Vosne-Romanee

  • Thursday 7 April 2005

Vosne-Romanée has an air of greatness about it. Home to such luminaries as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Méo-Camuzet, its wines are rich, perfumed, long ageing – and often incredibly expensive. Stephen Brook visits the Côte de Nuits village.

No other red wine village in Burgundy can rival Vosne-Romanée in terms of renown. Gevrey-Chambertin can match it for its parade of grands crus, but not all enjoy the same prestige as, say, Romanée-Conti, La Tâche or Richebourg. And no other village is home to a domaine composed solely of seven grands crus, two of them monopoly sites. Burgundy fanciers may not speak of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in quite the hushed tones one would have heard 20 years ago, but it still produces wines of astonishing beauty and consistency.

You may wonder whether the hype surrounding Vosne is justified – the short answer is yes. Its wines are the epitome of fine and great red Burgundy. They are the apotheosis of Pinot Noir. Chambolle Musigny or Volnay may trump it when it comes to finesse, and Vosne is rarely as exquisite as the wines from those villages. Nor do its wines attain the sheer power and density of a great Chambertin or Clos de Bèze. Instead, Vosne’s glory lies in its remarkable blend of richness and perfume, vibrant fruit and a profound structure. Few red Burgundies are as long-lived as Vosne, nor evolve so subtly with bottle age. And, it has to be said, few red Burgundies are as dizzyingly expensive as the greatest Vosnes.

As so often in Burgundy (and Champagne for that matter) the great vineyards lie on the mid-slope, in Vosne’s case just behind the village. The swathe of grands crus begins just north of Nuits St-Georges with La Tâche, followed by La Grande Rue, La Romanée, Romanée-Conti, Romanée St-Vivant, and the mighty Richebourg. Then the grands crus come to a halt with a band of Vosne’s finest premiers crus (Aux Brûlées, Suchots, and Beaux Monts) before the grands crus resume with Echézeaux and Grands Echézeaux, which nestles against the enormous Clos de Vougeot. As a broad generalisation these last two grands crus are not quite as esteemed as their more southerly cousins. Indeed, there are sectors within the 38ha (hectares) of Echézeaux that even some growers do not consider of grand cru quality. It is often surpassed by premiers (from top producers) such as Beaux Monts and Cros Parantoux.

The remaining premiers crus lie either on the slopes behind Richebourg and La Romanée or between La Tâche and the boundary with Nuits St-Georges. As the terrain rises behind the grands crus the microclimate becomes just that bit cooler, and the wines, though very good, do not regularly attain the ripeness and complexity of those from the great growths. As always in Burgundy it’s a question of nuances. Richebourg and La Tâche are usually the most powerful of the grands crus; Romanée-Conti and La Romanée are more elegant. The Village wines, as opposed to the crus, are usually lighter in structure, but still show all the subtlety and finesse for which Vosne is renowned. It is rare to encounter a dilute or unbalanced wine in this category, which is not the case with some other communes in the Côte d’Or.

Vosne is dominated by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) – inevitably so, given the magnificence of its holdings and the splendour of its wines. But it no longer reigns alone. Wine lovers versed in the wine politics of Burgundy will know of the dramatic departure in 1992 of Mme Lalou Bize-Leroy from DRC, where she was a major shareholder and an active participant in the marketing and sales of its wines. Although commercial misjudgments were said to have been the cause of the rift, another factor was that while acting for DRC she was at the same time building up her own splendid estate, based in Vosne and inevitably regarded as a competitor.

Once Mme Bize-Leroy was no longer involved with DRC, she was free to develop her own property, which she did by snapping up other domaines as they came on the market. She made her ambition clear by selling her wines at prices almost as high as those charged by DRC. Today she is a major player in the village, although Domaine Leroy has holdings throughout the Côte d’Or.

Two important clans hold sway in Vosne. Both the Gros and Mugneret families have substantial holdings in the village, and because, thanks to French inheritance laws, those holdings have been divided and traded over the generations, there are a number of different estates bearing these two family names. This can be confusing for the consumer, who cannot be expected to know the difference between Michel Gros, Bernard Gros, and Anne Gros, to mention just a few.

Some of the other top estates in the village are those of René Engel, Confuron-Cotétidot, Méo-Camuzet, Robert Arnoux, Grivot, Liger-Belair, and the various Mugnerets. These are, without exception, top-flight producers. As always in Burgundy, the leading négociants also have a presence: Jadot, Drouhin and others. And as is often the case, fine domaines in other villages also have holdings in Vosne: these include Dujac, Moillard and Tardy.

