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Successor to Henri Jayer?

Ben Leroux, it is whispered in reverent tones, may well succeed to the mantle of Henri Jayer as Burgundy’s emblematic winemaker.  Still only 35, Ben is, in the words of Allen Meadows, “extremely thoughtful . . . positively brilliant . . . one of, if not the, most gifted young winemaker in all of Burgundy.” While continuing as the régisseur at Domaine des Epeneaux (Comte Armand),  Ben Leroux now also operates a boutique négociant operation in Beaune near Maison Bichot, just off the  périphérique, in a rented facility that he shares with Dominique Lafon.

Much as Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, Leroux determined to become a vigneron at any early age, and despite not coming from a winemaking family, enrolled in Beaune’s Lycée Viticole when he was 13. Upon graduation, he took a Diploma in Oenology at Dijon University, and in 1990-1992 apprenticed to the brilliant and charismatic Pascal Marchand, who was at that time a 29 year-old wunderkind at the Domaine des Epeneaux (Comte Armand).  Leroux rounded out his practical training in Bordeaux at Cos d’Estournel, subsequently with universally-respected Jacques Lardière at Maison Louis Jadot, and, finally, with Marcel Geisen in New Zealand. In 1999, when Pascal Marchand accepted new challenges at Domaine de la Vougeraie, Pascal selected Ben as his successor at Domaine des Epeneaux.

Ben intends to keep Maison Benjamin Leroux as a small, niche operation, producing fine wines from interesting or under-appreciated terroirs, working only with grapes (not must or young wine) that he carefully selects for quality. He has invested in top-of-the-line equipment and  exerts maximum control over his growers, converting them as possible to organic and biodynamic practices. Focusing currently on around a dozen wines, reds and whites.  Ben is already producing Burgundy of enormous character and remarkable quality.

Maison Leroux’s flagship wine is   Auxey-Duresses (blanc). The Chardonnay grapes are sourced  from three lieux-dits

Ben reviews technical notes with MW candidate Amy Christine of Veritas.

(La Macabrée, Les Hautés, and Les Boutonniers) situated in the Mont Melian section of Auxey, near the border with Meursault. The sourced parcels aggregate 2 hectares, and face east/southeast from an altitude of about 350meters. About half the vines are 25 years old; the other half 35 years old. The stony soil is white marl and limestone (22%) over a limestone base.

These parcels have heretofore been exploited by Comte Armand  and transformed by Ben Leroux into reference-standard Auxey-Duresses blanc.  Comte Armand has, however,  generously given over the rights to these parcels to aison Leroux.  The wine is a lean and racy analogue to Meursault, aromas of lime-blossom and hazelnut , and a fruit-forward and round mid-palate framed by crisp acidity.

Another of Maison Leroux’s noteworthy white wines is the village-level Puligny-Montrachet, which bears the unmistakable breeding of more exalted vineyards in Puligny.

One more fine wine from Maison Leroux is the Nuits-St-Georges, Aux Allots. Coming as it does from the section of Nuits closest to Vosne-Romanée, Leroux’s Aux Allots exhibits a measure of exotic spiciness together with elegant black and red fruit on the palate. Leroux also produces a spectacular Premier Cru Volnay from the tiny .64-hecatre monopole Clos-de-la-Cave-des-Ducs.

Although Ben Leroux is acknowledged as a technical master of scientific winemaking, he actually follows a very intuitive approach, which flows directly from his perception of biodynamics.  “For me,” Ben observes, “biodynamie is not a technique but a philosophy.”  In Ben’s weltanschauung, man has become disconnected more and more from nature of which he forms an integral part.   Rather than trying to impose our own rhythms on the outside physical world, Ben contends that it is just “common sense” to work harmoniously with the forces of nature, to attune ourselves with gravity, with the sun, with the cycles of the moon. Nevertheless, because  biodynamie is a philosophy and not a religion, Ben retains an open mind toward biodynamic techniques, and will, for example, abstain from “biodynamic treatments”, such as copper sulfate,  that he feels disrupt natural rhythms.

In the final analysis, the wines of Ben Leroux are so appealing precisely because his objective focuses on the human perspective. “For me,” he declares, “the goal is not a bottle of fine wine or exultant tasting notes. What interests me, instead, is to create memories of good times, of shared joy and happiness . .  . of what the French call bonhomie.”  Wine is ephemeral; memories abide.

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The careers that young children envision for themselves often more closely reflect their cultural milieu than any noteworthy aptitude. Once upon a time in America’s innocence, nearly every eight-year old boy (regardless of hand-eye coordination) dreamed of playing major league baseball. By the 1960’s, with the Space Race in full throttle, the prevailing boyhood ambition – even for those who got queasy in elevators — was to be an astronaut.  What, then, does it say about a community when an eight-year old aristocrat, scion of a celebrated French military family, announces to his father that he plans to become a winemaker?      

