Domaine Leroy 2004 Bourgogne Rouge - truly unique
You can forget the hyberbole, this is a literal use of words. This wine really is unique. It only happened once and will not be repeated.
The name Lalou Bize-Leroy never creates indifference in Burgundy. Her tasting abilities are legendary, the prices she demands for her wines stratospheric, her biodynamic convictions messianic. She pushes up land prices and her vines look a mess as she leaves the ‘apex’ (top bud and the tops of the vines) untrimmed so as not to stress the plant. The yields are miniscule and her wines phenomenal. I believe she does not suffer fools gladly and believes in her business, forcibly. You either love or hate her. Sadly, I have never had the chance to meet, so my only conversation has been via the occasional village (or rarely a 1e cru) bottle.
In 1955 she took over Maison Leroy, the family negociant business where she blind tastes wines, selects the best and then ages and releases them at her will. It is unusual in that these are not wines where they control either the farming or even the winemaking, but the prices (and ageing abilities) are epic. Don’t ask me how.
Far more famously, she owns 25% of the world’s most exclusive estate (Domaine de la Romanee-Conti) and co-managed it until she left in 1992 after what seems to have been a major disagreement about management and distribution of the precious bottles. In 1988 she sought investment from the Japanese luxury department store Takashimaya and bought the Charles Noellat domaine in Vosne and Philippe Remy in Gevrey to form Domaine Leroy, where biodynamics were imposed and the wines shot to the top of the ratings and price scale, I suspect in a desire to rival DRC. She also bought a farm in St Romain where she owns her family domaine d’Auvenay, as famed for its whites as Leroy is for its reds (though they both produce a bit of both).
To understand the scale, Domaine Leroy is under 22 hectares and d’Auvenay just under 4 and produces 8,000 bottles (I think that’s 15hl per ha, an almost sauternes-low yield). 2004 was a terrible year for Mme Leroy in more ways than one. Her husband Marcel Bize passed away, and of course the vintage was troubled by hail, rot and pyrazines, which many have put down to a plague of ladybirds. I am not a chemist, but I can say that we have tipped a lot of 2004s down the sink as they have a green chemical taste that knocks off the nose and dominates the taste. The first mouthful and you might think it’s drinkable, but if you’re sensitive to it (like some are to TCA or cork taint) it just gets worse until all you can really focus on is the ‘green meanies’. I have read that 2011 also saw a lot of ladybirds and it’s true that when we were at Camille Giroud in Beaune watching the grapes come in to be sorted, there were a lot of bugs. As an aside we also spotted an unusually well dressed lady and her husband at the sorting table and wondered who it was: the charming Anne Colgin, owner of the eponymous cult Napa estate (& investor in the domaine in Beaune). I’ve not yet drunk any 2011 reds, so cannot comment. Nor, tragically, did she whip out a bottle of her premium cabernet for us to sample.
Anyway, back to 2004. Mme Bize-Leroy declassified all her reds, but left the whites. For consumers, 2004 was also a critical vintage in that it was the last time that honest, normal mortals could buy her wine. In 2005 the Bordeaux premier crus led the charge to grab the Chinese market (where label and ‘face’ were far more important than price, let alone value) and tripled their prices. True wine lovers who had scrimped and saved every year for ages to buy the odd special bottle were thrown aside like unnecessary clutter in a mad charge for corporate dollars. Understandable I suppose, it is a business. Unfortunately, Domaine Leroy joined in, and what had been merely expensive wines became ridiculous, and since then the prices have doubled again to a level where sadly the only people who can taste them are either professionals or individuals for whom price and value are not a concern. Lucky them, I guess. One could argue what is the point of great wine if any sense of value goes out the window, but let’s not get depressingly, enviously philosophical. Well, not now.
But in 2015 I held a mini tasting with our Norwegian friends, of 2004 whites. We started with a Chassagne 1e Ruchottes from the now also cult domaine Ramonet, then their serious 1e cru, Champs Canet from Puligny. Both were very fine. To top that I served a Corton-Charlemagne from Bonneau du Martay, which was bigger, thick with extract and youth, minty green fruit, a ripe centre and long chewy, citrus finish. So far so very good, a pleasing ascent up the ladder and nothing oxidised (I have poured several Ramonet and Bonneau over the roses, but that’s a different story). To finish off, I produced the last wine (all were blind). At moments like these, you always try to think what would he serve? Well, obviously he wont go down the scale so this must be a grand cru and patently it is, and the best so far. And knowing his love of the two superstar ladies of Burgundy (Leroy and the late Anne-Claude Leflaive from Puligny), and the fact that he has one or two, it must be a Batard or Bienvenues from Domaine Leflaive. Everyone agreed, that was it, a grand cru from a superstar. We were in sight of Everest.
