Eternal Leroy: 1937-2010
I still remember the first time I visited Domaine Leroy. It was the summer of 2007. One of my best friends from business school was getting married in Paris, which made for the perfect opportunity to spend a few days in Burgundy beforehand. It was a much earlier time in my tasting and writing career. Quite honestly, I was so looking forward to this visit that I had a hard time going to sleep the night before. A few years prior I had tasted a number of the 1993 Grand Crus, and the wines had remained etched in my mind ever since.
As I walked into the understated winery in Vosne-Romanée I noticed the walls covered with photographs of what looked like incredible tastings. Gently softened by the passage of time, those photos bore testament to the extraordinary legacy built by Lalou Bize-Leroy and her late husband, Marcel Bize, over the six decades they spent together. My mind wandered as I imagined what it might be like to attend one of those events. Little did I know that in the coming years I would have the opportunity to participate in several historic tastings at both Domaine Leroy and Domaine d’Auvenay, Lalou Bize-Leroy’s home estate in the hills outside Meursault.
Known simply as ‘Lalou’, Mme Bize-Leroy remains one of the most towering figures in the world of wine. Readers who want to learn more about her extraordinary career may wish to revisit this article from a few years ago. Very rarely do I accept invitations to large-scale tastings at estates. Most of these affairs are either very clearly marketing events or parties, both of which I find insufferably boring and of absolutely no interest. But Mme Bize-Leroy’s tastings are always different because they are above all else historic. Would you like to know what was the most remarkable thing about this particular day? To me it was that Lalou did not make a single comment to the assembled group of about 40 people. She walked around to each table of four, as she always does on such occasions, and chatted with her guests, but there were no speeches, no prepared comments and no discussion of the wines. Each taster was taken to their assigned seat and given four glasses. From there, trusted long-term colleagues Frédéric Roemer and Gilles A.C. poured the wines in flights without any fanfare or ceremony at all. It was all about the wines. And only the wines.
I asked Lalou how she put together the program. After all, she has a remarkable cellar of older vintages that is without equal in Burgundy, or possibly anywhere, for that matter. Knowing her attention to detail, I can only wonder how many bottles were opened in advance to check their suitability for this tasting. I am sure it was not just a few, as Lalou Bize-Leroy is not someone who leaves even the slightest detail to chance. “Well, I wanted to start with 2010, which is, in my view, a great vintage,” she allowed. “Then, I wanted to see what I had that I could serve across the same vineyards from 1999 and 1949, to cover two other great years, and then finish with 1937 for the reds and 1945 for the whites,” she added with a disarming casualness, as if she were describing every day wines one might have lying around the house. That informality is one of the most precious qualities that still remains in present-day Burgundian culture, at least among the older generation. It is a sense of simplicity linked to artisan roots from a time not that long ago when these wines weren’t the objects of speculation and rabid desire they are today. I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to witness this era, as I am not sure how much of that will be left for future generations to see.
In theory, the tasting was conceived to mark Leroy’s 150th anniversary and 30th year of practicing biodynamic farming, the latter of which dates to a time when biodynamics and the broader theme of sustainability in viticulture were in their infancy rather than the widely adopted concepts they are today, but there was no mention of either milestone. Guests were drawn across a number of fields and included the owner of one of the most prestigious châteaux in Bordeaux, one of France’s most celebrated athletes, several renowned chefs, a few sommeliers, a handful of writers, a small group from Takashimaya, the Japanese department store is a part-owner of Domaine Leroy, a few people with close personal ties, and a prince whose security detail bumped me off my normal table at the Bistro de l’Hôtel de Beaune the night before, which was rather humorous. And that was it.
The 2010 and 1999 wines were all domaine bottlings, either from Domaine Leroy or Domaine d’Auvenay, while the older vintages were all from Maison Leroy, the family’s négociant label. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to taste and drink many older Leroy reds, both at the domaine and in other settings, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised with how the wines showed. But I have far less experience with older Leroy whites, and that is where I was really captivated. When they are young, the Leroy and d’Auvenay whites are often very hard to read because they are heavily reduced. The 2010s are just now at the stage where reduction has begun to dissipate. Going back another eleven years, 1999 shows a set of whites that is just starting to be fully expressive. At a time when consumers are terrified to hold their white Burgundies for more than just a few years, Lalou Bize-Leroy makes whites that start drinking well at age twenty. As for the 1949s and 1945s, well, those wines are pure magic. In 2014, Bize-Leroy served me a 1964 Meursault Genevrières that is still one of the greatest wines, white or red, that I have ever tasted. “I am not sure why people are in such a rush today!” she exclaimed with that impassioned tone of hers that always makes me feel that she is slightly (or maybe not so slightly) annoyed. “Wines need time. The 1964s are only now truly ready to drink,” she told me that day. Who was I to argue? I hadn’t even been born when that 1964 Genevrières was made or when Bize-Leroy selected it for the Maison Leroy range.
For all of her achievements, Lalou Bize-Leroy remains a controversial figure in Burgundy. Some of her colleagues resent her resounding success and unapologetically brash, outspoken personality. Others shudder at the staggering prices her wines command in the market and a level of scarcity that means very few people ever have chance to taste them. But everyone looks to see what she is doing in the vineyards. The reality is that Mme Bize-Leroy crafts wines unlike any others. Her reds are often spellbinding, while her whites are perhaps even more ageworthy. Quite simply, the wine world needs more, not fewer, eloquent, strong voices. Lalou Bize-Leroy embodies many ideals, but she is without question still Burgundy’s greatest exponent of the region’s most essential concept: terroir. In other words, the idea that a wine, first and foremost, must express a sense of place.
