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A quick guide to Burgundy and Olivier Leflaive

January 18, 2019

paintings of wine

Soft light streamed in through the windows of Il Borro, the long table in the private dining room looked so elegant.  My heart sank as I realised I’d made a schoolboy error.  There was no memory card in my camera.  I asked the photographers on hand but they didn’t have a spare one, so my iPhone would have to do.  Sigh.  Spotting my friend and talented artist Hatty Pedder, I sat down in front of her, while sipping a glass of Valentin Leflaive Blanc de Blanc Champagne, to have my portrait painted …in wine.

We were there to drink wines from Olivier Leflaive from Burgundy, one of the foremost wine regions in France.  Unlike most French ACs (Appelation Controle) which allow a range of grape varieties to be grown and blended together, the Burgundy region is simple.  White is nearly all Chardonnay and red is mainly Pinot Noir*; but that’s all that is simple.  To quote Jancis Robinson on Burgundy (Bourgogne in French), “Small, expensive, infuriating, complicated region that can occasionally deliver paradise in a bottle.”

The grapes of Burgundy

Chardonnay – the grape that rose to prominence in the 80s, where over-oaked (or even oak-flavoured), relatively inexpensive wines were ubiquitous, and is now often reviled by people who swear they hate it. But take that grape grown on limestone and clay in a cool climate to become Chablis, or with complex terrroir, the perfect site on a slope and skilled use of oak barrels and it becomes some of the most expensive white wine in the world.  Different parts of Burgundy make the magic happen.

Last weekend a friend confessed he wasn’t really into Pinot Noir.  Those used to the big block-busting reds so loved by the Bordeaux devotees, the Robert Parker fans and the concentrated heavies of the New World, might think it lacks body and structure.  However, it has legions of fans (including me); when you stick your nose in the glass and inhale it’s like being in Harvey Nicholl’s perfume hall for wine. It tastes of juicy, soft berry fruits like cherries and raspberries, but with other layers (especially if matured in oak barrels) like spice, smoke and even truffle and game.  It’s silky in texture, and despite the lack of tannins (the stuff that grips your tongue and coats your teeth) some can age really well. While it’s grown all over the world, the most famous, expensive and sublime wines are made in Burgundy.

Who grows, makes, bottles and sells it

Finding out which wines are worth drinking in Burgundy is complicated.  I had to go back to all my wine exam books for a refresher and do some heavy reading to put the jigsaw pieces into place to write this. Explaining it briefly and a way that doesn’t have you nodding off is a challenge, but I’ll try.

Back in the Middle Ages, the region was a rich, self-governing state, a land of peasant farmers, and some of the wine villages seem not to have changed a lot since then.  Many of the famous vineyards are still worked by the men who own them.  Vineyards have stayed within the same families, often for centuries, but a complex system of inheritance, in place since Napoleonic times, means that property must be shared among all siblings.  This has resulted in the land being carved into very small plots with some vineyard owners farming 15 hectares or less. Clos de Vougeot AC for instance, an area of 50 hectares, is shared between 90 growers.

These growers, historically, did not make much wine.  They sold their grapes to merchants or négotiants who blended them together, made and bottled the wine and sold it under their own name.  This began to change due to a demand for domaine-bottled Burgundy i.e. growers who make wine from their own grapes, bottle it and sell it under their own name.   As the wine-making skills of the latter ranges from superb to underwhelming, unless you have tasted and buy from one vineyard regularly, it’s often more reliable to buy wine made by a highly-esteemed négotiant made with grapes from their own vineyards. The other alternative is a négotiant-bottled blend with grapes from several growers.  All these options can be made from grapes from very similar vineyards. Simple? Non.

Olivier Leflaive white Burgundy being poured into glasses at Il Borro restaurant

Listening to Jean Soubeyrand CEO of Olivier Leflaive

A bottle of Olivier Leflaive white Burgundy on a dining table

Wine-growing areas of Burgundy

If you want to dig deep into where all the famous names of Burgundy hang out (geographically) there is a link below. In a nutshell there are four main areas in the region: Chablis, Cote d’Or, Cote Challonaise and Maconnais.**

As Chablis is in the North and much cooler, all the wines are white – steely, minerally and refreshing; the priciest and best at aging is Chablis Grand Cru, followed by Chablis Premier Cru.  The Côte d’Or is divided into the Côte de Beaune where all white Grand Crus (except one rare one) are made, and the Côte de Nuits in the North where the fullest bodied, longest lived reds come from and all the red Grand Crus apart from one (Corton) are produced.  Most appellations in the Côte d’Or include both red and white wine even if they’re more famous for one.

Wines of the Côte Challonaise are judged less prestigious so can be good value for money (the whites of Rully and the reds of Givry and Mercurey).  The most famous appellation of the Mâcon is Poilly-Fuissé for its full-bodied whites.

