Under Anne-Claude Leflaive’s leadership, the reputation of Domaine Leflaive soared, as Burgundy evolved from a connoisseur’s passion to a worldwide luxury good.
Anne-Claude Leflaive, who presided over one of Burgundy’s most storied white-wine estates and was a fervent, influential advocate for environmentally sensitive forms of farming, died Monday at her home in Gilly-lès-Cîteaux, France. She was 59.
She had cancer, said Jack Daniels, president of Wilson Daniels, her American importer.
Domaine Leflaive, founded by Leflaive’s grandfather Joseph Leflaive, was already celebrated when she took it over in 1990, in tandem with her cousin, Olivier Leflaive. They had differing visions for the future of the estate, and Olivier left in 1994.
Under Anne-Claude Leflaive’s leadership, the reputation of Domaine Leflaive soared, as Burgundy evolved from a connoisseur’s passion to a worldwide luxury good. In 2006, Ms. Leflaive was named the best maker of white wines in the world by Decanter magazine.
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In the world of Burgundy, no quality is as prized as much as good terroir, a mystical term that refers roughly to the combination of the soil in which the grapes are grown, the vineyard’s microclimate, altitude, angle of inclination and exposure to the sun, as well as the people who tend the grapes and transform them into wine. Domaine Leflaive’s holdings represent some of the most precious terroirs in the world for the chardonnay grape, including legendary grand cru vineyards such as Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet and Le Montrachet itself, which potentially makes the greatest and most expensive white Burgundy of all.
The domaine also encompasses premier cru vineyards such as Les Pucelles and Le Clavoillon in Puligny-Montrachet, considered a step down in the Burgundian hierarchy of vineyards, but the wines are sublime and just as coveted by collectors. Though not as expensive as the grand crus, these wines still cost hundreds of dollars a bottle.
Ms. Leflaive largely left the winemaking to others. Her passion was the land, and over time she came to believe that nothing was as important to making great wine as a commitment to environmentalism and a proper, respectful stewardship of the vineyards. Her way of thinking represented a departure for Burgundy, which, like most wine regions after World War II, had become dependent on chemical herbicides, fungicides and pesticides. By the early 1980s, as one soil scientist famously said, the soil of the Sahara had more life in it than the soil of Burgundy.
When she took over in 1990, Ms. Leflaive immediately began testing organic farming and biodynamic viticulture, a more intensive system that takes a sort of holistic, homeopathic approach. Over time, she determined the best wines came from the biodynamically farmed grapes. By 1997, the entire estate was farmed biodynamically, and she had become one of the method’s staunchest proponents.
“Domaine Leflaive was hardly the first in the area to go biodynamic,” said Jeremy Seysses, whose family owns Domaine Dujac in Morey-St.-Denis. “But it was one of the highest profile, and Anne-Claude had tremendous conviction behind her beliefs and drew a lot of attention locally to biodynamics.”
Seysses said that visiting the Leflaive vineyards in 2000 inspired Dujac’s own conversion to biodynamic farming.
While it is impossible to determine the precise effect of agricultural methods on the wine, the Leflaive wines, after the conversion to biodynamics, seemed to be purer and more transparent though their tightly coiled character sometimes required years of aging to become fully expressive.
Anne-Claude Leflaive was born in 1956 and grew up largely in Paris. Her father, Vincent Leflaive, and uncle, Joseph Leflaive, ran the estate together, with Vincent overseeing the vineyards and winemaking and Joseph the administrative and financial management. Joseph died in 1982 and Vincent in 1993.
Anne-Claude Leflaive is survived by her husband, Christian Jacques, and three daughters, Marine, Charlotte and Claire.
Aside from the estate’s holdings in the Côte d’Or, the heart of Burgundy, Ms. Leflaive expanded the domaine to the Mâconnais in the south of the Burgundy region, where she could produce more reasonably priced wines, and into Pouilly-Fuissé, another more moderately priced area.
In a departure and independently from the domaine, Ms. Leflaive and her husband acquired Clau de Nell, a Loire Valley estate in 2008. That year she also helped found a school, École du Vin et des Terroirs, intended to explore the production of wine from an environmental and humanitarian point of view.
“She was intensely interested in different things,” Daniels said. “She didn’t just stay in her own realm.”