This means one rarely encounters a mediocre bottle of Vosne-Romanée, which is not the case in larger, more diverse villages such as Nuits St-Georges or Gevrey-Chambertin. On the other hand, the wines do not come cheap.

Their reputation is soundly established, and the growers are under no pressure to push prices down. After all, quantities are very limited: there are just 105ha of Villages Vosne, 58ha of the 13 premiers crus, and 75ha of the eight grands crus. For Vosne, it is very much a sellers’ market.

Key Players

The big names in Vosne-Romanée, who represent the best of the growers.

Robert Arnoux

Arnoux died in 1995, and since then this superb property has been run by his son-in-law, Pascal Lachaux. The holdings include grands crus Romanée

St-Vivant and Echézeaux, and premiers crus Chaumes, Reignots, and Suchots. Lachaux pulls out all the stops, ageing the top wines in new oak, and bottling without fining or filtration. This is quintessential Vosne: always rich, always stylish. And, one should add, always very expensive. Tel: + 33 3 80 61 08 41

Confuron-Cotetidot

Jean-Pierre Confuron runs this 11ha estate with his brother Yves, who is also winemaker at the renowned Domaine de Courcel in Pommard. He picks as

late as possible, seeking maximum phenolic maturity, as he rarely destems. The winemaking is non-interventionist, with no acid correction, fining, or filtration, and a modest use of new oak. His best wines are usually premier cru Suchots and Echézeaux, but they need a few years in bottle to show at their best. Tel: +33 3 80 61 03 39

Rene Engel

Engel died in 1986 at the age of 94, passing the reins to his grandsons Philippe and Frédéric. Grands crus (Echézeaux and Grands Echézeaux) are aged in 50% new oak; other wines, including Brûlées, in 35% new oak. The Village wine is excellent value, and consistently enjoyable, while the Grands Echézeaux can rise to great heights. www.domaine-engel.com

Jean Grivot

The Grivots began bottling their wines in the 1930s, so are well established in the village. The reserved and serious Etienne Grivot has been making the wines for almost two decades, and the holdings at this 15ha estate include numerous premiers crus, as well as Echézeaux and Richebourg. These are deep-coloured rich wines, powerfully perfumed and beautifully structured. Since the mid-1990s Grivot’s wines have been among the best in Vosne, if not all Burgundy. Tel: +33 3 80 61 05 95

The Gros family

It would take pages to explain the complex cousinage of the Gros family, their marriages and inheritances, their holdings and their leases. The major players are Anne (see New Faces), Michel, Anne-Françoise and Bernard. Anne-Françoise is marred to François Parent of Pommard; she owns a large parcel of Richebourg, as well as Echézeaux. For some years the wines have been made in a dark plummy style that has masked differences in terroir. Michel Gros owns one of the largest domaines, including the monopole site Clos des Réas and a parcel of Brûlées. The winemaking is classic, although he does use selected yeasts and, more controversially, heats the wine at the end of fermentation. The style is supple and stylish, rather than super-concentrated, and the wines are accessible fairly young. Bernard Gros uses the label Gros Frère et Soeur, and his top holdings are in Grands Echézeaux and Richebourg. Quality seems markedly improved in recent vintages.

Anne-Françoise Gros. Tel: +33 3 80 22 61 85

Michel Gros. Tel: +33 3 80 61 04 69

Gros Frère et Soeur. Tel: +33 3 80 61 12 43

Lamarche

François Lamarche’s 8ha include four premiers crus, plus both Echézeaux and the monopole grand cru of La Grande Rue. The wines are aged in a good deal of new oak, and bottled without fining or filtration. Despite some recent improvements, Lamarche’s wines still don’t match the magnificence of his holdings. Tel: +33 3 80 61 07 94

Leroy

Lalou Bize-Leroy’s Vosne-based biodynamic domaine must be distinguished from her négociant business Maison Leroy, and her small family domaine at Auvenay. She pulls out all the stops here: biodynamic viticulture – ‘Once you have seen what biodynamism can do for the vines, there is no turning back,’ she once told me – very low yields and ageing in 100% new oak. She owns around 2ha in Beaux Monts, as well as almost a hectare each of Romanée St Vivant and Richebourg. These are magnificent, profound wines, and a tasting here is an awe-inspiring experience. Yet Mme Bize-Leroy never rests on her laurels. The same energy and determination that keep her rock-climbing at an age when most of us would think golf an extreme form of exercise are what drive her to maintain and improve quality from year to year. Prices are surpassed only by the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, but the wines are truly great. Tel: +33 3 80 61 10 82

