Richard Leroy is running a small winery in the Anjou region, his work is almost entirely focused on the vineyard management and the soil management and the result are dry chenins that are very pure and that reflect the shists and rhyolits underneath. After years of trying make his best with the intricacies of the appellation system he just quit and he now bottles his wines as table wine (Vin de France) like more and more demanding vintners in Anjou.
Like many of his peers who set up a small winery with an artisan approach, Richard Leroy wasn't raised in the wine trade when he came here in 1996, he comes from the Vosges region of which he still has a slight accent. His wife is also from there and it happens that she was the one who back in the 1980s' made him discover the world of fine wines. his future wife at the time enrolled in the wine school of Macon/Davayé in Burgundy while he was still studying law and economy in Nancy university. He was at the time more involved by football actually, one of the reasons he went to the university, and when he visited her during her winery trainings in Burgundy, he bagan to appreciate this world of vignerons, the relation with the land and so on.
Another step was a long training she (as well as he) had in the Etablissements Nicolas around 1982-83 for a planned summer job managing a branch of the wine-shop chain. The chain had at the time a huge cellar and devoted resources and time to train properly its future managers through tastings of fine wines. These older and rare wines (he remembers wines like Latour 1961 or Carbonnieux 1928) were also sold on the demand to the customers at Christmas time. This was during these Nicolas tastings that Richard learnt a lot and educated his taste for fine wine, he read many books all the while because he didn't know anything about these wines before landing there and he had a virgin mind in that regard, discovering wines like Cheval Blanc 1978 or Chateau Branaire without any preconceptions, after which he would read avidly from writers like Alexis Lichine, putting knowledge in place near the beautiful olfactory impressions he had got while tasting the wines.
Thanks to Isabelle Dutartre who was then living in Burgundy studying for her DNO enologydegree (and who now makes wine in Oregon), they had contacts with prime wineries, beginning with Véronique Drouhin of Domaine Drouhin who helped them go in cellars taste the great wines in the domaines' cellars of the region. Through her he met Dominique Lafon, they all were very open people who facilitated their wine research, sending them to fellow winemakers like Pierre Morey, Etienne Grivot and so on, this was not so common in 1985-1987 to find this openness. While discovering all these demanding growers and winemakers and the top quality wines they were making, they saw that there are also many producers who aren't focused on quality, they receive the winery from their parents and elders and they just continue the business as a business, nothing more, and because of inertia they don't change their viticulture practice, that's why outsiders are important, Richard says, because it brings a new blood in the trade with everything started from scratch without taking position revenues for granted. This all, along with the tastins at Steven Spurrier's Académie du Vin made Richard and Sophie very knowledgeable about wines.
Back in Burgundy he had been accustomed to visit the vineyards with the growers over there, something which was not that common at the time even for wine specialists and he had been taught by the good growers there how important a correct vineyard/soil work was for the wine. He came back regularly to this region of Anjou, tasted the 1990 in different wineries and met Joël Ménard, 1-hectare-strong a winegrower who had been taught to work conventionally (herbicides, pesticides, chaptalization and so on) and he was then in the process of changing his viticulture and winemaking practices. They both had the same age and Joël taught him many things in the vineyard and one day around 1992-93 he told Richard : why wouldn't you take a parcel yourself and see what you can do with it ? He said no at first (his initial dream would have been to start something in Vergisson in the Maconnais) but Joël told him that there were great terroirs around here that cost nothing, and he ended up saying OK, let's try. Joël found him a parcel on a great terroir, contacting the owner/grower repeatedly until he accepted to sell this parcel in 1996. With this prized 2-hectare parcel of Les Noëls de Montbenault (pictures above) and the help and training of Joël Ménard Richard Leroy could begin to work on the vineyard and set up a cellar, this was a little scary when you're not from a winegrower family but Joël was there to guide him in the first 3 years, they had found an arrangement for that. Richard was obliged to scale down the winery visits in Burgundy and the tastings in Paris in order to focus on his nascent winery in Anjou, he still kept his day job in Paris but with the weekends and vacations this could do the job. He found then a house in Rablay after a long search, then tools including this Renault tractor (pic on top). Starting in 1999 he could do by his own the whole thing including the vineyard work and the harvest by himself, relying on his wine-lovers friends for the picking,
His first wines were grains nobles (noble rot) chenin wines because he felt that the region had a huge unexploited potential for these wines, and 1996, 1997 were great vintages for these, they brought sorted grapes making 30 or 31 % potential sugar, he was feeling in heaven.
