It was a surprise to hear the name of Richard Leroy crop up in conversation this week. Not my conversation admittedly, but a conversation between Fiona Beckett and Liam Steevenson, hosts of the excellent wine-focused podcast Bâtonnage, and their guest Jamie Goode. Bâtonnage is one of only two podcasts I listen to regularly (and the other one is politics not wine), which hopefully says something about its quality. I have enjoyed all of the ten episodes released thus far and I can’t wait for series two.
Richard Leroy was cited as an example of a vigneron making wine in a very reductive style. Before I come to the meaning behind the title of this blog post, let’s just dive a little deeper on Richard and his reductive style. It is true that his wines are very reductive, provided you are talking about the wines released onto the market during the last five-or-so years. It was only in the 2011 vintage that the style chez Leroy, Richard having had something of a Burgundy-inspired epiphany, suddenly lurched towards reduction. Prior to that the wines had been classically ambitious Anjou Blanc (even if they switched to Vin de France in the 2008 vintage). They were concentrated, polished, sinewy, laden with intent, and they were frequently also wrapped in new oak in their youth, a fact that was overlooked by many who would cry “spoofulation!” at a similar use of new oak in less favoured wines. It never really bothered me; like all great wines they deserved time in the cellar and with time the oak would be absorbed.
Then in the 2011 vintage all of a sudden the wines were painfully reductive, and tasting them in their youth was like sucking on shards of flint rather than wine. In fact it went further than that, as aromatically the 2011 Les Rouliers went from a mildly reductive barrel sample when tasted in 2013 to a pungently reduced wine, marked by eggy notes of hydrogen sulphide, the extreme end of the reduction spectrum, when I tasted it from bottle in 2015 (I need to revisit it soon). Having produced a wine in this style, for the first time Richard was sufficiently confident to add no sulphites, a philosophy he has persisted with in most (but not all) vintages since.
Fair enough, you might say. But what does this have to do with being ‘ahead of the curve’?
Well, this mention of Richard Leroy perhaps signifies something else I have long predicted. There was a time, not that long ago, that Richard Leroy was a name known only to committed Loire geeks. Any use of his name in conversation would have elicited the response, even from serious wine geeks and sommeliers, along the lines of “you mean Leroy, in Burgundy, right?”. I sense in the past few years this has changed; Richard has broken through into mainstream wine consciousness, in the same manner as the late Didier Dagueneau once did, along with the likes of Clos Rougeard and Nicolas Joly. When mainstream ‘cult status’ is attained, demand increases, and with the supply of bottles naturally limited the price inevitably follows suit. Back in 2013, advising my subscribers to buy, buy, buy, I wrote in a tasting report:
“I do fear that with increasing global demand for Richard’s wines we will see the price rise and availability decrease, but for the moment there remain relatively few hurdles to finding and buying these wines.”
That is certainly no longer true. In the past few years the retail price has quadrupled; that’s if you can even track down a bottle. The driving forces for this shift include, firstly, the absolute quality of the wines, although to be fair I could rattle off half a dozen vignerons working in Anjou and Savennières who turn out wines of equivalent standing. As always in the Loire Valley, cult status is not just about what is in the bottle. Secondly, the wines are in increasingly short supply, giving them a ‘rarity’ appeal. Even when the vineyards are in full production supply will always be finite, but in some recent vintages the vines have been hit by frost, decimating production. Yields have often been between 13 and 20 hl/ha, with frost reducing this figure to zero in 2016, and zero on one terroir in 2017. Thirdly, Richard has an image of an independent man battling against greater foes, our wine-minded David to a variety of Goliaths. He is set against the wine authorities, ditching the Anjou Blanc designation in favour of Vin de France. He has fought Mother Nature and lost, his biodynamic vines hurt by mildew and frost. And yet still, against the odds, he turns out his precious, jewel-like wines. With this sort of reputation it was perhaps inevitable that his appeal would spread beyond pure Loire geeks.
While sommeliers pop corks of increasingly pricy Leroy wines, surrounded I hope by crowds of natural wine fans, all chanting “Chenin!, Chenin!, Chenin!”, I am happy that with Richard Leroy I was well ahead of the curve. I have bottles of just about every cuvée and every vintage he made, back to about 2003, which should keep me happy for some time. And while I will try to track down a bottle or two of 2017, and some 2018s too, it may be that with the prices as they are, I now have to let go. If you discover the wines today you will get just as much pleasure as I have out of them, but you may have to pay through the nose for the privilege. There is no doubt you are behind the curve.
In the meantime I will continue my work rooting out young (and some not-so-young) vignerons who are turning out wines of comparable (or superior, in the case of one guy working in Anjou I can think of) quality, so that I can continue to stay ahead of the curve, drinking brilliant wines as yet unblessed by cult status. This is how I drink well without having to sell one of my kidneys. And of course I will continue to point the spotlight at these vignerons, so that my subscribers can also – provided they follow my advice, as I know some did with Richard Leroy – stay ahead of the curve with me.
So now I am off to pop a cork, maybe on a 2009 Les Rouliers (to celebrate its tenth birthday), and I will get back to listening to Jamie, Liam and Fiona talking wine faults. It’s called Bâtonnage – do check it out.