To be a successful rock climber you should not have an overwhelming and disproportionate fear of falling. Lalou Bize-Leroy, lithesome and athletic after years climbing Europe’s challenging peaks, must have sensed as she walked into Domaine de la Romanee Conti’s boardroom that – on this occasion at least – a life changing fall was inevitable. Her sister Pauline, who like Lalou owned 25% of DRC’s shares, sided with other shareholders and had Lalou fired from her post as director. It is said that it was a major and bitter blow but what followed was the stuff of fairy tales.
Lalou Bize-Leroy apparently loves vines more than people. She herself is not universally loved but her sense of purpose after she was fired from DRC has made her enormously wealthy and her wines have become the stuff of legend out of reach to all but the very rich. If, as many people think (and I include myself in this), Burgundy produces the most alluring and ethereal wines anywhere, then Lalou Bizet Leroy, by simple logic, may well be the greatest winemaker that’s ever lived.
Robert Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic, in his 1997 guide to French wines had this say about Lalou Bize Leroy:
“I have said it so many times that it may seem redundant, but if you missed it in my 1990 tome, Burgundy, Lalou Bize-Leroy stands virtually alone at the top of Burgundy’s quality hierarchy. Because she is a perfectionist, and because she has had the courage to produce wines from low yields and bottle them naturally, without fining or filtration, she has been scorned by many Burgundy negociants, and even by the proprietors of other top domaines. Not only are they jealous, they are frightened of Bize-Leroy because they fear increasing pressure for lower yields and bio-dynamic farming. Anyone who loves great Burgundy, must realize that her wines embarrass much of what is produced in Burgundy”
I have written about Burgundy before but I will quickly recap on the Cote D’Or – this small area of France where the finest expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are produced. Many think it’s the most exciting wine region in the world. Clive Coates MW in his bible-sized The Wines of Burgundy talks about an explosion in quality in the region over the last 25 years. We see very little Burgundy in Gibraltar, consequently few here have acquired a taste for these wines. Red Burgundy particularly is not easy-drinking but persevere and you will soon appreciate their out-of-this-world ethereal nuances. Our palates by and large have been hijacked by sumptuous, full bodied, modern styled Spanish and New World wines which, in spite of their initial charm and easy-drinking nature, turn out to be simple and ultimately uninteresting – pleasant enough drinks but no more. Of course, no one can call Burgundy wines cheap. According to Coates they can never be inexpensive for all sorts of reasons. The price of the land, the pitifully small scale of operations and the impossibility of making top quality wines without reducing yields to a minimum.
To add insult to injury, Burgundy as a wine region is hideously complicated. The three most important areas in Burgundy are Cote du Nuit (reds), Cote du Beaune (mostly whites) and Chablis (not physically part of Burgundy and producing only whites). Each of these areas is then divided into individual communes or villages and these in turn divided into individual vineyards which are then designated as Grand Cru (top), Premier Cru (second) or simply capable of producing ‘village wines’. For example, Gevrey-Chambertin is part of Cote du Nuit producing reds. Gevrey-Chambertin is then subdivided into 9 Grand Crus and 26 Premier Crus vineyards. Each vineyard will have multiple owners and, like chefs, some better than others. So, for example, Chapelle-Chambertin and Charmes-Chambertin, two of the Grand Crus, will have more than fifty owners between them some having parcels of land as little as 50 square metres the size of a one bedroom in Watergardens! Multiply this throughout the whole of Burgundy, factor in the unpredictable weather and astronomical prices some producers can achieve for their wines and it’s no wonder it’s an area considered seriously complicated, full of jealousies and intrigue.
There are many stories why Lalou Bizet-Leroy was ousted from Domaine de la Romanee Conti. Why one sister would turn against another is anyone’s guess but it accepted that Lalou’s involvement in acquiring vineyards for her herself under Domaine Leroy was seen as unacceptable competition to DRC and she was subsequently forced out. Lalou to this day still has her 25% share of Domaine de la Romanee Conti.
One can imagine that being fired may have been a factor in her mission to climb to the uppermost echelons of Burgundy wine making and make Domaine Leroy a force to be reckoned with. She succeeded beyond anybody’s expectations particularly in a world dominated by men! So how did she do it?
Firstly, she started acquiring top vineyards when these became available. With the financial help of her Japanese importer she acquired 22ha with 26 appellations and nine grands crus. Adopting biodynamic principles – no chemicals and plenty of manure – ensured that vines flourished and life was brought back to previously impoverished soils. Above all, she cut back yields with no more than four bunches of grapes per vine. This was considered financial suicide by other producers, but her uncompromising nature to yields and her obsession to sorting out grape by grape, only allowing the best to go into her wines, eventually paid handsomely. Her wines are considered the pinnacle in Burgundy. Her wines express individual vineyards and soils with amazing concentration arising from ludicrous low yields. Her finest can fetch thousand pounds for a bottle (£2000 for her 2005 Richbourg), though she does produce village wines at more affordable prices. On pricing she is unapologetic. “Yields are limited and there is enormous demand for my wines. Price is a way of showing respect for these wines. They deserve it.”