Then came 1998, a difficult year for noble rot, rain came, just a bit of grapes picked, a disaster. That year he had looked around at the vineyards nearby and when he saw the vineyard of Mark Angeli he undestood suddenly that with beautiful grapes (picked much earlier than for noble rot) there was good chance to make great dry whites also. Mark Angeli was the precursor for dry chenin here and he had just begun making dry whites (cuvée Christine 1993, 1995), his wines standing out already, same for his 98 which was samely a success. In 1999 he still made noble rot because he and Sophie were still living in Paris (12 sorting operations, 5 casks for 2 hectares or yields of 5 ho/ha...). His 1999 was a great noble rot but it was not understood by the wine writers who only spotted the fact that the residual sugar was lower than usual, Richard realized that journalists didn't know how to taste and appreciate this sort of wines, wether major French tasters or the English speaking ones, none of them really differentiating a botrytis from a raisining wine, and the low reputation of Anjou as a whole didn't help.
But in 2000, now based in Anjou he decided to vinify in dry the first rows of his parcel along a wood, because anyway when noble rot approached the birds (starlings) who eat everything : Lost for lost, he picked these rows earlier for a dry chenin, trying to follow the steps of Mark Angeli. The surprise was that this dry chenin 2000 ended up tasting very well [his long training at tastings gave him the ability to judge] and things began to move in the area, a few other vignerons beginning to make dry whites. His yield even for dry chenin were relatively low, about 25 hectoliters/hectare (he never reached 30 ho/ha here), and he replicated the dry white in the following years. To make things clear one has to be reminded that in the 1980s' there was no dry chenin in the region, winegrowers would systematically wait for the late harvest, say beginning mid october, and if rain was menacing, then suddenly growers would pick in a hurry and sort of make dry chenin by force, but by mid-october the right maturation and balance was long passed for a good dry, so all the dry chenins that made it to the market in those years were actually failed noble rot that tried to pass as a regular dry white, that's why these wines tasted awful and people who didn't know these strategic information thought that the region was completely unfit for dry whites.
Back to Richard's work on dry chenin : he says that because there was this tradition of making dry chenin when for some reason the growers couldn't wait till the noble rot, the Anjou appellation for dry chenin was virtually a trash appellation. Except a few earlier cuvée by Mark Angeli, Richard says that in the region the first serious dry chenins (not made as a backup for a failed noble rot) here were made in 2000, using healthy grapes picked at the right time. His dry chenin got the appellation Anjou Villages Faye d'Anjou and his wines were purchased by wine lovers. By 2005 he made his last sweet wines and from then on he changed the training/pruning of his vines with dry wines in mind, because you don't tend your vineyard the same way depending of you make noble rot or dry wines
Speaking of the distribution of his wines he didn't want to spend energy on the commercial side, he thought (and he happened to be right) that if you keep doing things right, the market will discover you and there will be demand for quality. Marcel Guigal to whom he spoke at that time told him don't be afraid, and I bet that your first buyers will be Japanese. He didn't move and as Guigal predicted one day a small Japanese woman showed up and began to import his wine to Japan, this was Mrs Yasuko Goda (this was before Racines). This was in 2000, she was already buying Mark Angeli's wines and as she was looking for other same-minded vigneron Mark sent her to him. So, commercially things moved swiftly and buyers went to him by word of mouth.
When we went from the Montbenault to the Roliers we passed near a new parcel farmed by Kenji and Mai for the 2nd year and Kenji was spraying his parcel (it had been humid with rains lately), this is a nice terroir of chenin, a welcome addition in their vineyard list. I shot a picture from afar and as you can see (on the left) a rabbit crossed the rows in front of the tractor, like if Mother Nature was saying loud how this parcel was a happy place... Kenji stopped near us, took off his mask and we chatted a few minutes. Kenji told me months ago that Richard Leroy had been a great help when he and Mai setlled in the region, giving lots of advice and tips.
Why were these vines otherwise trained higher if this was not desirable for the end wine ? the reason is convenience for the vineyard workers who prefer to work standing than bending. When the vine is lower, first it is closer to the stones which is better for the fruit and the foliage, also it is easier to change the direction of a shoot or branch when the vine is lower, choices being more limited when the vine is already high.
When he'll cut the vine above the new bud turning into a branch, he'll be able to give a new shape to the vine, closer to the ground. and this type of operation has to be repeated on a case per case basis, adapting the lowering to each vine architecture.
Richard Leroy makes also a big work to replace the missing vines, and you see young vines here and there as a result (which strugle a lot because the soil is so thick with stones), the grapes of which are vinified separately until they come to age. His vineyard is now fully replanted, and every year every missing vine is replanted. In the region there's a tradition not to replant and when too many vines are missing the vigneron uproots the whole parcel, and Richard Leroy thinks it is a wrong approach. He had some esca occurences some 15 years ago but not right now, it seems older vines are less affected but he has some on the Clos des Rouliers.
