The legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti consistently produces some of Burgundy’s greatest (and most expensive) wines. Stephen Brook finds himself become light-headed amongst its vines...
A horse plods between rows of vines in the pale morning light, ploughing the soil in Romanée-Conti, and I feel like I’ve stepped into a painting by Corot.
‘A year ago I was in Montrachet,’ I say, somewhat self-importantly, to Aubert de Villaine, ‘and saw the same scene in Dominique Lafon’s vines there.’
‘It was the same horse, called Mickey’ he replies. ‘Dominique borrows it.’
It is strangely liberating to be exchanging this small talk at Burgundy’s – perhaps the world’s – most famous wine estate. A reminder that, after all, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is essentially a farm. The most obvious claim to fame of DRC is that all its vineyards are on grand cru sites, two of them monopoles (fully owned sites) of the estate.
To be fully accurate, there are some parcels in premier cru vineyards, but the only wines bottled and sold are grands crus.
But that alone is no guarantee of quality. I can think of other estates rich in grands crus that produce some dreary wines. No, what singles out DRC is its track record. Very few estates in Burgundy were bottling their wines in the 1930s and 1940s. Lucky connoisseurs can still point to great DRC vintages of those decades, and demonstrate the wines’ quality and longevity.
DRC has also been fortunate in its custodians. Ownership has passed down through one or two families and multiple generations. One ancestor of Aubert de Villaine, the present owner/manager, published a pamphlet in 1869 arguing the importance of harvesting only fully ripe grapes. De Villaine, like his predecessors, still views himself as a custodian rather than an estate manager.
Cautious progress into the future has meant a studied revival of past practices. Mickey, patiently ploughing the precious soil, is one of them. So is the propagation of massal selections from the estate’s oldest vines: new plantings are based on cuttings that preserve the genetic heritage of the property. The estate has been organic since 1988 and is partially biodynamic; though de Villaine is not wedded to biodynamic ideology, he finds certain of its practices are undoubtedly beneficial.
But he adds: ‘We have our own philosophy, and don’t want to become hitched to another one.’
Keeping it simple
The winemaking is simplicity itself, though de Villaine stresses that it always involves countless tiny decisions. For example, it is often stated that DRC is one of the few estates in Burgundy that doesn’t destem, but this is not so.
‘It is true,’ says de Villaine, ‘that in 1999 we didn’t need to destem, but in almost every other year there is partial destemming. Frankly, I’m not convinced it makes a huge difference either way, although retaining stems in an unripe year would be an error.’
The must is mostly fermented in wooden vats using indigenous yeasts. The wine is aged for up to 20 months in new barrels, fashioned from staves the estate buys and then stores at François Frères. In the past DRC was criticised for bottling directly from an individual barrel, which could lead to very slight variations from bottle to bottle.
Today the usual procedure is to blend six barrels at a time. ‘But in some years, such as 1999, we still bottle directly from the barrel, as we know the wine is almost identical in each. The point of bottling directly in this way is that we can preserve certain things in the wine, notably carbon dioxide, which aeration would diminish or eliminate.’
Everyone who tastes the full range of DRC wines from a single vintage is struck by how different the wines are. Yet apart from slight variations in the plant material in each vineyard, there is scarcely any difference either in the viticulture or winemaking to distinguish, say, Echézeaux from Richebourg.
The discernible differences can only derive from the vineyards. Walking through them with de Villaine is a humbling experience. You can stand in La Tâche, a gently sloping strip with the great Richebourg as its neighbour, and Romanée-Conti tucked within Richebourg as what de Villaine describes as ‘its nerve centre’. From here we can look down onto the flatter but gently undulating Romanée-St-Vivant.
Echézeaux and Grands Echézeaux lie further to the north. In terms of terroir, Burgundy can scarcely get better than this.
The British wine trade and press come to pay homage to the new vintage each February in London. There is a reverential hush as a precious sample of each cru is poured into a capacious glass, and we retreat to a corner to sniff and sip. It was an even more mind-blowing experience to taste the sensational 2005 vintage from cask a few days or weeks before bottling in the spring of 2007. Because we are in awe of this domaine and its wines, it is natural to wonder whether we are being too easily seduced into rating them as among the greatest wines of any vintage. I don’t think so. There is a majesty, a discretion, a translucency about these wines that inspires respect.
They may not always show well at the moment of tasting – I recall the 2002s failing to leap from the glass – but there is no doubt that red wine doesn’t get much better than this. Richebourg shows both grandeur and finesse, La Tâche is usually the most flamboyant, and Romanée-Conti the most elusive and the trickiest to appreciate young.
As I sip Romanée-Conti with cellarmaster Bernard Noblet, he murmurs: ‘It’s both airy and profound, it reaches upwards into the ether and down into the soil.’ It made sense at the time.
Despite their supreme quality, it is nonetheless reasonable to ask if the wines offer good value. Probably not.
For the growing band of the superrich, however, price is no obstacle. Indeed, it’s an irrelevancy. De Villaine is an intrinsically modest man, content to be the servant of the domaine and its extraordinary heritage, but I can tell that it gives him no pleasure to watch the wines becoming trophies, rather than wines to be savoured and shared with friends.
It must trouble him to note the frequency with which great DRC vintages strut through the auction rooms, only to return a year later to fetch ever more inflated prices.
‘The problem is the growing gap between the offer and demand – especially now that the new markets in Russia and China mean we must offer our traditional distributors in established wine markets slightly lower allocations than in the past.
We could reduce demand by doubling the price, but that would mean that the wines turn into trophy wines – even more than they already are.’
While speculation (and its ugly sister, fraud) may be one of the less attractive features of the international market for wine, it is also a form of tribute. Nonetheless, Aubert de Villaine would rather we remained firmly focused on the glorious wines in the bottles.