By and large, Burgundy has been one of the beneficiaries of global warming. Over the past ten or twelve years, the region has enjoyed an extraordinary number of fine to superb harvests, often after idyllic summers. 2010, however, was far from idyllic, and vignerons had to fight hard to achieve the quality that Burgundy at its best is capable of. The very good news is that, by and large, they succeeded, and although the crop is small, the white Burgundies in particular from the best producers – of which Olivier Leflaive is emphatically one – are showing beautifully.
I enjoyed the truth of that over a lunch with Patrick Leflaive and Jean Soubeyrand, president and director general, respectively, of the family firm.
We tasted a half dozen of the 2010 whites, from Aligoté up to Grand Cru. At every level, the Leflaive wines displayed classic profiles, from color through aroma, palate, and finish. Needless to say, I was a very happy wine journalist.
That high level of typicity was no easy accomplishment in 2010. The winter weather was pretty brutal: temperatures dropping below zero (Fahrenheit), severe frosts, snow and rain, with continuing low temperatures. March and April brought temperatures slightly higher than normal, but still abundant rain. May cooled down again and consequently slowed the growth of the vines, while June then ran warmer than normal. July and August returned to cool temperatures and more rain. Those low temperatures and all that rain caused flower failure and millerandage (small berries) throughout Burgundy. That in turn caused a small crop – but because September provided mild and dry weather, with good breezes to ventilate the vineyards and combat rot, the grapes ripened fully, with concentrated juices and good sugar levels and color. And the consequence of that is some splendid wines – smaller volume than usual, but of a quality to stand among the best.
At Olivier Leflaive, winemaker Franck Grux has now 24 years of experience with Burgundian grapes and vineyards. He has been the chief winemaker for Leflaive since 1988, and he has developed an admirable ability to coax the Chardonnay from differing sites to express those differences clearly, along with the grape’s own character. Patrick Leflaive said that the firm tends to harvest its grapes a little early, especially the whites, according to Franck Grux’s and the family’s preference to make slightly lighter, racier, and more elegant wines. The Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Clos St. Marc certainly fit that description, from its brilliant aroma through to its finishing goût de terroir – a lovely wine, mouth-filling and at the same time light and agile, delicious with the very stylish version of clams casino I had alongside it.
The Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Les Folatières that followed the Clos St. Marc showed the marked differences between the Chassagne and Puligny appellations. The Puligny – both this one and the 1er Cru Les Pucelles that followed – had greater complexity and nuance than the comparatively straightforward and forthright Chassagne. Les Folatières was perfumed with honeysuckle in the nose and was richly floral in the mouth, showing a lovely balance (actually, that fine balance was a hallmark of all the wines). The Pucelles was much more mineral, yet equally poised and complex. Both wines possessed generous but unobtrusive acid, which made them wonderfully adaptable with food.
Then we entered the stratosphere, both in quality and – alas – in price. Grand Cru Bâtard Montrachet and Grand Cru Chevalier Montrachet stand among the greatest white wines in the world and have long been among my favorites (I can’t think of a better choice with Lobster Thermidor than Bâtard Montrachet). Once I could even afford them. That is no longer true, unfortunately, so the only chances I have to taste them are lunches like this one, for which I am profoundly grateful.
Both these bottles proved to be very young: These are white wines that want time to compose themselves and show everything they have. If I had them, I would cellar them minimally for five years before I broached them, and with a vintage as distinctive as 2010 I would probably try to wait even longer. The aroma of the Bâtard was all flowers and mushrooms. The Chevalier was similar but even more intense. The palate of the Bâtard conformed closely to its aroma, with the earthy, fungous notes showing most clearly at this time, while underneath were all sorts of hints of flavors to come. This was a big, gorgeous wine that clearly needs time to develop. The Chevalier displayed brighter acidity, interspersed with the floral and fungous tastes it shared with the Bâtard. It too needs and will reward cellaring.
Wines of this caliber and rarity can never be inexpensive. Olivier Leflaive owns all of 0.18 acres of Bâtard and a half-acre parcel of Chevalier, an ownership situation that is typical of the top-flight Burgundian vineyards. That does not produce a lot of wine, not even in the most abundant years, so a bottle of either is always going to be a special occasion, in and of itself. Life is short: Relish wines like this whenever you have the opportunity.
Olivier Leflaive wines are imported to the United States by Frederick Wildman.