Speaking of the varieties in the region, Richard told me that Grolleau can make very nice reds here, and he remembers when he told Bruno Rochard (Domaine de Mirebeau) to stop making rosé with his Grolleau because with these 100-year-old vines there was potential for excellent reds, he brought him a couple of casks for a try and given the excellent result he makes red Grolleau and planted more of it. Richard says that Grolleau is really fitting very well in this terroir. Usually people would make rosé d'Anjou with it, otherwise the red Grolleau only gets the table-wine label or quite worse vin de Pays du Jardin de la France [one more proof how little the appellation system has to do with quality].
The Clos des Rouliers is a parcel lying close to the Layon river, there's slight slope even if it doesn't jump at your face, and the lower part close to the Layon is more exposed to frost. Here you have both shale sandstone (shist), gravel of the type you find in the bottom of river beds and alluvial sediments, these terroirs surfacing alternatively in different parts of the parcel due to past geological upheaval.
Right beneath this parcel on the other side of the grass road (pic on right) there's a fallow plot with white flowers which Richard intends to take over one day, then next to it on the right in the foreground there's a parcel farmed by Philippe Delmée and further in the back this is another parcel farmed by Toby Bainbridge, seems like artisan growers are swamping the area... Richard told me later that they look for parcels with old vines but with the grubbing-up subsidies handed by the agriculture administration, growers make more money getting the subsidies to uproot, then the other subsidies to replant, cumulating lots of money while retaining their parcel, and in the process the old vines that would have made a terrific job for people like Richard are gone forever, he says this amounts to rewarding bad work.
__ Dry Chenin 2006. Neat, full-mouth and enjoyable dry chenin, with a gliding feel on the palate. Quince aromas. No residual sugar. Later I'll notice the minerality with another sip, and Richard says that Rouliers is always more refined and mineral than Montbenault, these are different wines. You see less rock surfacing on Les Rouliers but underneath there's a chaotic rock table on which the plow sometimes stumbles. The vines struggled so much here that they waited 4, or even 5 to 6 years before he really got grapes to pick (against 2 years usually). Another sip : this wine is powerful, it radiates beautifully on the palate. He vinifies this 2006 vintage here in this house (he found since a separate building 50 meters away in the same street) and because of lack of room he had to ship the wine faster, so it had a filtration then, plus some SO2 (like 2 grams) at the end. With his larger facility, he takes his time and bottles the wine after 18 months without filtration, after it spent another winter untouched.
2006 was a vintage with lots of sorting in the vineyard but he managed to pick very nice grapes, he considers it's one of his best vintages. Elsewhere like in Touraine the picking season was very bad in comparison. This wine was bottled in september 2007 (now his dry whites have a longer élevage) and it sold very quickly.
All the wines go through their malolactic, Richard says that considering he's done all the work in the vineyard, he leaves the wine follow its life naturally without interfering, including on the malolactic. One thing inmportant he says is that he decided not to make analysis of the wine and instead taste the wines through winter, regularly. He says the data collecting from the lab brings unnecessary anxiety which disupts the accompanying work of the winemaker. For example if the analysis says at one point that the volatile went up quickly you risk being obsessed with it, making you think it'll reach soon 1 gr or 1,5 gr or more and in this case you panic and decide to add a gram of sulfur. In fact, if the volatile really goes up the gram of SO2 will not be of any use and from his experience the wine doesn't veer and comes back in tracks. With the malolactic completed he looses a bit aromaticly but gains a lot in the mouthfeel and that is so important for him.
His dry chenins are now made without any SO2 addition, and Brault, the service company that makes the bottling is doing a very skilled job (it works with the best artisan vintners of the region), asking for an analysis to check that there's no residual sugar and then lets the winemaker decide if he wants a filtration or not. This is the only data Richard collects, when the wine is finished. If, say, the analysis points to 5 gr of residual sugar, he is told to decide and if he bottles as is, it's his responsability.
His buyers usually order hiw wines without needing to taste beforehand, they've been buying the previous vintages and know how he works. He still takes part to the Angers tasting Les Greniers Saint-Jean but he only has cask samples then. He takes part to this tasting mostly to meet other artisan winemakers and taste their wines because the rest of the year he finds it hard to find the time to move around and visit them. There's only something he does once a year with Eric Pfifferling (Domaine de l'Anglore) to break the routine : they and their wives take their backpacks and travel to a nice region to walk the backcountry dirt roads for two days, last time they were in the Beaujolais where they called Jean Foillard who rushed to pick them where they were walking just to have a nice lunch at his winery and have good time together.
