WINE - James Halliday. July 28-29, 2007
July 28-29, 2007
Family jewels the crowning glory of wine's holy grail.
I cannot be sure I even passed through Burgundy during extended travels in France and the rest of Europe in 1962, following six years at the University of Sydney. My ignorance of French wine was profound, although I had gained considerable knowledge of Hunter Valley wine through consumption alone.
By the end of the 1960s I had become well aware of the wines of Burgundy, buying and tasting them weekly, though for some inexplicable reason Bordeaux occupied even more of my time and money. I suppose I was simply growing up vinously.
But is was not until 1979 that I made my first planned trip to Burgundy, handsomely armed with introductions from Len Evans, and from that time event moved quickly. I made annual visits wearing hats as a journalist, wine buyer (for David Jones) and winemaker, assisting in the 1983 vintage at Domaine Dujac in that capacity.
Seven years ago I was part of a group of six friends (four Australian and two French-Canadian) who purchased a little house in the beautiful town of Monthelie, next door to Meursault, and have spent each May in Burgundy, starting there.
Burgundy (red and white) has long since become my favourite wine, great burgundy occupying a position above and beyond all other wines, however much I love semillon, riesling (especially from the Mosel) and shiraz.
Like many before me, and doubtless those after, I have become aware of the three-dimensional mosaic of complexity that makes burgundy what it is. The capricious and extremely sensitive nature of pinot noir; the imperceptible changes in slope, aspect and soil that can mean the difference between $20,000 and $1 million a hectare; and the bewildering consequences of the Napoleonic laws of inheritance which, unchecked, result in the division of vineyard lots into ever more tiny parcels, and three or more proprietors of a single vineyard appellation with near-identical names.
Below the surface lie tensions that outsiders will seldom know about until a very public fight erupts. On the other side, in most instances, only insiders in a village will know if a choice parcel of vineyard may become available for sale, often following the death of a parent. Pro-active children may agree to keep the property intact or to sell it whole. Some stand back and allow their parents' property to be split among them , and not infrequently neglected in the process.
Others, such as Joseph Leflaive (1870-1953), took a completely different approach. He received a diminished land inheritance dating back to 1580, and in the depressed years of the 1920s began a program of replanting phylloxera-devastated vines and buying vineyards at prices that reflected the economic conditions of the time.
When he died, his four children (Anne, Jeanne, Joseph and Vincent) chose to keep the business intact, creating an operating company in 1973. This means shares in the company may be compulsorily split in the event of the death of a shareholder but the property remains intact.
In 1990, the family appointed Vincent's dynamic daughter Anne-Claude as co-manager with Joseph's son, Olivier. Olivier formed his own company (basically a negociant business) and, while he remains on the many shareholders in Domaine Leflaive, Anne was appointed manager in 1993, supported by three other family members on the board of management.
Anne was one of the early movers from organic to fully certified biodynamic viticulture, in which she passionately believes. While for some people biodynamic theory and practice seems to be more an article of faith than anything else, the wines of Leflaive have never been better and stand at the top of the burgundian tree.
Its exceptional suite of vineyards cover 5ha of grand crus (including a microscopic path of Le Montrachet production 300 feverishly sought bottles a year), a handsome holding of Chevalier Montrachet, lesser amounts of Batard and Bienvenues Batard Montrachet, plus some of the most distinguished parcels of Les Pucelles, Le Clavoillon, Les Combettes and Les Folatieres Puligny, all in Montrachet (plus others).
It is an enviable position to know that every bottle is sold before it is made, and it is Australia's misfortune that such tiny amounts come our way. Negociants Australia is the sole importer, its annual allocation so small (and the demand so large) that distributing it is a nightmare, creating more ill-will than goodwill.
Buying the wines at auction (mainly London) or ferreting out bottles in London of France during visits is another limited but more fruitful way of finding them.
FROM THE REGION
2005 Domaine Leflaive Puligny Montrachet Clavoillon
While in Burgundy I had the privilege of tasting all the 2005 Leflaive wines (other than the mystical Montrachet). Anne-Claude Leflaive prefers the 2004s, believing they will have a longer life thanks to their elegance and slightly greater minerality. For the fortunate few who have both, the answer is to drink the beautifully balanced and forthcoming ‘05s first and then the ‘04s. As I whirled up the scale to the premier crus, trying to differentiate the quality became pointless. The Clavoillon is beautifully focused, tight and intense, with citrus and grapefruit flavours and grip to the finish. The Floatieres has almost ethereal, floral aromatics and extreme length of palate. The Pucelles is finer, more elegant yet more closed. The Criots Batard Montrachet is an aristocrat, taking neither prisoners nor carping criticisms. The Chevalier Montrachet is sheer class, an impossibly elegant fusion of power and finesse. Finally, the Batard Montrachet is the youngest, perfectly balanced and, despite its youth, I have to confess to forgetting to spit it out.