Benjamin Leroux

Benjamin Leroux

Address:
Clos des Epeneaux
City:
Pommard
Location:
Borgoña, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté
Country:
France

Benjamin Leroux, one of three brothers, was born on February 13th 1975 near La Montagne de Beaune. His parents owned a florist shop.

As a child he was fascinated by taste. The courtier Bernard Lagarrique was a great friend of his parents and when Benjamin was just eight years old Lagarrique encouraged him to taste and spit the wine he brought to the house. It wasn't long before the young Leroux decided he wanted to be a courtier and Lagarrique inspired him to move to the Lycée Viticole in Beaune at the age of 13.

At this time Leroux recalls that the Lycée Viticole had the reputation for taking students with few ambitions, essentially labourers who would graduate to work in the region's vineyards. (The Lycée Viticole, which was among the first in France to be established after phylloxera to train growers to graft, has now regained its former, good reputation). It is perhaps not surprising that Leroux's teachers were not enthusiastic about his decision, advising him to stay in mainstream education and study for a profession, particularly as he didn't come from wine background.

Leroux showed the single-minded determination, which has stood him in good stead throughout his life. "I had to fight to go there, but I knew I wanted to work with nature." He studied general agriculture alongside regular studies, and remained there for a further two years of technical studies in viticulture. The experience made a great impression on him, as he warmly recalls. "It was a very good human experience...like a family with everyone sharing the same passion." After this he left for Dijon University to take his Diploma in Oenology.

Academia

Leroux admits he was not keen on chemistry. The very scientific approach to wine is not one he shares. He feels that the theory he learnt is 'far from the way' he works in the cellar today. However this formal training was important, particularly in retrospect. "I may not have thought that everything was useful at the time, but you need time to digest it...like eating, you get the taste, but then it takes time to convert to energy." This education is now helping him indirectly. Leroux is passionate about allowing wine to develop as naturally as possible, and he acknowledges that it is because he knows exactly what is happening chemically and biologically that he can afford to exercise less control. For example he prefers not to fine or filter, but he does microbiological tests every six months on the wine to check its status.

While he acknowledges that studies in oenology are undeniably important, he also believes that, "they are too removed from viticulture and you should never separate the two." Hence these studies were interspersed with several important work experience placements, the first of which was with Pascal Marchand at Domaine du Comte Armand from 1990 to 1992. This experience was significant for it inspired him to adopt an organic approach to viticulture. He recalls that, "the vines suffered. There were many weeds and people accused Pascal of having 'mauvais herbes', of having a dirty vineyard." But Leroux was soon convinced that it was right to use as few herbicides and pesticides as possible and to work with the ecosystem, a lutte raisonnée approach, rather than against it. He cites the example of the red and white spider mite. Low use of chemicals encouraged their natural predator, which is particularly sensitive to the pesticides used liberally in Burgundy at the time.

Travels abroad

In 1994 the regional authorities were offering FF5000 to students who wanted to further their studies abroad. Surprisingly Leroux was the only student to grab this opportunity. And so at the age of nineteen he went to Oregon to work for Drouhin. This, he says, helped him gain "the bigger view." He was keen to see young vineyards and experiments in drip irrigation, density and size of vine. This open-mindedness has led him to question some traditional ways of doing things in Burgundy. Like many, he considers that the traditional height of the vine canopy is too low. (It was reduced to around 1.2m when tractors were introduced, to enable them to straddle the canopy). Today in Clos des Epeneaux, Leroux prefers a higher canopy of approximately 1.5m and in one place is experimenting with 2m. This, he observes, maximises the surface area for photosynthesis, encouraging the vine to ripen the fruit rather than replenish a trimmed canopy.

It was at Drouhin that Leroux had a seminal tasting experience, which he describes as, "my best emotion tasting wine." The wine was Drouhin's 1985 Chambolle-Musigny, Les Amoureuses. "I almost cried," he admits. "It was so good."

The next important influence came at Cos d'Estournel where Leroux worked briefly as a student, and where he returned in 1997 immediately after graduating with a degree in oenology. He wanted to experience something different to working with Pinot Noir. In the event he spent just six months in Bordeaux, a spell cut short by the call-up for military service. Never-the-less he feels this was an important experience in his career for he learnt about blending, extended his palate and was able to exchange ideas and to become more open minded in terms of, "wine, human relationships and a way of living."

At this point Leroux neatly body swerved his military obligations. Initially he applied to go to Chile and work at Domaine Paul Bruno. Strangely this would have been acceptable to the authorities, but for the absence of a hospital authorised to take military personnel. In the confusion which ensued, Leroux was ordered to do nothing for twelve months. Nothing, he decided, was the 1997 harvest with Devevey. Here he had the opportunity to work with Chardonnay for a change. He was given total freedom which, he recalls, was "very good for confidence building."

This confidence took him to Maison Louis Jadot. Chief winemaker Jacques Lardière had known Leroux since he was a small boy and invited him to join Jadot as number three oenologist. It was to be a brief spell. For all his admiration for Jacques Lardière and the quality of wine at Jadot, it didn't suit Leroux to work in such a large organisation. "You lose something if you are not close to the wine. Here I know every one of my 300 barrels. That is impossible if you have 3000." The experience also reinforced his conviction that the only way to make wine was to work out in the vineyard as well as in the winery.