Richard helps the young artisan vignerons who come to Anjou to set up a winery (vineyards are still very cheap in the area) and while doing so he puts the emphasis on the fact that you can make it financially feasible even with a small surface, it's important to know how to do it because you have to be able to make a living from your work, he himself lives correctly from his 2,7 hectares even if not on a luxury lifestyle and it is important to explain the accounting rules to reach that goal, the important thing being to to be to big at the beginning and add parcels progressively without making concessions on the vineyard work and being prisonner of bank mortgages which push you little by little to make commercial wines (bigger volumes and wines that are sold much earlier, all this encouraging the use of enolgical tools and additives).
There's something he can afford not spend money on, with this type of small-size artisan winery, he says, this is the commercial part : no trips to Paris to look for clients or other commercial and marketing expenses, the buyers come to the winery and these are interesting people he's happy to meet and have a tasting with.
On the picture above you can see the old press with its stone bed, Richard Leroy took over this place which had still these remains embedded in the ground. There was no cement floor then and the ground was lower, so there was enough room to place a bucket beneath the press bed, the wine being then poured into barrels in this same room. On the other side of the room there was a fireplace to heat water (in order to make barrels tight again) and also forge horseshoes.
__ Les Noëls de Montbenault 2006. The vintage where his yields were only 3 ho/ha because of severe frost : 3 casks only for the 2 hectares. He had no mortgage, no bank obligations and he could make it; he says that he works this way from the start, without owing anything to a bank, when he needs something he pays right away.
Golden color . Very generous wine, richness. Serving temperature a bit high but still tastes well, good sign.
As we're eating while tasting the wine, Richard tells me a digression story about a man he met,
who was a famous restaurateur in Switzerland, this man sort of retired and discovered by himself the world of bread-making (like Pierre Overnoy in Jura, and Cory Cartwright), and it was an eye-opening experience as he discovered in the way, after years of ignorance while he was running a restaurant : he now travels through Europe to study breadmaking and after having thought like most of us that bread needs yeast or leaven to ferment, he found out that like natural wine doesn't really need any fermenting agent, if the wheat is strong and alive enough, it will ferment just by itseld like wine made from well-tended vines. This Swiss buys his wheat in France by the way, possibly in the same farm than Overnoy. In spite of the culture of artisan bakery and the shops pretending to sell such breads, very few people know the art of breadmaking without resorting to yeast and leaven, there are a few Frenchmen who explored the matter, and for a bread made without outside fermenting agent, you need to source your wheat among the rare farmers who can provide a living product, strong enough to contain its own fermenting agents.
I am thinking that these people will multiply and save the bread from its self-destruction like natural wine changed the wine experience from boredom to Dionysian. Just look around and see all these people who develop an intolerance to wheat products because of the unatural structure of modern wheat, something must be done.
The first wine we tasted from the barrel was :
__ Les Rouliers 2013, chenin with an élevage in a Burgundy cask like all the wines in this cellar. The wine is vivid with a light perly feel on the tongue, Richard says that some barrels haven't had the malolactic completed yet. CO2 is good, Richard says, and if there's reduction at some point it's no problem, especially that his casks never went in contact with SO2 including with a sulfur wick. He says that there's nothing worse than the type of reduction encountered in a barrel that has had a sulfur wick in the past, that's why he doesn't buy second-hand casks.
Asked about the things he does in the cellar, like stirring of the lees for example, Richard Leroy says that he does nothing at all, he just tops up the barrels from time to time, he learnt that doing nothing except tasting regularly the wine is the best thing. He racks the wine (with the lees or without, it varies) in september and leaves it in vats.
Asked about what he thinks about foudres, and the ones by Stockinger for example, he says that these foudres have proven good in the first years, but he tempers this in the future because the company going through an expansion right now due to its success, it may be tempted to satisfy all the surging demand by using wood that has not had the same long drying time than the barrels/foudres produced a few years earlier. The drying stage, he underlines is something that implies that a certain ammount of wood has been put aside for years and when the cooperage expands, it cannot travel back in the past and augment the volume of wood to adapt it to the surging demand, which means that either it puts off the new buyers (unlikely option) or it opts for a shortcut and shortens its drying time. He generally considers that cooperages can't be trusted, he has plenty of personnal stories about the issue and he tells me an interesting one about a Burgundy cooperage, about its barrels to be precise. I'll not recount it in detail here but from this story it is obvious that cooperages don't deliver the same quality to their clients, even when they buy at the same time what is supposed to be the same barrel type, wood and toasting. He got a discreet confirmation of this trend over lunch some time later with a head of the cooperage. Another interesting thing with some top Burgundy cooperages is that what they deliver to the Loire wineries is (as a whole) of much lesser quality than what is delivered to Burgundy wineries, although all pay the same price.