A long table and chairs at Il Borro restaurant

Il Borro

a row of bottles of Burgundy from Olivier Leflaive

Some of the wines we tasted

The Lefliave family

So with the Burgundian jigsaw puzzle as a backdrop, where do the Leflaives fit in?  Again, it’s a bit of a saga but one that explains why I was keen to try their wines.

The Leflaive family has long roots in Burgundy going back to 1717 when Claude Leflaive founded Domain Leflaive.  A descendant, Joseph Leflaive, increased its holding of Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards in the early 20th century and, gradually, built a reputation as a top Burgundian producer.

Its standing reached greater heights when Anne Claude Leflaive began running the day-to-day operations in 1990. In 2006 she was named “the world’s top white winemaker” by Decanter magazine and in 2014 the Institute of Masters of Wine named her “Winemaker’s Winemaker”.  She did this while gradually converting Domaine Leflaive over to biodynamic viticulture at a time of great scepticism about even growing organic grapes. She also set up a wine school, Ecole du Vin et des Terroirs in Puligny-Montrachet to educate others about what she believed in; organic and biodynamic practises are now widespread in Burgundian vineyards.  She introduced horses into her vineyards, a method from the Middle Ages, which leaves the soil looser and less compacted than heavy machinery; this has now been adopted by top vignerons such as Domaine de la Romanee Conti.

So where does Olivier Leflaive fit into the dynasty?  Olivier ran Domaine Leflaive with his cousin Anne Claude (remember that inheritance system?) until 1994 when he left to concentrate on his own business that he’d founded ten years earlier.

Olivier Leflaive produces négotiant bottled and domain bottled wines. They grow their own grapes and also buy grapes from select vineyards while they are still on the vine, harvesting them with their own team. This is a unique system pioneered by Olivier Leflaive and means they have much more control over quality.

paintings of wine

Biodynamic benefits

In most of the world, grape growing for wine is some of the most intensive and chemical-reliant agriculture and I’ve walked in vineyards where the soil is barren, denuded of goodness, swamped with man-made fertiliser.  I’m keen to know if Olivier Leflaive follows Anne Claude’s extraordinary legacy. The literature says that they produce wines in ‘the most ecological and sustainable way.”

Schiller Wine quotes sommelier Charles Devarennes while on a vineyard walk in Puligny Montrachet “Our daily mission is to produce top quality grapes.  This involves a sustainable approach to working the vines, and also supporting our partner winegrowers in cultivating their plots using an organic or biodynamic approach. We have not any organic certification as we don’t hesitate to use chemical treatment if it’s really necessary.  The harvest is entirely manual and the grapes are picked with the utmost respect for the plant. Harvesting by machine is to be avoided at all costs as it damages the vines and can never match the skill and judgment of a human being.”

I didn’t manage to ask more about this at the lunch but did raise another ecology related issue (see below).

Tasting the wines of Olivier Leflaive

The dining room is filled with animated conversation as the starters arrive on sharing platters down the long table. There’s soft burrata with tomato and basil, beetroot carpaccio with goats cheese, and fried baby calamari, prawns and courgette. The vegetables are organic.  This is just the kind of simple food, served elegantly, made with good ingredients, that I like to eat.

I get a bit wine geeky with the two whites that accompany them doing a lot of sniffing and swirling.  Both wines, Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 2014 and Olivier Leflaive Meursault Vireuils 2013, have lovely floral, aromas with lemon and soft honey flavours.  Both are very food-friendly but the latter is a little more rounded and fuller and goes really well with the seafood.

It’s clear that the menu has been designed around the wines and Il Borro has done a good job.  There’s grilled, sliced, tender beef fillet with shaved parmesan, herbed sea bass with rosemary new potatoes, and a porcini mushroom risotto.

We drink white wine – Olivier Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Folatieres 2014 which is slightly smoky with a mineral finish  – and red wine – Olivier Leflaive Pommard 1er Cru Epenots 2011 that’s luscious with cherry flavours and hints of spice, earth and truffle thrown in. It’s perfect with the risotto but also is good with the sea bass. Pinot Noir when made well is nuanced with softer tannins than big and bold reds, which is why it’s one of my favourite grape varieties, so can pair with fish (it’s a good lunchtime red too).  I could while away the afternoon sipping this slowly, inhaling its heady aromas (i.e. sticking my nose in the glass often), curling up with a good book.

They serve a crowd pleasing chocolate fondant, with gelato and caramel sauce for pudding and we order teas and coffees.  Champagne would have been great with this dessert too.

waiter holding plates

Loved the food at Il Borro

hands reaching over a table with spoons for dessert

Digging into dessert (iPhone pic)

Royal approval

These are excellent wines and I’ll be ordering some from Le Clos for sure, but, if you want a more impressive seal of approval, look to Harry and Meghan.  CEO, Jean Soubeyrand mentions, at the end of our lunch, that Olivier Leflaive wine was chosen for the Royal wedding by the couple. “It’s not the most expensive wine; Olivier Leflaive Les Setilles Bourgogne Blanc is nearly the least expensive.  We heard about the news from the UK press.  Fantastic for us – proud and happy and a very, good free ad.  They had a special committee with some top UK wine merchants and they decided to buy our white wine. We have five wine merchants who distribute our wine in the UK and we asked them “Did you sell the wine to the Royal family?” and they said “I can’t say yes and I can’t say no” in a very British style.  So officially we have never been appointed to sell the wine to the royal wedding – but very proud.”

