable in an epoch when, for example, the Mugnier family was better known for its crème de cassis than its Musigny. François and Louise won medals throughout Europe for their wines and spirits, and at the turn of the century, Maison Leroy—based out of the commodious premises it occupies to this day on Auxey-Duresses’s rue du Pont Boillot—was evidently thriving.

Henri Leroy’s elder brother Marcel chose to devote himself to his dairy farm at d’Auvenay, on the plateau high above St-Romain, so it was Henri who took over the family business in 1919. Henri continued his parents’ work in spirits, establishing a subsidiary to produce Cognac and eaux-de-vie and building distilleries in Segonzac and Gensac-la-Pallue in the Charente. Indeed, while Maison Leroy continued to deal in the fine wines of the Côte d’Or, the trade in spirits and fortified wines became its financial engine room, and the firm prospered.


Henri Leroy to the rescue

As Henri Leroy’s business grew, so did his family. In the mid-1920s, Henri married Simone Brun, and the couple had two daughters: Pauline, born in 1929, and Marcelle, universally known as Lalou, born in Paris in 1932. About this time, Henri and his family left Auxey-Duresses, moving to the larger village of Meursault, where Lalou would grow up. And it was around the turn of the decade, too, that Henri became both a client of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and a friend of its gérant, Edmond Gaudin de Villaine.

Beset by creditors and in sore need of expensive investment, these were hard times for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and ownership of this iconic but loss-making estate was divided between Edmond’s sons Henri and Jean—who had inherited their stake from their mother, Marie-Dominique Chambon, in 1915—and his brother-in-law, Jacques Chambon. De Villaine himself lived almost 125 miles (200km) away in the quiet town of Moulins, commuting to Vosne-Romanée once a week by taxi, and subsidized the upkeep of the estate with the revenues of his cattle farm. Chambon, however, was somewhat less committed to the Domaine, and by the 1930s it was an open secret that he was looking for an opportunity to sell.

In 1942, the moment came, and Henri Leroy bought Chambon’s shares, becoming owner of half of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti—now restructured as a société civile. For the eight years that followed, Henri and Edmond worked together in harmony, guided by their shared devotion to the Domaine, replanting its remaining phylloxera-stricken vines after the 1945 vintage. And after Edmond’s death in 1950, Henri Leroy’s role was formalized as co-gérant alongside Edmond’s son, Henri de Villaine. Known in Burgundy as the “two Henris,” Leroy and de Villaine were effective collaborators, and the estate both prospered and even—with the fermage of the Domaine Marey-Monge’s vines in Romanée-St-Vivant and the purchase of holdings in Le Montrachet—expanded. It was not until 1972, however, that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was actually restored to profitability.


Lalou takes the helm

From an early age, Henri Leroy’s younger daughter Lalou had taken a keen interest in wine. Indeed, Henri had touched her lips with a drop of 1929 Musigny when she was born, and Lalou recalls finishing the dregs left in the glasses of departed guests when her parents entertained. “I still remember the Volnay Clos de la Bousse d’Or of 1934, which my mother adored, as well as Hospices 1919 Beaune Cuvée Nicolas Rolin,” she reminisces. Every year, she would take a few days off school to participate in the harvest, and she was fascinated by the work in the cellar, often sneaking into the cellars to watch.

By the early 1950s, as Henri Leroy devoted more and more of his time and energy to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, he continued to purchase fine wines for the family négociant business, but their sale was far from being his priority. The problem found a happy solution in 1955, when Lalou, resisting the allure of a life in the Alps, took charge of Maison Leroy at the age of 23. Lalou demanded and received carte blanche, setting about purchasing finished wines of the highest quality up and down the Côte d’Or—surely an incomparable school in the nuances of tasting.

During this period, Lalou would also accompany her father on his weekly visits to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and in 1964 Maison Leroy acquired the worldwide distribution rights to the domaine’s wines—excluding only the UK and the United States. Just a few years later, in 1967, Leroy’s spirits subsidiary in the Charente was wound down. And in 1974, Lalou Bize-Leroy and Aubert de Villaine replaced their fathers as co-gérants of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.