So Leroux was on the move again, this time to work the 1998 harvest in New Zealand at Geisen with Andrew Blake and Marcel Geisen. "I was really envious of the freedom in New Zealand," he recalls. "With no regulations they do things we can only dream about...it's really exciting...you can do the best...or the worst." This work experience helped clarify the way he would handle things when left to his own devises. For example he was impressed with the New Zealand approach to hygiene, but felt it was too extreme. "When everything is disinfected, there is low natural yeast." Hence he drew from the experience, while taking a more moderate approach. For example the bottling line at Clos des Epeneaux is scrupulously disinfected, but in the winery there is sufficient indigenous yeast to start the fermentation.

The wide variety of very different work placements were shaping the young Leroux creating the open-minded, questioning, thoughtful and well-rounded vigneron he has become. He cannot single out a particular experience as most influential, but comments, "I keep all the small details. They become the revolution."

At this stage Leroux had no fixed idea of where he wanted to work. It didn't have to be Burgundy. In fact, in early 1999 he was intent on extending his Antipodean experience by joining Cullen in Margaret River. The Australian Embassy scuppered his plans by refusing him a visa. French nuclear testing in the Pacific at the time had strained international relations. Leroux considers this a major turning point in his life, for it kept him in France. He went to work on a temporary basis for Roland Maroslavac in Puligny while he looked for something permanent. These events brought him down a peg or two. "I had been expecting to walk straight into a really good job, but sometimes you realise you have a lot to learn first." He considers this the most significant of all his experiences to date. Once again he went back to basics, back to the vineyard.

The big break

Then in June 1999 he got his lucky break. He was offered the position of régisseur at Domaine Comte Armand, replacing his old mentor Pascal Marchand. This was an ideal opportunity for Leroux for it offered total freedom, but it was also a big responsibility. He was in sole charge not only of the vineyards and winemaking, but also the sales and accounts. "I felt very inexperienced, particularly on the office side, but it was a challenge. I just had to focus and take the lead."

His main objective was to express the terroir. He didn't make radical changes, he recalls. After all, he had worked with Pascal Machand and they shared a similar approach, but nor did he want to make Marchand's wine. The most immediately change was in the maceration of the 1999 vintage.

Domaine Comte Armand had built its reputation on powerful wine. Leroux wanted to make Clos des Epeneaux less extractive and more elegant. "My idea of Pinot Noir is to have both power and elegance," he says. He went about achieving this by lengthening the maceration to a period of two weeks post fermentation. The theory behind this is that tannins increase and then soften as they polymerise. This was accompanied in the vineyard by closer attention to picking at phenolic ripeness, (ie when the tannins are ripe, and not on sugar/acid levels). "For two years I lived in Pascal's shadow. Now the vineyard is still Clos de Epeneaux, but the wine has changed."

Leroux is always searching for new ways to manage the vineyard. He gets 'his excitement' from pruning. Currently he is experimenting with Mosel-style single cane pruning to maximise sunlight. This is planted at an extreme density of 15,000 to 20,000 vines per hectare.

Biodynamics

Immediately after his first harvest, Leroux began working biodynamically in the vineyard. His latest bio venture is working on the 'water' of the wine. This he argues is fundamental. "Eighty-five percent of wine is water and we experience all other impressions...acidity, sugar and so on, via these water molecules." In biodynamic belief the rhythm of all fluid on earth, from the oceans to the cells in our body, is mediated by the 28 day cycle of the moon. Hence one should work both the vine and wine in synergy with the moon cycle. On the day of picking the water in the fruit is at a certain vibration. To give rhythm to the wine one should work.... picking, racking, bottling and so forth, on the same day of the cycle, ie every 28 days, for the vibrations will then correspond. (So you don't work in the cellar just because it's raining).

Leroux carried out a dual experiment on different parts of the same cuvée using an 18 day and a 28 day cycle. He found the wine of the 18 day cycle had good fruit, but the tannin and acidity were very disjointed, while the wine of the 28 day cycle had a distinctive harmony and balance. Even Leroux admits this isn't a recipe. For example if the wine won't 'keep', you have got to rack it, and while he prefers to harvest the old vines on biodymanic 'root' days, if the weather forecast is bad, then of course he'll be out there picking regardless of the biodynamic calendar.

While he does not underestimate the importance of scientific knowledge he acquired throughout his education, he emphasises that working in an organic/biodynamic way requires a different approach. "Unlike science, there are no clear answers." Take for example his recent experiments with lees ageing. (If you are not interested in technicalities, I suggest you skip the next couple of paragraphs).

The 2003 vintage spent an unusually long 20 months on the lees without racking. Consider the lees for a moment. They contribute a little 'gras' or body to the wine and some polysaccharides, so possibly the impression of 'sweetness', bearing in mind that they are not being worked as with bâttonage on white wine. More importantly the lees act as natural antioxidants, allowing the wine to stay fresh. Sulphur dioxide, which is permitted in organic production, also has strong antioxidant properties. However wine needs a certain amount of oxygen or it becomes 'reduced', a situation where smelly H2S is produced. This is reversible with oxygenation, but if left may progress and become fixed as 'garlicy' mercaptans and at that stage the wine is ruined.

Leroux has observed that in a season with plenty of light and sun, the likelihood of reduction is much less than in a dull year. Also it seems, and this is where the biodynamic bit comes in, all metals have a planetary connection. Sulphur is linked with the sun. So, he argues, if you sulphur the wine of a light sunny vintage to give it an extended period on lees, it is less likely to become smelly and reductive then in a cool, dull year. While the 2003 wine received an extended period on lees with no adverse effects, the 2004 which was a vintage of poor light, was racked immediately after the malolactic fermentation.

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