__ Les Noëls de Montbault 2013, from the barrel. Very different wine compared to Les Rouliers, more powerful and magnificient, Les Rouliers being more on the refineness side. Very beautiful wine, I put it back in the cask but would have easily finished my glass.
Speaking of research, Richard is also working a research group at Vivelys (Patrick Ducourneau) where they're trying to learn more on the maturity of the grapes through long-run data sampling. To explain a bit on the mystery of maturity he says that for example they found that you can pick syrah grapes in the Languedoc in mid september at 15% potential (thus theorically ripe) with a sugar load that was blocked since mid august. The analysis conducted along several weeks shows that there's a freeze showing up in mid august in the grapes, a freeze that is thought to happen because the soil hasn't been taken care of and plowed, it's been hot and the vine sort of gives up. The patient analysis in this case proved that from the 9 % documented in mid august to the 15 % of mid september there was actually a freeze and the refractometer didn't see that the sugar was not the one of a normal maturity but the result of a passerillage. In this case you should have picked august 15, and if you want to pick a grape with higher phenolic ripeness you have to work on the vineyard and the soil. Vivelys make such studies not only in France but abroad like in the large irrigated plains of Mendoza where the added water adds another level of stress on the vines that can be measured on the data graphics.
Richard gets a few bottles to taste :
__ Clos des Rouliers 2012, from a bottle. Very nice texture in the mouth, like a thin sand paper, very elegant. The vintage needed more work in the vineyard, Richard says. There was some coulure (blossoming problems) and the good aftermath was lower yields with less compact clusters which resulted in a great vintage, he noticed that with his neighboors too, even though the trade in general is not aware of this vintage being particularly good. The wine is meaty and full bodied.
__ Les Noëls de Montbenault 2012, from a bottle. Feels more generous, like riper. Very elegant wine. They reached yields of 17 ho/ha that year, and although a bit annoyed by limited volumes, Richard felt quickly that the vintage would be great on this terroir too. This wine didn't get any SO2 adding, including the barrel (no sulfur wick), that's the rule now for all of his wines. Richard opened this bottle yesterday and he says the wine tastes better now.
__ Les Noëls de Montbenault 2011 (bottle). Very nice texture and mouthfeel. This was the first year he didn't put any SO2 at all. This was the first time he didn't add SO2 because of the reduction in the wone, he says : he recounts an anecdote which helped him make the move on that issue, he remembered when he visited long time ago Edmond de la Grange in Chassagne Montrachet Burgundy, this man must have been 85 at the time, and Richard had befriended him and he would let him taste his Montrachet in his cellar. He remembers that they'd taste the wine from the barrels with this particular reduction (yeast autolysis) tastes, and while himself was surprised, the old man would pause and say as in relief : the wine is saved, it's saved ! he knew that when you smell this, it means that the wine protects itself naturally and the only thing to do is let the wine find its harmony with time. When in 2011 Richard's wines began to have this smell in the barrel, he remembered Mr De La Grange's words and decided to stay put and not add any sulfites in spite of the volume (Montbenault making often about 20 to 25 casks).
__ Les Rouliers 2010. Bottle without label. Powerful, very aromatic, fruit notes like ripe grapes or pear, the vintage is high in alcohol he says, like 14,7 or 14,8, but I notice that it isn't obvious at the tasting. He says that's because the acidity is particularly high, with a ph around 3,1 after malolactic completed. He says that this vintage (2010) is so big that it's too early (in 2014) to taste these wines.
__ Les Noëls de Montbenault 2009 (bottle, no label). This chenin is less expressive on the nose, Richard says that this is also a vintage with poxerful wines but the wine is a bit closed right now, the vintage that tastes the best right now in 2014 being the 2006. I think he's really an extremely-demanding professionnal taster and he's tough on his judgement. There could be a perly feel here too, which adds to the freshness feel. After marming a bit the glass (the bottles are too cold) I feel nice fruit notes.
Read the Wine Doctor's enlightened piece on Les Noëls de Montbenault 2009
Richard Leroy export his wines to the United States (Peter Weygandt), the United Kingdom (Vine Trail), to Japan (Ken & Yuki Kobayashi - Sapporo), Belgium, Germany (Berlin - Vini Culture), Spain (La Part des anges, Cuvée 3000, Andres Gomez). Italy could come soon, lots of demand from there but he hasn't enough wine right now.