The genesis of Domaines Leroy and d’Auvenay

In the 1950s and 1960s, many of Burgundy’s best producers had yet to begin estate bottling—Lalou sourced her Gevrey-Chambertin Champeaux and Charmes-Chambertin, for example, from the Dugat family. And there were other high-quality sources in that era that have simply disappeared, such as Domaine des Comtes de St Quentin, where Lalou worked the 1955 vintage. (Its holdings of Clos de Bèze, next to Duroché’s, were bought by Clair-Daü and then went to Jadot, while its cuverie is now a retirement home in Brochon named La Croix Violette.) “I learned a lot there,” Lalou descants, “and I still have plenty of their wines in my cellars. The owner loved his vines!” Indeed, the Comte oversaw the vineyards and made the wines himself, which was quite unusual in that era.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Lalou generally purchased the wines she selected in barrel, completing their élevage in the firm’s cellars in Auxey-Duresses. But by the 1980s, as more and more domaines began to bottle more and more of the wine that they produced, pickings became slimmer. Moreover, the flagrant abuse of agrochemicals that had begun in the mid-1960s meantthat Lalou increasingly struggled to find wines that could meet the exacting standards she set for Maison Leroy in this era. Purchasing a domaine of her own was the obvious solution, and Lalou tells me that she even contemplated acquiring Domaine des Lambrays. But she had always wanted to produce a diverse range of appellations, so when Domaine Charles Noëllat came on the market in 1988, she didn’t hesitate.

Much neglected by that time, Domaine Charles Noëllat nonetheless boasted an extraordinary array of appellations, including Richebourg and Romanée-St-Vivant, many of the holdings planted with old vines—and, even more important, with high-quality massal selections of Pinot Noir. Lalou renovated the winery and cellars in time for the 1988 vintage, and supplemented by the Leroy historic family holdings, the Noëllat vineyards became the basis for the new Domaine Leroy.

More acquisitions followed rapidly. First, only a few months after the Noëllat sale, came a parcel of Volnay Santenots, bequeathed to Lalou by its proprietor. A year later, she bought a further 2.5ha (6 acres) from Domaine Philippe Rémy in Gevrey-Chambertin, including important parcels in Clos de la Roche, Latricières-Chambertin, and Chambertin itself. And in 1990 came more Musigny, purchased from Domaine Moine-Hudelot. Since then, Corton-Renardes, Corton-Charlemagne, Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes, and additional holdings in Chambertin have followed over the years.

At the same time that Lalou was acquiring Domaine Charles Noëllat—an acquisition funded by the sale of a stake in Maison Leroy to Takashimaya—she also established another independent estate in her own right: Domaine d’Auvenay. Lalou had inherited the farm of d’Auvenay from her uncle, Marcel Leroy, and it was here that she lived with her Swiss husband Marcel Bize (1924–2004). At its inception, Domaine d’Auvenay was devoted to the production of white wine, and Lalou planted the Leroy family red holdings in Auxey-Duresses Les Clous over to Chardonnay, a decision she seems to regret today: “Those vines made beautiful wine. But at the time, it didn’t make sense to keep the Pinot Noir.”

The first vintage of Domaine d’Auvenay was 1989, the historic Leroy holding complemented by a newly acquired plot of Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières. In 1990 came a tiny parcel of Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, and in 1992 several rows of Chevalier-Montrachet. Two red grands crus followed shortly thereafter: Bonnes-Mares, in 1993, and Mazis-Chambertin, acquired from the Collignon family, a longtime supplier of the Maison Leroy, in 1994. More recently, Lalou purchased a parcel of Bâtard-Montrachet and contiguous holdings in Puligny-Montrachet Les Enseignères from the Bavard family in 2011.

While these two new stars in the Burgundian firmament were emerging, however, tensions were building between Lalou and Aubert de Villaine at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. In 1992, matters came to a head, and Lalou was replaced as co-director by her nephew, Charles Roch, who perished in a car accident three months later and was succeeded by his brother Henry-Frédéric. At the same time, Leroy lost the exclusive right to distribute Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s wines. When Perrine Fenal, Lalou’s daughter, succeeded Henry-Frédéric Roch in early 2019, following his death the previous November, another chapter in this saga opened.


Biodynamics

It is curious to reflect that the proximate causes of Burgundy’s biodynamic revolution have often been haphazard. Anne-Claude Leflaive’s first forays into the world of Rudolf Steiner, for example, were prompted by a flyer in a Dijon grocery store. And for Lalou Bize-Leroy, it was an article on Nicolas Joly in the Swiss newspaper Tribune de Genève, spotted by her husband Marcel, that opened her eyes to this different approach to viticulture. Yet if the discovery took place by chance, it satisfied an intensifying desire to break with chemical farming. “I knew we had to stop using chemicals in the vineyards, but I didn’t know what to replace them with,” Lalou explains. “Biodynamics was exactly what I was looking for.”

