The first ever Man of the Year from Burgundy, Aubert de Villaine insists he is the guardian rather than creator of the region’s most revered wine. stephen brook hails his achievements
When Aubert de Villaine first heard of this award, his first impulse was to refuse it. This is entirely in character, for he is not a man who courts personal acclaim. After some arm-twisting, he changed his mind and becomes the first Burgundian Man of the Year.
Much is said of de Villaine’s humility and modesty; much of it is true. Yet he is not self-effacing and gladly fulfils his role as the public face of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. His humility lies in the fact that he sees himself as merely the latest custodian of this remarkable estate, insisting that its distinction must always derive from the quality of its wines rather than the personalities of its proprietors.
He sees himself as the servant of the domaine but also as its representative, at tastings worldwide and at other events. Nor could he have brought the domaine to its position of unchallenged near-perfection without a strong will and determination that it and its wines must always excel.
Bling, one senses, would be distasteful to him. Habitually dressed in corduroys and tweeds, he looks as if he has just come back from walking the dogs. The domaine offices are cluttered, shabby even. The grand gestures and constant partying of the Bordelais are, emphatically, not his style. But then, few Burgundians seek or enjoy the limelight, so he is perfectly at home in his native region.
For many decades the domaine has been jointly owned by two families: the de Villaines and the Leroys. Growing up in rural France, as part of a family of agriculturalists and bankers, young Aubert was by no means certain that he would end up running the domaine. His grandfather financed it through the income of the farms he owned in the Allier, and then his father administered it in between his other, main occupations.
De Villaine recalls how, while the domaine ‘was not a profitable business’, it was this that took up most of his father’s time. Eventually, he had to sell his farms to pay for inheritance taxes. ‘I was one of six children, and we did not lead a life of luxury, I assure you.’ The future was uncertain. ‘I pursued other interests, studying literature and law, and then went to New York to work for the Wildman family, who were the agents for almost every important Burgundian domaine.’
While in America, he travelled to California and met many important figures in its nascent wine industry. He was commissioned by La Revue du Vin de France to write two articles about the then-unknown Californian wine scene, so he went off to interview Robert Mondavi, two years before his Napa winery was founded in 1966.
‘It was because I was one of the few French wine producers familiar with California that Steven Spurrier invited me, in 1976, to participate in the Judgment of Paris tasting. While in America, my interest in wine had grown, so I asked my father if I could come to the domaine as an apprentice.
He agreed, so in 1964 I found myself pruning vines, driving tractors, sweeping the courtyard, racking the barrels – anything that needed doing. I also worked for Maison Leroy, where I learned more about the business side of the wine trade.’
Soon after de Villaine married in 1971, he began searching for a small domaine and home. He found a property in the Côte Chalonnaise in Bouzeron, which he and his wife bought in 1973. ‘It was very run down, which is why we could afford it; it took several years to revive the vineyards.’ It remains his home.
It seems bizarre that de Villaine runs a property composed entirely of grands crus, while at the same time producing, under his own name, one of the most modest of all Burgundian appellations, Aligoté de Bouzeron. But he felt passionate about the wine and its local history, and was instrumental in securing AC status for it in 1979. He enjoys the dichotomy: ‘I like functioning in two different worlds, and find them mutually enriching.’
In 1974, he and Lalou Bize-Leroy were appointed co-directors of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, although the preceding generation still watched over the property. They were aware the estate was going through a bad patch: there were some poor vintages, yields were sometimes too high, and they were not always producing distinguished wines.
‘One of my jobs as an apprentice had been to examine the archives of the domaine in Paris and Dijon. This task really opened my eyes to its extraordinary history. I learned about our terroirs and the astonishing human genius that mapped and defined them. It made me realise that the great name of the domaine would be tarnished if the wines didn’t reflect the amazing quality of our terroirs.’
Although he and Bize-Leroy would later have a spectacular falling out, they agreed on the need to revitalise the domaine. The estate had never used herbicides, but they put a stop to the use of fertilisers, and in 1977, acquired the first sorting table in Burgundy. They were also convinced that the estate should be farmed organically, although it was not until 1986 that they convinced the estate workers to accept the change.
In the early 1990s, disputes over the commercial handling of the domaine wines led to the lawsuits that culminated in the departure of Bize-Leroy in 1992. By then she was already establishing her own estate (also a potential source of conflict with de Villaine), which she runs successfully to this day. Although she ceased to have any involvement in the running of the domaine, her family retains its share of the ownership.