Ah hah. Grand cru? No. Leflaive? No. Puligny? No.
Come on… Surely then a Meursault 1e cru, doubtless Perrieres?
Silence and bafflement, perhaps a slight frisson of irritation. Had I played some nasty trick? Some devious foreign ringer? Was I going to do a Spurrier and announce that it was from California?
No. Certainly not.
It was bottle number 418 out of just 580 of a village Meursault Pre de Manche that sits on the border with Monthelie, not exactly hallowed ground. Made by Mme Bize-Leroy at d’Auvenay. In the good old days it cost around 100 euros, so was the most expensive wine by, what, 30%, but everyone thought it worth it. Now I fear you’d have to add an extra zero. It was indeed our last ever taste of Leroy white wine, but it truly was memorable.
So, five years later and, to get rid of the vile 2020 and usher in surely a better 2021 with some hope, here is the Bourgogne rouge from her other domaine. All very well you might say, but what is so unique? After all, Bourgogne is the lowest rung of the hierarchy, the heavy soil, unwanted lands at the very bottom of the slope or, God forbid, on the wrong side of the road. Cheap stuff that nobody bothered with (well, we didn’t need to back then when a bit upslope was still affordable).
I remember buying it from Les Grands Caves, a wine shop then on Rue St Dominique in the 7th in Paris. It was near my office and conveniently en route to the sandwich shop so I often found myself straying inside (those jambon-fromage sanies can get so expensive…). The guy who ran it was oddly scruffy but knew his wine and pointed me in many new directions for which I am still grateful. This time he disappeared behind the counter and reappeared clutching a bottle of Bourgogne, but in a very reverential manner. Weird. Why on earth was he showing me plonk as if it was grand cru?
The heavy fat bottle, red wax top and huge punt were distinctively Leroy, but still, so what? And when he said it was 60 euros I presumed he’d totally lost his marbles. I could get Clos Vougeot for that… Until he whispered to me the secret. This was it, my ultimate chance. Buy as much as I could… In fact, yes I very much would get Clos Vougeot grand cru for that…
Why? Because this is no ‘bourgogne’. No, no, no. I did say all the reds were declassified and in Burgundy terroir is king and the rules black and white. Mix 5% village with 95% grand cru and, sorry, you default straight back down to a village label. No arguments. And, God forbid, no racial inter-mixing. So, blend your Cote de Beaune village vineyards in Pommard with your 1e crus in Savigny and Volnay and you automatically drop to a generic Bourgogne classification. If you then pour in grand cru Corton Renardes, Clos Vougeot and Clos de la Roche, well you are palpably insane, but the label remains defiant. Bourgogne.
Unique. It’s the only chance I will ever have to taste a grand cru from Domaine Leroy (all be it mixed up) and of course the only time you’ll ever get half a dozen villages co-mingled along with village, premier and grand crus all in one. This unique bottle showcases the whole Cote d’or, from village to grand, from Pommard to Morey via Savigny, Corton and Vougeot.
Forget the idiocies of markets, greed, egos and money. The bottle cost 60 euros, a ticket to a football match, an inexpensive meal out, a seat at the theatre (remember what they all were?). It’s a mixture of all that pinot noir has to offer in a pretty depressing, or challenging vintage. Judge it as such.
The colour, aged 16, is bricky and a bit cloudy, quite pale. But there’s nothing feeble or old about the nose, it’s sauvage (gamey?), and full of fragrant, floral red fruit. In fact you just want to sit and breathe it in, perfume. The weight is light, not the power of a grand cru, delicate (12.5%) but with a sweet ripe core. There’s orangy acidity and a long sour cherry creamy finish. That’s it. Delicious and all about elegance and ethereal fragrance, no power, no fat.
Of course I should stop there, but how can you? It’s far more aromatic than all the grand crus we’ve had this last year except for the Chambertin Clos de Beze 2001. But lighter. Pointless trying to judge but it is unique. And if you insist, well for 60 euros (even inflation adjusted) it’s just great value. For today’s price? Oh come on, you must be joking…
Oh yes, on that subject, if you fancy a bottle you’d better get your skates on. Vins et Millesimes had only 4 bottles left but they seem to have gone. Yours for just 1800 euros. Oh, yes, I forgot to clarify, that’s each bottle. Hmm, I think I have another one in the cellar.
At that price…
Happy New Year and may 2021 bring you far more happiness (& lovely bottles) than 2020.