In due course, Lalou visited Joly in Savennières and was forced to admit that his vines were in better health than her own. She returned to Burgundy entirely convinced, drawing on the advice of another Loire wine grower, the pioneering biodynamic consultant François Bouchet, to initiate the wholesale biodynamic conversion of Domaine Leroy and Domaine d’Auvenay.

Everything went well until a fateful day in 1993. “I passed by the vineyards on Tuesday, and everything was fine,” Lalou recalls. “But on Thursday, Vosne-Romanée and Nuits-St-Georges were devastated, and journalists were already in the Romanée-St-Vivant, surveying the damage.” She surmises that clay had blocked the nozzles of her sprayer, preventing the proper application of copper and sulfur. In any case, much of the crop was lost to mildew, and she produced only 700 liters of Romanée-St-Vivant from her 1ha (2.47-acre) holdings. In an era when some considered even green-harvesting criminally wasteful, Lalou was the butt of criticism. She remembers them saying, “That madwoman can’t see that her vines are dying,” but her commitment to biodynamics remained unwavering.

While Lalou was among Burgundy’s earliest adopters of biodynamics, “We’ve invented nothing,” she insists. That means the regular application of tisanes and decoctions—especially dandelion, chamomile, and horsetail—all prepared with dechlorinated water and adapted according to the needs of the vines, the soil, and the phases of the lunar calendar. Lalou is a great partisan of Maria Thun’s barrel compost, which she credits with particular efficacy. And she even resorted to acupuncture in her parcel of Volnay Santenots when other approaches failed. Above all, she characterizes biodynamics as a perpetual work in progress: “After more than 30 years, one can observe the improvements, but the battle isn’t won. To decontaminate soils tainted with chemicals takes a long, long time.”


Growing grapes

Drive along Burgundy’s route des vins, and the vineyards of Domaine Leroy and Domaine d’Auvenay are impossible to miss. Since the 2000 vintage, Lalou’s vines haven’t been hedged. Instead, her team laboriously roll the vines’ canopies—a technique often described as tressage in French, or braiding. Whereas producers who hedge-cut the apical shoot four or five times during the growing season, creating a hormonal stress response in the plants that favors vegetative growth, rolled canopies promote ripening. Grapes grown on vines trellised this way, its proponents argue, attain physiological ripeness faster, at lower sugar levels, than hedged vines’ fruit—an obviously interesting implication in an era of climate change.

Over the past few years, Lalou has even raised the height of her vines’ trellising wires, to accommodate all their energy, so her parcels now tower above her neighbors’. But other producers are following suit, attracted by the promise of both healthier vines and earlier physiological maturation. Domaine Dugat-Py, for example, began experiments with tressage in its Mazis-Chambertin in the mid-2000s and has now adopted it wholesale. Olivier Lamy in St-Aubin and Jean-Marc Vincent in Santenay are also working this way in some of their holdings. And the young Charles Lachaux has recently converted his entire Vosne-Romanée-based domaine to tressage. Meanwhile, Jean-Yves Bizot has also stopped hedging his vines, though he prefers to train them to individual stakes, en échalas. In short, where Lalou led, some of Burgundy’s most enquiring minds are following.

These trellising techniques are accompanied by strict debudding to limit yields—which are routinely among the very lowest in Burgundy. But by contrast, Lalou is vehemently opposed to deleafing. “One must have as many leaves as possible. There are never enough leaves! They nourish the plant,” she emphasizes. Systematic replanting is also inconceivable: dead or dying vines are instead replaced one by one, using cuttings from the domaine’s own sélection massale. “A vineyard,” Lalou believes, “should be like a village, where infants and the elderly live alongside children and adults.”


From grapes to wine

Come vintage time, the tiny and intensely concentrated bunches that Lalou’s vines produce are harvested with the utmost care. Placed gently into small plastic crates that are deliberately underfilled to avoid any crushing when they’re stacked for transport, the grapes travel in refrigerated vans—either to Domaine d’Auvenay in St-Romain, or Domaine Leroy in Vosne-Romanée, depending on their provenance. Once they arrive, they’re fastidiously sorted by 50 pairs of hands. The white grapes are pressed immediately, without crushing, in a pneumatic press—with the exception of Domaine d’Auvenay’s tiny parcel of Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, so small that it’s processed using a manual basket press—and their must goes to barrel with minimal settling. There, the wines ferment at their own pace and mature on the lees.

