Maison Leroy & The Art of Blending
Blending is integral to all winemaking, even though most people think of it as simply incorporating different grape varieties into a wine. It's much more than that: at some point in the winemaking process, blending is going to take place - of different parcels, vineyards, sub-regions, barrels, and maybe even vintages. It can be undertaken to cover up flaws in a wine, but blending can also be used to express the complete character of a region. This is most apparent for champagne and sherry, but plenty of other winemakers from elsewhere blend for this purpose.
The importance of blending is a topic that has coincidentally arisen in several recent conversations with friends and winemakers. There is a trend in premium wine regions, especially in California but also in traditional regions like Barolo, for single-vineyard wines, following the example of Burgundy. There, lieux-dits - or "named sites" - are vineyards which have historically produced wine that is not just superior but has its own identifiable character year after year. It also, completely by chance of course, allows producers to charge more money for these select, small-production bottlings.
But for other regions, blending is much more important. Wines from Bordeaux, the southern Rhône, and Rioja have always historically been blends to reflect and combine the regions' different expressions. This was often born out of necessity: Cabernet Sauvignon needs the back-up of earlier ripening Merlot; Tempranillo requires the body and weight of Garnacha; while Grenache has to borrow the acidity and tannin of Syrah and Mourvèdre. Rather than representing the different climatic growing conditions that are found in one area, blending brings those differences together to create something more balanced and complete.
Single-vineyard wines, which are much more subject to vintage variation, focus less on these subtleties. When those sites have been selected for the right historical and viticultural reasons, they can be some of the greatest wines in the world. But at the same time, even the best single-vineyard wines can be especially concentrated, quite particular, and a little difficult.
All of this came to mind at a tasting I was privileged to attend recently. Lalou Bize-Leroy is one of the most controversial figures in Burgundy, most famously kicked out of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in the early 1990s for her outspoken views, as well as the fact she had just started her own rival winery, Domaine Leroy.
A pioneer of biodynamics in Burgundy, she has been part of her family's business, Maison Leroy, since 1955. The house was established in 1868 as a négociant, first for spirits then for wine. A négociant is a merchant who buys grapes or wine from small growers and then blends them together to be sold under the merchant's own label. It is probably because a négociant is a business first and foremost that blending is seen as a commercial sell-out rather the authentic art of making fine wine.
For some négociants, this is certainly true but Leroy takes a very different approach. The focus of the tasting was on Maison Leroy, where no grapes are bought. Instead, she tastes a series of wines after they have completed fermentation. The tasting is blind, although she knows which villages they come from. After choosing the best wines for which she pays a premium, they are blended together before going through malolactic fermentation.
Her aim, when tasting and then blending the wines, is to create a wine which expresses the characteristics of each village. The wines I tasted all had a common theme: a combination of balance and concentration. These are wines where nothing sticks out as being out of place; at the same time, they have serious depth and intensity. And they very much reflect the village from which they come: each wine had been moulded by place rather than a winemaker seeking to create uniformity.
Wine is so much about authenticity, placing greater significance on a precise sense of place than most other drinks. But that authenticity comes from the winemaker's devotion to their craft just as much as the exact source of the fruit. Producers need to educate consumers just how much work goes into blending, and why the wines are deserving of as much attention as heavily promoted single-vineyard bottlings. The Leroy wines, although extremely expensive, are evidence of the quality, balance, and ageability that careful blending gives a wine.
Maison Leroy Meursault 2001 (c.$500)
A common misconception is that white wine doesn’t age as long as red. This Meursault from 2001 gave the lie to that: it's such a remarkably fresh and alive wine, with a balanced richness characteristic of the best wines from the village. With aromas of vanilla, peach, apricot, and cream, this wine came into its own on the palate with its grainy, seamless texture and lasting finish. In a blind tasting, there’d be no way I’d guess it was so old. ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪
Maison Leroy Monthélie 2015 (c.$225)
Monthélie is a village located next to Volnay and Meursault, producing quite voluptuous wines with a firm tannic structure. It's often overlooked and this is an example of how a village wine can promote an appellation as a single, distinct identity. This young wine has lots of upfront ripe red fruits as well as being pretty and floral, on top of an oaky, vanilla, creamy, spicy texture. Quite tannic, firm, and chewy on the palate, but round and mouth-filling. Give this wine some time. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Maison Leroy Savigny-lès-Beaune 1974 (no price)
One of the many controversies surrounding Leroy is the price of the wines. Even the introductory Bourgognes Blanc and Rouge sell for around $100 - as good as the Bourgogne Blanc I tried was, there’s no way it should be that expensive. The refute is in how well the wines age: you’re not just paying for a young wine, you’re paying for one that will last decades.
So, naturally, the Leroy rep got out a bottle from 1974 from his personal collection. Apparently 1974 was a bad vintage, but this wine gave no indication of inferiority. The nose was old, stinky, and nutty - it was the palate that really impressed because it still had a balance between firm tannins, high acidity, and rich, concentrated aromas with a long spicy finish. ✪✪✪✪✪
For an interesting discussion on the merits of blending, listen to the Wine Scholar Guild podcast which features an interview by Andrew Jefford with French sommelier Christophe Tassan.