Fam­ily jew­els the crown­ing glory of wine’s holy grail

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - James Halliday

ICAN­NOT be sure I even passed through Bur­gundy dur­ing ex­tended trav­els in France and the rest of Europe in 1962, fol­low­ing six years at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney. My ig­no­rance of French wine was pro­found, al­though I had gained con­sid­er­able knowl­edge of Hunter Val­ley wine through con­sump­tion alone.

By the end of the 1960s I had be­come well aware of the wines of Bur­gundy, buy­ing and tast­ing them weekly, though for some in­ex­pli­ca­ble rea­son Bordeaux oc­cu­pied even more of my time and money. I sup­pose I was sim­ply grow­ing up vi­nously.

But it was not un­til 1979 that I made my first planned trip to Bur­gundy, hand­somely armed with in­tro­duc­tions from Len Evans, and from that time events moved quickly. I made an­nual vis­its wear­ing hats as a jour­nal­ist, wine buyer (for David Jones) and wine­maker, as­sist­ing in the 1983 vin­tage at Do­maine Du­jac in that ca­pac­ity.

Seven years ago I was part of a group of six friends (four Aus­tralian and two French-Cana­dian) who pur­chased a lit­tle house in the beau­ti­ful town of Monthelie, next door to Meur­sault, and have spent each May in Bur­gundy, start­ing there.

Bur­gundy (red and white) has long since be­come my favourite wine, great bur­gundy oc­cu­py­ing a po­si­tion above and be­yond all other wines, how­ever much I love semil­lon, ries­ling (es­pe­cially from the Mosel) and shi­raz.

Like many be­fore me, and doubt­less those af­ter, I have be­come aware of the three-di­men­sional mo­saic of com­plex­ity that makes bur­gundy what it is. The capri­cious and ex­tremely sen­si­tive na­ture of pinot noir; the im­per­cep­ti­ble changes in slope, as­pect and soil that can mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween $20,000 and $1 mil­lion a hectare; and the be­wil­der­ing con­se­quences of the Napoleonic laws of in­her­i­tance which, unchecked, re­sult in the di­vi­sion of vine­yard lots into ever more tiny parcels, and three or more pro­pri­etors of a sin­gle vine­yard ap­pel­la­tion with near-iden­ti­cal names.

Be­low the sur­face lie ten­sions that out­siders will sel­dom know about un­til a very pub­lic fight erupts. On the other side, in most in­stances, only in­sid­ers in a vil­lage will know if a choice par­cel of vine­yard may be­come avail­able for sale, of­ten fol­low­ing the death of a par­ent. Pro-ac­tive chil­dren may agree to keep the prop­erty in­tact or to sell it whole. Some stand back and al­low their par­ents’ prop­erty to be split among them, and not in­fre­quently ne­glected in the process.

Oth­ers, such as Joseph Le­flaive (1870-1953), took a com­pletely dif­fer­ent approach. He re­ceived a di­min­ished land in­her­i­tance dat­ing back to 1580, and in the de­pressed years of the 1920s be­gan a pro­gram of re­plant­ing phyl­lox­era-dev­as­tated vines and buy­ing vine­yards at prices that re­flected the eco­nomic con­di­tions of the time.

When he died, his four chil­dren (Anne, Jeanne, Joseph and Vin­cent) chose to keep the busi­ness in­tact, cre­at­ing an op­er­at­ing com­pany in 1973. This means shares in the com­pany may be com­pul­so­rily split in the event of the death of a share­holder but the prop­erty re­mains in­tact.

In 1990, the fam­ily ap­pointed Vin­cent’s dy­namic daugh­ter Anne-Claude as co-man­ager with Joseph’s son, Olivier. Olivier formed his own com­pany (ba­si­cally a ne­go­ciant busi­ness) and, while he re­mains one of many share­hold­ers in Do­maine Le­flaive, Anne was ap­pointed man­ager in 1993, sup­ported by three other fam­ily mem­bers on the board of man­age­ment.

Anne was one of the early movers from or­ganic to fully cer­ti­fied bio­dy­namic viti­cul­ture, in which she pas­sion­ately be­lieves. While for some peo­ple bio­dy­namic the­ory and prac­tice seems to be more an ar­ti­cle of faith than any­thing else, the wines of Le­flaive have never been bet­ter and stand at the top of the bur­gun­dian tree.

Its ex­cep­tional suite of vine­yards cov­ers 5ha of grand crus (in­clud­ing a mi­cro­scopic patch of Le Mon­tra­chet pro­duc­ing 300 fever­ishly sought bot­tles a year), a hand­some hold­ing of Che­va­lier Mon­tra­chet, lesser amounts of Batard and Bien­v­enues Batard Mon­tra­chet, plus some of the most dis­tin­guished parcels of Les Pu­celles, Le Clavoil­lon, Les Com­bettes and Les Fo­latieres Puligny, all in Mon­tra­chet (plus oth­ers).

It is an en­vi­able po­si­tion to know that ev­ery bot­tle is sold be­fore it is made, and it is Aus­tralia’s mis­for­tune that such tiny amounts come our way. Ne­go­ciants Aus­tralia is the sole im­porter, its an­nual al­lo­ca­tion so small (and the de­mand so large) that dis­tribut­ing it is a night­mare, cre­at­ing more ill-will than good­will.

Buy­ing the wines at auc­tion (mainly Lon­don) or fer­ret­ing out bot­tles in Lon­don or France dur­ing vis­its is an­other lim­ited but more fruit­ful way of find­ing them.

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