While Chardonnay and Aligoté go straight to the press, when handling the domaines’ Pinot Noir, the eagle-eyed ladies on the sorting table cut out each cluster’s central rachis by hand, retaining the berries intact on their pedicels—an immensely labor-intensive process that avoids crushing the grapes or disturbing the bloom of yeasts on their skins. “I don’t want to crush the berries or damage the bloom,” explains Lalou, “but nor do I want too many whole bunches or green stems; they detract from the expression of fruit and bring the wrong sort of tannins.” As with tressage in the vineyards, this is a technique that’s now being emulated more widely, by winemakers including Arnaud Mortet, Vincent Dureuil, and Cécile Tremblay—though at other addresses, it’s generally confined to certain small cuvées or to a limited proportion of the harvest.

At Domaine Leroy and Domaine d’Auvenay, these laboriously processed grapes are left to ferment in wooden cuves—and each cuvée is fermented in the same cuve every year. Throughout the fermentation, pigeage is done by foot, supplemented by remontage. And macerations are long, with the young wine frequently remaining on the skins until the cap starts to sink. Located in the cool of St-Romain, and with only two red-wine cuves, Domaine d’Auvenay’s winery is never as warm as Domaine Leroy’s, so fermentation temperatures tend to be lower—perhaps contributing to the finer-boned style of the Domaine’s red wines when compared with their siblings vinified in Vosne-Romanée, which always seem to carry a little more mid-palate flesh in their infancy.

When Lalou decides to conclude the cuvaison, the marc is pressed with a pneumatic press and free-run and press wine are combined, descending to barrel by gravity. The latter are purchased new, almost exclusively from Tonnellerie François Frères, and Lalou favors very fine-grained wood, seasoned for 36 months and scarcely toasted—a choice unusual along the Côte d’Or. While the whites often see two winters on the lees, Lalou racks her reds after malolactic fermentation and frequently bottles them comparatively early, sometimes within a year of the harvest but always in accordance with the lunar calendar. For the better part of two decades, the larger cuvées have been bottled by gravity, five barrels at a time. Corks are long and dense, from one of Spain’s finest suppliers, and all the Domaine Leroy and Domaine d’Auvenay bottles are waxed.


The wines

So much for Lalou’s exacting methods, but what of the wines? At their best, to my palate, they are indeed Burgundy’s greatest. Domaine d’Auvenay’s whites—and Domaine Leroy’s solitary Corton-Charlemagne—are textural, structured, and searingly intense. There’s nothing like them anywhere in the world. What’s more, in the era of premature oxidation, their reliably graceful evolution in bottle finds few rivals. And Lalou’s reds are just as thrilling: Kaleidoscopically perfumed, pungently concentrated, and built around the powderiest of tannins, they exemplify the ideal of intensity without weight. Certainly, they’ve improved since those early vintages: Every five or six years seems to bring Lalou a step closer to her goals, and the domaines’ 2010s, tasted alongside their 1999s, are evidently superior. But it would be churlish to deny that the wines have—their improvement notwithstanding—been fabulous since the start.

These are whites and reds that in a sense transcend their appellations, in that Lalou’s Auxey-Duresses Les Boutonniers from Domaine d’Auvenay surpasses many a grand cru from Puligny or Chassagne; just as her Chambolle-Musigny Les Fremières can embarrass many producers’ Amoureuses or Bonnes Mares. Domaine d’Auvenay’s magical Aligoté certainly suggests that Lalou’s methods also transcend cépage. But in their own context, tasted alongside their siblings, it’s hard to think of any domaines whose wines follow the Côte d’Or’s hierarchy of appellations more faithfully or conform more closely to the received wisdom of what each appellation should taste like. So, if these are wines that transcend expectations, they also reassert old paradigms.

For this taster, however, the wines of Domaine Leroy and Domaine d’Auvenay above all pose an urgent and fundamental question: Burgundy’s wines are defined by their terroirs, yet how often do those terroirs impose limits on their quality? As Lalou Bize-Leroy approaches 90, it’s fair to say that no one in the modern history of Burgundy has done more to pose that implicit question; and it’s certain that no one is doing more to answer it. ▉

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