Close Menu

Winemakers’ Winemaker award 2014

The new recipient of the Winemakers’ Winemaker award, Anne-Claude Leflaive, embodies a combination of tradition and innovation, writes Patrick Schmitt.

Anne-Claude Leflaive. Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

THE WINEMAKERS’ Winemaker award may be a baby compared with some industry accolades, but by its third year, it already appeared to be setting a trend. Established jointly by ourselves and the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2011, recipients have been red-winemaking males with names beginning with P. Initially we had two Peters – Peter Sisseck of Pingus and Peter Gago from Penfolds – and then a Paul: Paul Draper from Ridge Vineyards. But in 2014, with our fourth recipient, we proved this was not a long-term tradition. Not only was the winner this year a woman, but also a white-winemaker – and with no Ps in her name, either.

That person was Anne-Claude Leflaive, someone responsible for the world’s most expensive dry white wine, the conversion of her family domaine to biodynamics and the establishment of a winemaking school in Puligny-Montrachet – as well
as the creation of the world’s first egg- shaped cellar.

Sadly, unlike previous recipients, Anne- Claude had to accept the award via video link because the ceremony clashed with the annual Paris-based tasting for the Domaines Familiaux de Tradition de Bourgogne, a 28-strong collection of Burgundy’s most famous family-owned operators, including Leflaive.

Nevertheless, she expressed her feelings about the award to camera, allowing us to screen her acceptance to almost 200 high- profile members of the wine trade on 24 March at ProWein. This occurred during an evening event where, following the announcement to much applause that she was this year’s Winemakers’ Winemaker, her wines were poured.

“I am very happy and proud to be selected for this award by my fellow winemakers and Masters of Wine,” she said, adding, “For me, it was a great surprise and a great honour.”

Attendees applaud the winner of the Winemakers’ Winemaker 2014

Continuing, she explained, “I think the respect of other winemakers around the world comes from the fact that this is a family domaine that has been built up over three generations. We care for our wines like children – but, for me, the most important thing is to have good grapes and work with respect in the vineyards.”


The family’s 24 hectares in Puligny- Montrachet were originally bought in 1905 by Anne-Claude’s grandfather Joseph Leflaive, who set about replanting the vines as Burgundy began its recovery from the phylloxera crisis. His sons Vincent and Joseph continued this work when they took over in 1953, and helped to cement the domaine’s growing reputation by putting its wines onto the tables of the best restaurants in France.

Jean-Michel Valette MW, chairman of the IMW, announces the winner of this year’s award

Anne-Claude, Vincent’s daughter, became joint manager of the estate in 1990, before taking overall control in 1994. Three years later, she decided to convert to biodynamic winemaking, becoming a leading proponent for sustainable viticulture and achieving ecological balance in the vineyard.

Presenting the award, Jean-Michel Valette MW, chairman of the IMW, said: “We are delighted to honour Anne- Claude Leflaive, a winemaker who combines a deep respect for family and tradition with the courage and conviction to embrace wholesale change.

“Her care and respect for her craft have won the admiration of her peers; the love she invests in her vineyards and wines is evident in the glass.”

Winemakers’ Winemaker 2014

Anne-Claude Leflaive was named the 2014 Winemakers’ Winemaker by the Institute of Masters of Wine and the drinks business at a ceremony at ProWein in Düsseldorf on 24 March. Recognising outstanding achievement in the field of winemaking, the award is now in its fourth year, with the previous winners being Peter Sisseck of Dominio de Pingus, Peter Gago of Penfolds and Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards.

The recipient is chosen by all MW winemakers, the drinks business and previous winners of the award. Sadly, unlike previous recipients, Anne- Claude had to accept the award via video link because the ceremony clashed with the annual Paris-based tasting for the Domaines Familiaux de Tradition de Bourgogne, a 28-strong collection of Burgundy’s most famous family-owned operators, including Domaine Leflaive.

Notably, Anne-Claude, who learnt winemaking skills from her father and oenological science from university professors in Dijon, has taken a further step towards improving the quality of the wines from her domaine in the past 12 months. This is because, last year, she decided to install a new cellar at her headquarters in Puligny-Montrachet. Situated above ground due to the high water table in the commune, the new facility is egg-shaped and made entirely of natural materials, including straw, mud and clay.

Anne-Claude explains that not only do the natural materials bring a constant humidity and temperature inside the cellar, but the egg shape “is very important for everything”, pointing out that the “egg” proportions represent the Golden Ratio, which, she adds, “are best for the wine”.

