Domaine Leflaive needs little introduction to wine lovers. It has been described as Burgundy’s greatest white wine domaine, and while this is a pretty strong claim, it is a justifiable one. It’s a family estate that was initially created by Anne-Claude’s grandfather Joseph, who was born in Puligny-Montrachet but left to become an engineer. At one stage he had a factory in St Etienne and was part of the team that made the first French submarine, but things went badly and bankruptcy followed.
Not deterred by this misfortune, he returned to Puligny-Montrachet in 1905. This was just after the phylloxera crisis, and so land was pretty cheap. ‘No one believed any more in the vines’, says Anne-Claude, ‘so he bought 25 hectares for virtually nothing.’ Joseph certainly believed, though: he thought that these vines had value, and set about building the domaine. Of his five children, four, including Anne-Claude’s father Vincent, became involved in the domaine. After Joseph died in 1953, Vincent along with his brother Jo were responsible for its development. Together, they established the reputation of the domaine as one of the best in Burgundy.
In 1990, Joseph was 90, and it was time for the next generation to take the reins. Anne-Claude and her cousin Olivier Leflaive took over from Joseph, and this arrangement continued for four years. However, Olivier was also running a negociant business, and in 1994 the shareholders (made up of some 30 family members) decided they wanted just one person running things – Anne-Claude – and so the businesses were separated. ‘I was a hard task for me’, she recalls, ‘but also a challenge’. She decided to change the way the vines were cultivated, moving to a more natural approach. ‘I asked the people who had been working there for 25 years to change the way they worked: forget weedkiller, fertilizer and phytosanitary products. I thought it was important to put the soil in good health, and I was convinced that something should change, but I didn’t know what’.
‘I think that in your life, if you really want something, heaven helps you and you find people in front of you to help you’, says Anne-Claude, rather philosophically. It was at this stage she met biodynamic consultant François Brochet and soil expert Claude Bourguignon, both of whom would lead her towards the biodynamic wine growing that she now practices.
For several years Anne-Claude experimented, doing direct comparisons between biodynamics and organics on the same blocks of vines. Together with her right-hand man Pierre Morey and the rest of the team, the final decision was taken to shift all viticulture to biodynamics in 1997. ‘I didn’t want to just take the decision myself,’ she recalls. ‘I asked the team to make the decision, and fortunately they decided to go for biodynamics. They saw it was better for the soil, the health of the vines and the wines. For seven years we had tasted the wines blind and most of the time the biodynamic wines showed more complexity and purity’.
It was a brave choice. As Adam Brett-Smith of her UK importers Corney & Barrow puts it, ‘It took tremendous courage to make revolutionary changes at a domaine basking in the adulation of the world. A lot of people were waiting for her to fail, but she has taken this domaine to impossibly high levels’. Brett-Smith continues his eulogy by adding, ‘Anne Claude is the daughter of a legend who took over and became a legend herself.’
Biodynamics proved to be particularly effective in 2004, a difficult vintage for most growers. ‘It was wet and cold, which was very good for oidium [a fungal disease], which was present everywhere,’ recalls Anne-Claude. ‘Biodynamics helped our harvest in 2004 to be incredibly healthy. I was shocked by the health of the grapes around us: most were black, attacked by oidium, especially for the winegrowers still working with chemicals.’
It also helped with the vines in their plot in Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet. In 1990 the then 30 year old vines were in bad health, and they were advised to replant. The leaves were chlorotic and the wood was small; the vines had been yielding badly. The new team of Pierre Morey and Anne-Claude decided to do an experiment on these ‘lost’ vines. They stopped using herbicides, opened up the soil and employed the biodynamic preparations. ‘We were the first to be astonished by the response of the vines to the new treatment’, she recalls. ‘Now these vines are the oldest of the domaine, over 50 years old’.
Domaine Leflaive is about to enter a new era. Pierre Morey will be retiring in July 2008, and his replacement, who has already been working at the domaine for the last five years, knows about red wines. Anne-Claude revealed that she’s now going to be making some reds from Domaine Leflaive, although she didn’t want to elaborate on the specifics. ‘It’s much more interesting to vinify red wine than white wine’, she adds.