She’s not universally loved, and her wines are beyond most of us, but stephen brook is in thrall to the indefatigable Lalou Bize-Leroy
Lalou Bize-Leroy scarcely looks different than she did when she used to come to London in the mid-1980s to present the wines of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, of which her family is part-owner. She has a slight, elfin figure, with bright blue-grey eyes and hair that is now silver-blonde rather than pure blonde; her clothes are chic but understated. It’s entirely plausible to think of this lithe, trim figure as a dedicated rock-climber – which she has been for decades. Until one pauses to consider that at her age, she might want to give it a rest. But not a bit of it.
Bize-Leroy lives and breathes Burgundian terroir. Until 1988 her main concern was the family négociant business, Maison Leroy, which she still runs, keeping the Meursault cellars stocked with a million bottles of fine Burgundy. Her great-grandfather founded it in 1868, but it was her father who started building up the stocks of old wines from 1919 onwards. ‘We still have some bottles of that vintage for sale.’ Not to mention every great vintage since. ‘My father’s main occupation was running Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, so he never got round to selling the wines he bought.’ Bize-Leroy joined him in 1955.
Such experience and perspective places her in a formidable position within Burgundy’s hierarchy. ‘I have no contracts with growers, and start from scratch each year. If I like a wine, I buy it. If not, I don’t.’ With such enormous reserves to draw on, she doesn’t feel obliged to buy every year.
The Maison Leroy wines are enormously expensive, but she has complete pride in them. She tastes the range about once a year, and decides what to release, what to keep. Often those released are mature old vintages, swiftly snapped up by collectors, especially in the US and Japan. She also owns the 4 hectare Domaine d’Auvenay in St-Romain, which her husband Marcel Bize ran until his death a few years ago. Now she runs it by herself. Despite its modest address, Auvenay has a number of grands crus in its portfolio, but quantities are minute, and the queue for allocations is long.
It is her eponymous estate, though, for which she is renowned. Its birth was painful and unorthodox. Bize-Leroy had taken over from her father as co-manager of DRC. But when she bought the former Charles Noëllat estate in 1988, and then another property in Gevrey-Chambertin, with a view to creating her own domaine, her partner in DRC, Aubert de Villaine, took exception. There was an epic bust-up, and in 1992 she was ousted from her management role. Free to focus on her domaine, she did so with the aid of Japanese investors. It consists of 22ha with 26 appellations and nine grands crus.
Her first decision was to convert the new Domaine Leroy to biodynamism. In 1988 such estates were rare in France. ‘Even my biodynamic consultant said it was a mistake to do this in Burgundy, where vineyards are divided between so many owners. It seemed logical to suppose that neighbouring vines still being treated with chemicals would leave a residue on my vines and in my wines, but it never happened. I’ve commissioned independent tests, and there is no contamination of my wines.’
In 1993 her vineyards were ravaged by mildew; jealous growers expressed some schadenfreude. In 2007 and 2008 mildew was again rampant, so how did her vines cope? ‘They were fine. Of course we had to keep a close eye on them, and treat mildew and oidium rapidly, using tisanes and sulphur. It’s fascinating to see how quickly vines respond to such treatments. Even after 15 minutes there’s a visible difference.’
As well as an unwavering devotee of biodynamism, Bize-Leroy is a passionate believer in low yields. ‘25hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare) is, for me, the absolute maximum for a grand cru, and even that is very rare. In 2008 the yields were just 13hl/ha. It’s not hard to do: you need to prune short and remove buds. Having naturally low yields means I don’t need to green-harvest or bleed juice from the tanks to increase concentration. Green-harvesting can damage the vine – and cutting away bunches can damage the heart of the grower too. I’m not saying a yield of 30hl/ha gives poor wines, it’s just I think lower yields produce better wine. In the 19th century low yields were normal and not just because there was more disease. And if the vines aren’t being asked to crop too much, they remain healthy for longer.’
We go down from her office in a modest mansion in Vosne-Romanée to the cool cellars below. At the entrance to the cellar is a large floral mosaic of the zodiac, and to the left an inscription: ‘Le vin est d’inspiration cosmique; il a le goût de la matière du monde.’ (‘Wine is inspired by the cosmos; it tastes of the earth.’)
There’s a second inscription to the right, this one by Salvador Dali: ‘Qui sait déguster ne boit plus jamais de vins mais goûte des secrets.’ (‘He who knows how to taste never again drinks wine but tastes its secrets.’) There are no secrets, however, to the vinification. The grapes are carefully sorted, given a brief cold soak, and then fermented as slowly as possible. ‘But each year is different, so first we study the fruit and then we decide how to proceed. The temperature curve during fermentation is never identical. You need to know your grapes, learn, and understand.’
On three previous visits to the domaine I tasted almost the entire range from cask, not long before bottling. This year I am out of luck: the 2007s are already in bottle, most of the 2008s laboriously completing their malolactic fermentation. Bize-Leroy has an alternative treat in store for me: a little vertical tasting of mostly grands crus back to 1999.
She is a great fan of her own wines. As we sip the 2002 Clos de Vougeot, she proclaims: ‘Quel fruit, quelle beauté, quel vin!’ I find it hard to disagree. These are sumptuous wines, rich and velvety, and often very high in alcohol: 14.7% is not unusual, though I never detect any burn, such is the opulence and depth of fruit. (The 2008 Domaine d’Auvenay Chevalier Montrachet weighs in, she tells me, at 16%, ‘but you don’t notice it, I assure you!’)
Nor is there anything soupy about the wines. Their finesse and persistence of flavour is extraordinary. It is inevitable that one tries to compare them to the DRC wines, but the styles are different. The Leroy wines seem to have a more self-conscious weight of fruit, without showing any traces of heaviness. My favourites that morning were the 2007 Richebourg, a 2005 Musigny, the 2002 Clos de Vougeot, a marvellous 2001 Romanée St-Vivant, and two glorious 1999s: Corton Renardes and Clos de la Roche.
I’m grateful for the chance to taste her wines, as their prices put them way out of my league. (Expect to pay £2,000 a bottle for the 2005 Richebourg.) She is unapologetic. ‘I know costly wines are not necessarily the best wines. But there is enormous demand for my wines, and production is very limited because of the yields here. Price is a way of showing respect for the wine. These wines deserve it. Each one has its own personality.’ She is at pains to stress how, as the vines age and her understanding of her vineyards grows, the personality of each site becomes more pronounced each year. This is what she is aiming for: a full and broad palette of Burgundian terroirs and nuances.
With the perfume of the 2005 Musigny still in the air, she remarks: ‘It’s beautiful now, but imagine how beautiful it will be in 20 years’ time, in 40 years!’ When I remark that I doubt either of us will be around to appreciate its beauty 40 years hence, she waves my comment away: ‘It doesn’t matter. I am not making wine for myself, but to transmit to the future.’ The cynic in me is tempted to interpret all this as romantic guff. But I don’t doubt her sincerity. Bize-Leroy is in love with the life in her vines, and with their translation into beautiful, immortal wines.
She is not, I suspect, a popular woman in Burgundy. She doesn’t mix with other growers; she is not convivial, she stands apart. I find it impossible not to admire her tenacity. She has the courage of her convictions, as she showed when converting the domaine to biodynamism in 1988. She doesn’t compromise, and of course, the wallet-boggling prices she demands (and gets) for her wines help her stick to her guns. Nonetheless she has created a magnificent domaine, and all lovers of Burgundy, even if they rarely get to taste her wines, are in her debt.
Written by Stephen Brook