On Friday 12th July, FINE+RARE hosted an intimate dinner with Domaine Leroy at Ten Trinity Square’s private club. We were expecting something special – the reality was perhaps the finest event we have ever held.
The day began with a masterclass for our UK Sales Team and consisted of three Domaine wines and three Maison wines, hosted by Gilles Deprez, a gentleman who has stood next to Madame Bize Leroy for decades. His encyclopaedic knowledge and passion for one of Burgundy’s most revered and introvert Domaines is unsurpassed, and made this a tasting of such quality that even long in the tooth members of the FINE+RARE Senior team had never previously experienced.
If we felt privileged during the day, it was nothing compared with the dinner. Canapes were served alongside Cristal 2007 on arrival, eventually moving to Ten Trinity Square’s Wilberforce private dining room, where a bespoke menu curated by Michelin starred La Dame de Pic had been carefully matched to four flights of Leroy wines by FINE+RARE. With a total of just fourteen round the table, several of whom had either flown in from overseas or left halfway through a gripping Wimbledon semi-final to be there, expectations were high, and the evening began in earnest.
One the most knowledgeable men in the world with regards to this iconic winery, Gilles began by explaining the incredible history of Maison Leroy (begun in 1868), of Henri Leroy’s timely decision to purchase half of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and subsequent propulsion to its current lofty reputation, and then of course, Gilles spoke of Henri’s daughter: Lalou. Having joined the family business in 1955, Lalou had already tasted more fine Burgundy, both young and old, than most could manage in several lifetimes. She took it upon herself to become the most experienced taster on the planet, a feat few could argue she has not achieved. To this day, every year, winemakers send her samples, in the hope that theirs will be chosen to be bottled under the Leroy label. After blind-tasting hundreds of wines, with no indication of grower or terroir, and with no obligation to buy any of them, Lalou chooses only the very best for inclusion in the Leroy portfolio. Followed by aging at the Domaine, these are then selected for release only once deemed ready to drink.
For the first course we paired the Domaine Leroy 2011 Aligote – indisputably the finest example of this grape variety in production, thanks to the incredibly low yields and ancient vines, with the Maison Leroy Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru ‘Les Baudines’. The Chassagne was superb, displaying none of the surmaturité which affected so many whites in this warm vintage – a nose of fresh tropical fruit, honeysuckle and saline minerality, silky and full of driving fresh fruit flavour. The Aligote showed as brilliantly as it always does: intensely concentrated orchard fruit and white floral aromas with the hint of matchstick that so few growers are able to perfect, full and ripe on the palate yet with the reductive note providing a perfect balance of minerality and grip. Gilles noted that one of his favourite games is to serve multiple whites blind, then ask those tasting to pick out the Aligote. Such is the quality that few are able to identify it, even among Premier Cru Puligny and Chassagnes.
With the next course we paired two of our all time favourite Maison Leroy reds: the Volnay 2009, released this year, and the Savigny Les Beaune 1er Cru ‘Les Narbantons’ 2015, released in 2018. It is rare to see a Maison wine from the same vineyard where Lalou also produces Domaine, simply because her qualitative expectations for what can be achieved are so high. The Narbantons 2015 is one such example, and it is easy to see why – a nose of bright red berry and dark cherry fruit, dried flowers and leaf, pure and concentrated on the finish. It was perhaps slightly overshone, however, by the 2009 Volnay. Showing spectacularly, as it had during our staff tasting earlier in the day and as it did when we visited the Domaine earlier in the year, this delicate wine offers a kaleidoscope of impeccably pure pinot noir aromas, sweet red fruit and a high-toned, caressing finish.
As we moved onto the two flights of Domaine wines, Gilles explained what it is that makes these iconic bottlings so special. Founded in 1988, when Lalou purchased the finest plots of old vines from the ancient estates of Charles Noellat and Philippe-Rémy, there are simply no other wineries on the planet which champion the same level of care, attention and spare-no-expense attitude.