Certainly, egg-shaped vessels have become increasingly common for fermenting and ageing wine – with Nomblot credited with producing the world’s first concrete egg in 2001, and Taransaud the pioneer of a wooden equivalent exactly 10 years later – but Domaine Leflaive is the first producer to create an egg-shaped cellar. And while it’s hard to believe the shape of the building would affect the flavour of her cask- aged whites, Anne-Claude assures the drinks business that a difference is already being felt. Indeed, having organised a blind tasting with “14 very well-known winemakers” last month at the Ecole du Vin et des Terroirs – a school Anne-Claude established in Puligny-Montrachet in 2008 – she pitched the wines aged in the egg-shaped cellar against the same ones stored in her old facility. And, she records, “90% of the tasters thought that the wine aged in the egg cellar was more elegant”.

Michael Palij MW and Jane Masters MW enjoy a glass of Bollinger before the ceremony begins

The designer of this unique cellar, officially called La Cave de l’Oeuf, was Anne-Claude’s daughter, Marine Jacques-Leflaive who, like her mother, is ecologically minded. Having learnt sustainable design following a two-year stint at London’s Zed Factory firm, which specialises in zero-energy development, Marine set up a business in Burgundy called Atelier Zéro Carbone Architectes to focus on creating environmentally sensitive wineries.

When not managing the domaine in Burgundy (where Anne-Claude has one parcel of Le Montrachet which she uses to produce the world’s priciest dry white), or sailing – a passion for both Anne-Claude and her husband, Christian Jacques – she is helping to refine a project in the Loire, Clau de Nell. Based in Anjou, the property is comprised of nearly 20 acres of old vines, a winery, and troglodyte caves that are used as ageing cellars. Of course, Anne-Claude’s decision to acquire a Loire Valley estate seems somewhat strange, especially as she specialises in making Chardonnay and has historically focused on extending her landholding in Burgundy, moving into the Mâcon in 2003. But, she admits, the Loire project was not part of a planned expansion into new French wine regions. Rather, she explains, it was due to a mixture of admiration and pity. “I never thought that one day I would go into the Loire,” she says, before pointing out that she came across the estate through her label Les Amis Vignerons d’Anne-Claude. No longer in existence, this extension to her business saw Anne-Claude place her name on around 20 wines made by biodynamic winemaker friends. She explains, “We used to select wines in France and sell them around the world with my trademark, and one of the winemakers was from the Loire.”

Giovanni Matia Pianca from Vinicola Serena with Silvia Franco from Nino Franco

The quality of the soils and age of the vines excited Anne-Claude, but when she met the owner of the estate in July 2007, he explained that he was bankrupt and had stopped pruning the vineyards. “I thought he had a good philosophy but he didn’t know how to manage the domaine, so we said we would buy it and he would stay at the domaine,” she recalls.

However, one year after the acquisition, which was completed in 2008, the former owner left the property, so Anne-Claude was left to manage this estate alongside her operation in Burgundy. For this reason, she installed biodynamic viticulturalist and Anjou native Sylvain Potin to look after the vines, as well as her own husband, a former road engineer, who is spending much of his time helping to restore the estate, which produces, unusually, a varietal Grolleau – a red grape better known as a blending component in Rosé d’Anjou. Importantly, the presence of this grape, and Cabernet Franc along with Cabernet Sauvignon on the estate, has thrust Anne-Claude into the world of red winemaking. “I’m learning,” she admits modestly.

Andrew Caillard MW (left) and Mark de Vere MW (right)


Back in Burgundy, however, Anne-Claude says she would like to acquire more land. This, she insists, is not to make more money, but to spread her biodynamic approach to viticulture. Such expansion won’t be in Le Montrachet, where she says a single hectare costs €24 million, but southern Burgundy, where she has a property in Mâcon-Verzé. “The Mâcon has great potential for Chardonnay, especially when you work with biodynamic farming,” she says, adding, “It is not the great terroir of Puligny, but it produces very good wine.”

Heinz-Josef Klaeron from Domaine Leflaive’s German importer, A. Segnitz & Co, collects the Winemakers’ Winemaker trophy on Anne-Claude’s behalf from db editor-in-chief Patrick Schmitt

However, she says with some frustration that in the past six months alone she has been blocked from acquiring vineyards in southern Burgundy on three separate occasions, not because the owners didn’t want to sell to Anne-Claude – quite the opposite – but because of state interference. “It is very difficult to buy land in France,” she comments.

Joshua Green, editor and publisher of Wines & Spirits with Jean- Michel Valette MW and Penny Richards from the IMW. They are also joined by Martin Skelton and Mauricio González- Gordón from González Byass

Such hurdles seem to sadden Anne- Claude, not just because of the time wasted in attempts to acquire new vineyards, but because it has prevented the spread of her ecologically minded viticultural approach to further areas. And such an approach, she stresses, when combined with little interference in the winery, is vital for promoting vinous diversity.

As she says, “Each wine in the world is a reflection of the place where it comes from, and if the winemaker understands that the best way to work is with an ecological system, then we will have all different kinds of wine from all over the world.”

And, summing up, she states, “This diversity is very rich for everyone.”

Anne-Claude Leflaive addresses the room via video

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No