Climate change in Burgundy

Jean Soubeyrand became CEO of Olivier Leflaive in 2007 and sits at the head of the table at our lunch, to my left, so I get to discuss one of my favourite topics (although not favourite occurrences) climate change.  There is evidence it is having an impact on viticulture, for instance, warmer temperatures have been partly responsible for the improvement in English wine.  I ask him if it’s made a difference (read his answer with a French accent):

“I have only been in Burgundy for ten years but talking with my team and older members in Burgundy, the time they pick the grapes is much earlier than before.  It’s only the first step of analysis because you have to consider that before, the way of making the wine was different, it’s difficult to compare.  But looking back over 30 years, we pick the grapes two weeks earlier.  The weather is less stable, you don’t have less rain, or less humidity it’s just more unpredictable and unstable.  We had frost at beginning of May so we lost a big part of the production.  Winters are not as cool as before, summers are hotter – not average. Is it a cycle, is it short-term, medium term or long-term cycle? It’s impossible to tell.  For us it’s good because probably 50 years before, Burgundy wines had a lack of maturity in the grapes of ripeness. Our wines are a little bit more fruity due to increased ripeness in the grapes.”

Hatty Pedder artist painting a lady (me)

Hatty Pedder painting my portrait in wine

Maison Olivier Leflaive

Jean signed off the afternoon with an invitation to the small hotel they own in a 17th Century building in Puligny-Montrachet called Maison Olivier Leflaive.

“I could talk about Olivier Leflaive for hours but this is just an introduction.  We have a modest hotel and restaurant in Burgundy.  We consider making wine is one thing, but to welcome our customers is also very important.  We had to find the one thing to make people happy, to visit the vineyard and visit the winery and then to go for the lunch.  But not a regular lunch, but a tasting lunch with a sommelier not only to pour the wines but to talk about the wines.  The purpose is for our customers to taste, education and to spend unique time at Olivier Leflaive that we hope they will remember for ever.  And our wish is that when they come back home to Dubai and they visit a restaurant and see us on the wine menu they say “Oh darling, we’ve been to Olivier Leflaive. Get the wine!”

Tasting a very flat and thin red Burgundy even though it had an illustrious name, at a friend’s house this week reminded me what a minefield it can be to navigate the region when buying.  Finding a trusted source like Olivier Leflaive means you’re not disappointed, and there are good quality, affordable bottles at Le Clos (as well as a few you’d need to save up for).

paintings of wine on an artists board

Back home – tea instead of Burgundy

Paint brushes and wine (over camera)

Getting back home, I was still annoyed about forgetting my camera.  Hatty’s work inspired me to pick up a paintbrush and dip it in wine (and some watercolours) to capture some of the mood of such a lovely lunch.  My afternoon of drawing and painting was almost perfect… The only thing missing was a glass of good Burgundy.

*There is also a small proportion of Aligoté and Gamay (red).

** Beaujolais is often considered part of Burgundy but is a whole different topic on its own.

Wine Folly has an excellent guide to Burgundy with maps if you want to read more.

Fiona Beckett talks about the best food pairings with red Burgundy and white Burgundy on her Matching Food and Wine site.

Visit Hatty Pedder if you want to see more of her work.

Thanks to Le Clos for inviting me to lunch at Il Borro (and providing many of these photographs of the lunch) and to Olivier Leflaive for the excellent wines.

Painting of wine glasses

Pin it for later

Any questions about wine? I’d love to help if I can. Have you ever painted in wine?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. crasterkipper permalink
    January 19, 2019 3:49 pm

    Great that you have a cup of tea featured in your wine painting pictures 😉
    Really enjoying your art work…more please! 😀

  2. January 20, 2019 7:53 am

    Lucky you – those are some wonderful wines and from your description, the perfect setting to taste them! 😊

  3. January 21, 2019 5:11 pm

    I really love a good wine tasting experience like this and I absolutely adore your sketches too; what a wonderful way to illustrate a blog post!

  4. kavitafavelle permalink
    January 23, 2019 11:09 am

    What a lovely tasting event and how wonderful to end with the invitation to visit their small hotel too. I love the artwork, is that all by your friend Hatty?

  5. January 25, 2019 1:05 am

    Such a quirky idea, painting in wine – it works really well doesn’t it! I’m fascinated by wines too and loved reading about Olivier Leflaive. I know I definitely favour wines where I’ve visited the vineyard so I think that’s a good strategy

  6. January 26, 2019 6:34 am

    I’m a little envious of what looks like it was a great experience. And your trusty mobile phone has clearly done a great job for you!

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