Méo-Camuzet

For many years Jean Méo leased out his vineyards to Henri Jayer and other Vosne winemakers, but for some years the whole property has been managed by his son Jean-Nicolas Méo. The Méos own vines in Chaumes, Brûlées, Echézeaux and Richebourg, but they are especially proud of the rare premier cru, Cros Parantoux. These are very oaky wines that need some years to shed their youthful tannin and density. They are expensive, but concentrated, powerful and majestic. www.meo-camuzet.com

Mugneret-Gibourg

After the death of Georges Mugneret, this 9ha property has been run by his widow and two daughters. They produce a good deal of Village wine, which is usually delicious and packed with violet-tinged fruit, and premiers crus Suchots and Brûlées, as well as Echézeaux. These are very reliable wines, enjoyable relatively young, though they age well. Some appear under the Georges Mugneret label. Tel: +33 3 80 61 01 57

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

This exemplary domaine, managed principally by the courteous Aubert de Villaine, owns no fewer than six grands crus in Vosne, of which Romanée-Conti and La Tâche are monopole sites. La Tâche and Richebourg are usually the most rich and powerful of the wines, Romanée St-Vivant and Romanée-Conti the most elegant. Winemaking is without frills: organic farming, perfectly harvested fruit, no destemming, ageing in new oak. Since they are all grown and vinified identically, the sole difference between the wines is their origin. No other estate in Burgundy can demonstrate so effortlessly that terroir is not a meaningless concept. But the wines are notoriously expensive. Are they worth it? Not really, but they are stunning wines nonetheless, perfectly poised and always ageworthy. Surprisingly, the 2001s were somewhat disappointing (by DRC standards) on release. Tel: +33 3 80 62 48 80

Emmanuel Rouget

Rouget is the nephew of the legendary Henri Jayer, and produces Echézeaux and shares the premier cru Cros Parantoux with Méo-Camuzet. The wines are concentrated and powerful but overpriced. Cros Parantoux is usually superior to Echézeaux here. Tel: +33 3 80 62 83 38

New Faces

There are few newcomers in Vosne-Romanée as there is so little space, but these are the pick of the most recent arrivals

Jacques Cacheux

A small domaine run by Patrice Cacheux. The winemaking is modern, with a heavy reliance on new oak for the top bottlings, which are the premier cru Suchots and Echézeaux. These are plump, juicy wines, not quintessential Vosne, but lush and enjoyable. Tel: +33 3 80 61 24 79

Sylvain Cathiard

This 5ha estate has vines in Romanée St-Vivant, Malconsorts, Reignots and Suchots, though the Reignots vines are young. The wines used to be lean and tannic, but since the late 1990s they have gained in richness and succulence. The 2002s are particularly lush and dramatic.

Tel: +33 3 80 62 36 01

Bruno Clavelier

The Clavelier family are well-known négociants, but only began creating their own domaine in 1988. Since 1992 the organic property has been run by Bruno Clavelier, known locally for his prowess at rugby as well as for his skills as a winemaker. Many of the vines are very old, including parcels with the Village appellation. He has no grands crus in Vosne, but has two premiers crus: Brûlées and Beaux Monts. Clavelier is careful with the new oak, and looks for finesse rather than extraction. Some vintages have disappointed, but most are excellent, including 1998 and 2002. A top source for Village wines. Tel: +33 3 80 61 10 81

Anne Gros

The youthful and energetic Anne Gros only works 5ha, but they include a good parcel of Richebourg, as well as vines in Echézeaux and the village. Viticulture is essentially organic, and the wines are aged in a high percentage of new oak. These are lovely wines: richly scented, vibrantly fruity, elegant and long. www.anne-gros.com

Vicomte Liger Belair

Until 2000, all the wines from Louis-Michel Liger-Belair’s property were marketed by Bouchard Père et Fils. Today the wines appear under his own label. Half the crop from the grand cru La Romanée still goes to Bouchard, but that arrangement will cease in 2006. The other important wines are the Village monopole Clos du Château and premier cru Reignots. The initial 2000 vintage was disappointing, but from 2002 quality has been exceptional. Even the difficult 2003s are a success. But prices are dauntingly high. Tel: +33 3 80 62 13 70

Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.

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