Farmed biodynamically from the start, decades before it achieved the popularity it has attained today and at a time when most winemakers were still using liberal quantities of pesticides and herbicides, Gilles noted that most of Lalou’s peers held her holistic methods akin to witchcraft. Yields are held at minuscule levels, less than half those of even top tier domaines, often a mere four bunches of grapes per vine. This is where the incredible concentration of flavour in the finished wines is begun. No trimming or clipping is practised, with excess foliage trained high to ensure a maximum level of photosynthesis and energy flowing through the vine, while maintaining the precious fruit at the optimum level of exposure to the sun.
This practice is virtually unique, meaning Lalou’s vines are by far the easiest to spot when driving down the Route des Grand Crus. At harvest time, the grapes are picked at optimum ripeness, with only perfect bunches making their way to the winery, where they are again sorted to ensure only the best and healthiest grapes are selected. A complicated, utterly unique and incredibly manual form of de-stemming is practiced, where only part of the stalk is left in, requiring each individual grape to be removed from the stem by hand. A difficult process to understand, fortunately Gilles was on hand with a large selection of photos to demonstrate.
With the main course we paired two bottles which had been purchased direct from the Domaine’s cellars, especially for the occasion: the 2011 Pommard 1er Cru ‘Les Vignots’ and the 2011 Vosne Romanee 1er Cru ‘Les Beaux Monts’. Lalou made such good wines in 2011 that they left critics utterly gobsmacked: Allen Meadows perhaps sums it up best: “After almost 20 years of visiting the domaine, I am rarely surprised by the typically stupendous quality but I confess that Mme Leroy so far out-performed the general quality of the vintage that it would have been easy to assume that we were tasting a more illustrious one. It’s not so much that the wines are powerhouses of exceptional concentration, so much as they are just so harmonious and seamless that you can’t help but admire their grace and inner beauty. The descriptor “stunning” isn’t praise enough” while Neal Martin simply notes “in 2011, it was clear that the wines of Lalou Bize-Leroy seemed to deliver a sensational level of quality that would make most winemakers curl up and weep, asking: “How does she do it?”. Both wines showed these traits perfectly. Powerhouses of concentration, a depth of flavour and complexity unlike anything else, yet with silky texture, both had been double decanted hours beforehand and continued to evolve throughout the evening, highlighting their immense future potential.
The three highlights of the evening were served with the cheese course – the cheese lying largely forgotten in the middle of the table as guests contemplated their glasses of 2000 Vosne Romanee 1er Cru ‘Les Beaux Monts’ and 2000 Clos Vougeot Grand Cru. Both at a beautiful stage of their evolution, the Vosne showed all of the finesse and delicacy for which the village is famous, offering a multifaceted nose of mulling spices, rich bramble fruit, smoke and sous bois. The Clos Vougeot, just a hair ahead in terms of quality and complexity, was ripe and expressive with supple dark fruits, clove and star anise, a wine of impeccable poise and moreish finish. The final wine – a ‘ringer’ which we had kept off the menu, turned the night from exceptional experience to truly once in a lifetime. A single bottle of 1937 Clos Vougeot Grand Cru, which was opened moments before serving to preserve its freshness. This wine, selected by Lalou’s father Henri when she was just 5 years old, was an incredible example of just how good Burgundy of this age (with correct provenance) can be. A captivating, infinitely pure and still fresh nose of spice, earth, dried berries and sous bois which, despite its age, continued to evolve for well over an hour. The palate still showed a beguiling level of concentration and finesse, weightless yet vibrant and long. One guest commented that despite having posted over two thousands tasting notes on cellartracker, he had only ever scored three wines at 100pts. This was the fourth.
An unforgettable and unrepeatable experience for all involved. With every possible question regarding Leroy and her various wineries answered, Gilles ended the night on a particularly optimistic note which earned several appreciative chuckles and a round of applause: “as the years pass, we can only continue to get better”.