Flight One – The 2010 Reds
The tasting starts with six 2010s; Corton Renardes, Romanée Saint-Vivant, Richebourg, Bonnes Mares, Mazis Chambertin and Chambertin. I admit I have always had a thing for 2010. It is my daughter’s birthyear, and also a vintage I tasted here from barrel and then bottle when I was at The Wine Advocate. The wines have always been marked by extraordinary purity, energy and structure. Back then, the 2010 Mazis was a wine that left me weak at the knees. It is every bit as viscerally thrilling today. The Chambertin is another star in this first flight. A wine with no beginning and no end, the Chambertin is outrageously beautiful. The Corton Renardes is another wine that is positively brilliant. Although it doesn’t have the supposed breeding of the crus of the Côtes de Nuits, the Corton Renardes is a wine I often appreciate for its structure and power. There is plenty of that today.
Flight Two – The 1999 Reds
Lalou repeats the same wines from 2010 with the 1999 flight; Corton Renardes, Romanée Saint-Vivant, Richebourg, Bonnes Mares, Mazis Chambertin and Chambertin. Overall, the 1999s are more rustic than their 2010 counterparts. Indeed, the average quality and consistency of the 1999s is a notch below the 2010s, as these wines make quite clear. In this flight, the standouts are the Mazis, the Chambertin and the Bonnes Mares, which is simply mindblowing. All six wines live up to the pedigree of this great vintage, with the exception of the Corton Renardes, which is a bit burly, even within the context of a site that tends to produce somewhat rustic Burgundies.
Flight Three – The 1949 & 1947 Reds
Pressing the rewind button takes us to the next flight; the 1949 Corton Les Bressandes, Richebourg and Chambertin, along with the 1947 Romanée Saint-Vivant. We are in the post World War II period, when Burgundy was a far poorer region than it is today. The condition of these wines today is stunning given the lack of tools and knowledge that were available at the time. And yet, talented vignerons and winemakers clearly knew what they were doing. Here, I slightly prefer the 1949 Richebourg, a wine that only really blossoms with time in the glass. Even after nearly seventy years, the 1949 Richebourg conveys the power, energy and structure that are such signatures of this Vosne-Romanée Grand Cru.
Flight Four – The 1937 Reds
Amazingly, the 1937 Corton Clos du Roi, Romanée Saint-Vivant, Richebourg and Chambertin are all in great shape. A noble wine, the 1937 RSV is especially fine, with remarkable density and power for a wine of its age. I also adore the Chambertin for its sensuality and allure. With this flight, the red wine portion of the tasting comes to a resounding finish. In a word: superb.
Flight Five – The 2010 Whites
The 2010 whites in this flight are Meursault Les Narvaux, Corton Charlemagne and Chevalier-Montrachet, all of which are just as memorable as they were when I first tasted them a few years ago. The vintage is just as strong for whites as it is for the reds tasted earlier in the morning. At nearly eight years of age, the 2010s are only now starting to drink. Interestingly, Narvaux is among the vineyards that belonged to François Leroy when he founded Maison Leroy in 1868. Over the years, that parcel was inherited in succession by Joseph Leroy, Henri Leroy and finally Lalou Bize-Leroy, who then incorporated it into Domaine d’Auvenay. Even more importantly is the level of quality Lalou coaxes from Narvaux, which is classified as a humble village cru. The 2010 is simply magnificent. As for the Chevalier-Montrachet, well, it more than lives up to its pedigree and bearing. What a wine!
Flight Six – The 1999 Whites
Eleven years pass, and you know what? The 1999 whites make the 2010s appear to be mere infants. The wines are the same: Meursault Les Narvaux, Corton Charlemagne and Chevalier-Montrachet, all of them caught at an early plateau of maturity. The Chevalier-Montrachet is especially sensual and inviting, but all three wines are stellar. There really is nothing like fine, aged white Burgundy. But there is more…
Flight Seven – The 1949 Whites
We enter another world entirely with the 1949 Meursault Les Narvaux and Chevalier-Montrachet. It is hard to fully do justice to wines that give the impression of being at their total peak of expression. How can that possibly be? The wines are nearly seventy years old. And yet there they are, in all of their resplendent glory. To say these are among the greatest wines I have ever tasted seems superficial.
Flight Eight – The 1945 Whites
Three 1945 whites round out this mind-boggling selection of wines: Meursault Les Genevrières, Meursault Les Perrières and Chevalier-Montrachet. It is hard to contemplate today what must have been going on in these vineyards in the middle of the World War II and in the immediate aftermath. As for the wines, they are deeply moving. The Genevrières is my favorite wine in the flight, as it has the most energy, which I would have found hard to believe had I not tasted the 1964 a few years ago. The Chevalier-Montrachet is also quite good. Oily and voluptuous on the palate, the Chevalier is clearly fully mature, and yet it also has more than enough structure and balance to hold everything together. It is another truly remarkable wine.
After the formal tasting was done, I had a chance to go back and revisit all of these wines, often from multiple bottles, with all the time in the world. My mind goes back to my first visit here, when the young 2006s were still in barrel, and what an amazing experience it was to taste through the entire range that day. Even after all these years, the Leroy wines offer a visceral thrill that is hard to describe with mere words, but witnessing their evolution over many decades is truly special. Today, we live in a highly globalized world. The latest and greatest smartphones dominate our lives, online shopping has wiped out entire segments of brick and more retail and renowned chefs operate in multiple continents. Fortunately, some things remain unique, small in scale and impossible to replicate. Lalou Bize-Leroy and her wines are true originals.