The Epicurean's Atlas: Domaine D’auvenay Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru 1995 | Domaine Leroy Musigny Grand Cru 1991
Region: Côte de Beaune, Burgundy | Variety: Chardonnay
Region: Côte de Nuits, Burgundy | Variety: Pinot Noir
“Lalou was one of burgundy’s earliest adopters of biodynamic farming”
I t has been 30 years since there was last a named winemaker at either Domaine Leroy or Domaine d’Auvenay, the two Côte d’Or domaines owned and run by Lalou Bize-Leroy. That must mean, surely, that she makes the wines herself? She would say no. Lalou, as she is universally called – she may be formidable but she is not overly formal – does not believe that there are winemakers or winemaking in Burgundy. Winemaking, she has said, is something for other regions, like Bordeaux. In Burgundy, they follow a recipe for fermentation, but they let the wine make itself. Perfect grapes do not need a winemaker – and no one could question that Lalou and her team go to exceptional lengths to achieve perfection. What perfect grapes do, whether they are in Musigny, Chevalier-Montrachet or a village appellation, is make wine that is a true expression of the precise place from which they have come; a true reflection of the terroir and the individuality of the specific appellation.
Domaine Leroy and the diminutive Domaine d’Auvenay both date from 1988. Until then, Lalou’s two day jobs were running Maison Leroy (which she took charge of at the age of 23), the négociant business in Auxey-Duresses founded by her great-grandfather François Leroy. Then from 1974, running Domaine de la Romanée-Conti alongside co-director Aubert de Villaine. She continues to run Maison Leroy and remains owner of a quarter of Romanée-Conti, but was ousted from the board of the latter in 1992 – a fascinating story, but not part of this one.
These two estates emerged from the difficulties she was increasingly having in finding young wines of the quality she demanded. This was partly because of the rise in estate bottling. When the “for sale” sign went up at Domaine Charles Noëllat in 1988, she had already been on the lookout for vineyards to buy. Although the vineyards were run down, as was the cuverie in Vosne-Romanée, they were irresistible to Lalou. Many of the vines were impressively old and were Pinot Noirs of a quality that had largely disappeared in favour of modern clones. Their addresses were equally exalted, among them Grands Crus Richebourg, Romanée Saint-Vivant and Clos de Vougeot and Premiers Crus in Nuits-Saint-Georges and Vosne-Romanée. With the addition of Lalou’s family holdings, Domaine Leroy was born. The acquisition of Domaine Philippe Remy the following year brought parcels in a further three Grands Crus.
Today, almost the entirety of Domaine Leroy’s 22 hectares is Pinot Noir, encompassing eight Grands Crus. The smallest holding of these is the 0.27 hectares of Musigny, some of it original Leroy vineyards and some acquired in 1990. Just over a quarter of a hectare may seem tiny, but it still makes Leroy the fifth-largest owner in Musigny.
When asked what her favourite wine was in 2020, Lalou replied “Chambertin 1955”, but there is no doubt that Musigny holds a special place in her heart. Her father Henri dabbed 1929 Musigny on her lips when she was born, a story she never tires of telling.
Musigny, of course, is special. Period. It can be hard to get beyond the hackneyed descriptions – “an iron fist in a velvet glove” and “combining elegance with power” – simply because they sum up this exceptional wine so well. Musigny’s well-drained, limestone-rich mid-slope, overlooking Clos de Vougeot and Premier Cru Les Amoureuses, gives wines of glorious, sensual fragrance, succulent, rich fruit, intensity, concentration and backbone; wines that have great longevity – none more so than the Musigny of the perfectionist Lalou Bize-Leroy.
Domaine Leroy’s wines have been fine-tuned over the years. There have been developments in pruning, training and trellising, some of them innovative and radical methods that are now copied by others. The selection of berries and the way stems are used in fermentation have both become ever-more meticulous. The choice of coopers, oak and toast have been tweaked. And there has also been climate change from which, on the whole, red Burgundy has benefited.
Yes, the domaine’s wines have improved but the fact is they were superb from the beginning, not least because of the single-minded focus on the vineyards and on extremely low yields, sometimes only 11 hectolitres per hectare, seldom much more than 16 hectolitres per hectare.
Significantly, Lalou was one of Burgundy’s earliest adopters of biodynamic farming, applying the practices and treatments at both Leroy and d’Auvenay from the start, and she has never wobbled, even when mildew wiped out much of the 1993 crop. Thus, even the 1991 Musigny was made from biodynamically cultivated vines, although the domaines were not yet certified at that point.
The 1991 vintage saw both April frost and summer hail damage, but the flowering went well and good weather prevailed in July, August and most of September. Red wines were especially successful, sometimes outshining the more favourably received 1990.
In contrast to 1991, the flowering in 1995 was poor, but the resulting small crop was of very high quality for both whites and reds. The whites were ripe, rich, concentrated and, crucially, had the acidity to age well, which must have delighted Lalou, who loves old white Burgundy. Famously, she held a tasting in 2018 at which she showed whites from back to the 1940s.
In comparison with Domaine Leroy, Domaine d’Auvenay is a minnow, but one producing wines of equal distinction. Named after the family farm left to Lalou by her uncle in the hills above Saint-Romain – where she continues to live – close to the winery and cellars in Auxey-Duresses, the entire vineyard holding is just four hectares. It is predominantly white, divided between 14 appellations, including five Grands Crus. One of these, and not the smallest, is the 0.16 hectares of Chevalier-Montrachet.
Chevalier is regarded as second only to Montrachet itself, ahead of the three Bâtard Grands Crus. The vineyards lie immediately above those of Le Montrachet (on the Puligny side) and are cooler and steeper with shallower soil and more underlying limestone. The wines are more mineral and nervy; tightly sprung rather than explosive. They have fruit of great intensity and precision and take their time to unfurl. Lalou will not mind that.