Unlike millions of baseball players and astronauts manqués, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair completed the path to his youthful dream. Fortunately for the worldwide community of wine lovers, Louis-Michel possessed at once the artistic talent, scientific ability, and intellectual determination to realize his ambition. The consensus of wine critics is that he today, from his base in Vosne-Romanée,  produces some of finest expressions of Pinot Noir.      

Gen. Louis Liger-Belair

In pursuit of his dream, Louis-Michel benefited from the patrimony of the Château de Vosne-Romanée, and adjoining vineyards, which descended from his lineal forbearer and Napoleonic general, Louis Liger-Belair. In fact, by mid-nineteenth century, the Liger-Belair vineyards comprised over 60 hectares, including the entirety of La Romanée, La Tâche, and La Grande Rue;  the preponderence of Malconsorts;  one-third of Clos de Vougeot, significant holdings of Chambertin, Richebourg and Echezaux, as well as parcels of Les Chaumes, Les Reignots, Les Brulées, Les Suchots ; Les Saint Georges and Les Vaucrains. Nevertheless, his ancestors had merely been the patron, presiding over Domaine. Louis-Michel would become the first of his family actually to serve as viticulturalist and winemaker.      

When Louis-Michel had first announced his career goal to his father Henri, a distinguished general officer, the astonished general had preconditioned his paternal consent on prior completion of engineering studies. In addition, Henri called upon his good friend, the legendary Henri Jayer, to tutor Louis-Michel in some of the arts of winemaking.     

Domaine Liger-Belair is presently composed of twelve appellations, comprising 5.53 hectares,  situated in the communes of Vosne-Romanée, Flagey-Echézeaux, and Nuits-St-Georges. These include the monopole Grand Cru La Romanée (.84 ha.), and a parcel of Grand Cru Echézeaux (.6 ha.); a most impressive lineup of Vosne-Romanée, Premiers Crus — Aux Reignots (.75 ha), Les Suchots (.22 ha) ,  Aux Brûlees (.12 ha) ,  Les Petits Monts (.13 ha), Les Chaumes (.12 ha); 3 parcels of village-level Vosne-Romanée, totaling 2.26 hectares, including the monopole lieu-dit Clos du Château  (.83 ha.) , the lieu-dit La Colombière (.78 ha.), and a third village-leval parcel of .65 hectares ; together with two parcels of Nuits-St-Georges, the one a parcel of Premier Cru Les Cras  (.37 ha.) and the other a parcel of the lieu-dit Les Lavières (.13 ha.).     

Winemaker Louis-Michel Liger-Belair

 Louis-Michel is an adherent of lutte raisonnée, a system of vine cultivation that is essentially organic and noninterventionist. Lutte raisonnée entails holistic and balanced management of the vineyard, with primary focus on the microbial health of the soil and the biodiversity of the vineyard. The governing policy is to support and maintain the natural ecosystem of the vineyard so that the vines can prosper without intervention, thereby naturally resisting pests and disease. The system pursues a reasoned and not absolutist approach, however, and practitioners of lutte raisonnée allow for the  possibility of limited chemical intervention if certain danger thresholds are passed.     

A regimen of organic farming and minimal intervention is rigorously followed at the Domaine In order to promote the microbiological life of the soil, herbicides are banned and the soil is turned with a horse-drawn plough. The rationale is that a horse has a much lesser impact on the soil than would a tractor. The hooves compact the soil intermittently and randomly whereas a tractor is continuous and invariable in its tracks.    

When full ripeness has reached, the Domaine harvests the grapes as quickly as possible to assure freshness and vibrancy. In order to avoid crushing the bunches, the grapes are placed into small (14 kilo) perforated cases and rushed to the winery.      

Once the grapes make it to the sorting table at the cuverie, the work is essentially complete. To adopt a musical metaphor of the kind much favored by Louis-Michel, once the grapes are placed on the sorting table, the score is final and complete. It remains to the instrumentalist only to interpret faithfully (and artistically) the music that has been written.      

The grapes are entirely destemmed and conveyed uncrushed to the fermenting vat by belt. Once in the vat, the grapes are cooled to a fifteen degrees C°; at which temperature they remain for about a week. Fermentation then begins naturally with indigenous yeasts.      

Fermentation typically lasts 10-12 days, during which time the carbon dioxide, which is a byproduct of fermentations, carries solids to the surface where they combine with the skins to form a “cap”. Inasmuch as many subtle flavors as well as color compounds are found in this cap, Louis-Michel coaxes these qualities out of the cap through pigéage (pushing the floating cap back down into the fermenting wine) and remontage (pulling the wine from the bottom of the vat and pumping over the cap).      

The grapes are then lightly pressed. The free run juice and the press wine are blended and left in vats for about ten days to settle the lees. The suspended solids fall to the bottom of the vats, and the clarified wine is a transferred by gravity into new oak barrels. After malolactic fermentation and aging for 12-15 months, the wine is racked into tank where it rests for an additional 2-3 months. The wine is bottled by gravity without pumping, and without fining or filtration.

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