In the meantime, the quality of wine from the domaine was becoming far more consistent. The 1983 excited much controversy – acclaimed by some, rubbished by others – but from the late 1980s, quality has been impeccable. This can largely be attributed to de Villaine’s unrelenting quest for viticultural improvement. The winemaking itself has always been unremarkable: partial destemming in some vintages, none in others, a slow fermentation in wooden vats, followed by leisurely malolactic fermentation and long ageing in new oak barrels.
De Villaine knew the greatness of the wines was founded on the quality of the plant material, which had been based on the ancient selections, known as Pinot Noir Fin, that existed in the Romanée-Conti vineyard until it had to be replanted in 1947. He wanted to conserve that heritage, and devoted himself to the pursuit of Pinot Noir Fin.
One factor made the task complicated.
The domaine could select visually the most promising ‘mother’ vines – those with small berries and clusters and giving low yields. But many of those vines were virused, and this could only be established by having the wood analysed at a laboratory in Colmar. Hundreds of vines could be analysed, at considerable cost, sometimes without a single virus-free vine being detected. Progress since 1991 was slow, and de Villaine recently formed an association with 40 Burgundian domaines that shared his goal.
This would speed up the selection of mother Pinot Noir Fin vines and limit costs. The chosen selections will be propagated and then planted in the best terroirs. ‘If we can achieve that, then there is no viticultural reason why the great terroirs shouldn’t produce superb wine,’ says de Villaine.
He also experimented, beginning in 1997, with high-density plantings of 14,000 vines per hectare, hoping that the competing vines would send their roots deep into the soil to extract nourishment and therefore flavour. ‘Our micro-vinifications produced excellent wines, but the difference between the high-density and the regular plantings wasn’t that significant. So that isn’t something we are likely to pursue – though you never know what the future holds.’
After years of trials, de Villaine has finally converted the entire domaine to biodynamism, though without fanfare. ‘I am wary of super-terrestrial explanations for biodynamic methods, but I find that the system compels us to observe the vineyards more closely. I feel happy with the system, although I’d like to reduce the amount of copper sulphate we use. But we still need to fight the diseases that attack our vines in wet years.
There is much discussion about whether organic biodynamic farming actually produces better wine. I do believe that these practices allow us to make better wines – wines with more finesse and complexity. They also allow us to achieve low yields, which are crucial, without resorting, except as a last resort, to green harvesting.’
Sharing the wealth
De Villaine is immensely respectful of tradition and the weight of history on his shoulders, but completely open to new technology, so long as it serves the wine rather than manipulates or distorts it. ‘During our biodynamic trials, we bought a horse, Mickey, to plough some of our vineyards because we were worried about tractors compacting the soil. Hooves have a much lighter touch.
It’s also a thing of beauty to see a horse slowly ploughing a vineyard. But then we realised it made no sense to go back to traditional tractors for other vineyard operations such as spraying. So we designed a much lighter tractor to our own specifications which doesn’t compact the soil. So you can see how reverting to tradition led us in the end to better new technology.’
For all his modesty, de Villaine makes some of the world’s costliest wines, many of which are snapped up by collectors rather than drinkers, not to mention ‘label drinkers’. ‘We could double the price of our Montrachet or La Tâche and we would still sell out each year. We want at least some of our wines to be affordable to lovers of great Burgundy, but if they were priced too low they would be bought and resold by speculators. As for “label drinkers”, 20 years ago people looked down on the Japanese for that reason. But today they are knowledgeable and sophisticated appreciators of wine.
Each new market goes through this phase. We have to accept there will always be a proportion of super-rich people who buy wines just for status, but we still have to provide those wines to the growing number of people who appreciate their quality. That’s why we are very careful about controlling distribution as much as we can, so that we can be reasonably sure that the wines end up in the right hands.
‘I do want us to be open to new markets. I recently visited China, even though we only sell a few cases there. We need to learn about a region that is going to be increasingly important. Our difficulty is in having to alter existing allocations in order to supply wines to these non-traditional markets.’
The domaine’s wines have been on a roll for 20 years, but there have been criticisms. Wine Spectator denounced the 1983 vintage as tainted by rot. UK wine writer Monty Waldin described the Echézeaux and Richebourg as ‘stubbornly mediocre’. De Villaine is unperturbed. ‘How I react to criticism depends largely on its source. If a respected taster tells me we could have done better with a certain wine or a certain vintage, I have to take that seriously. But a blanket condemnation seems excessive to me, so I don’t worry about that.’
This tall, lean, studious figure, thoughtful and articulate, remains deeply involved in the wine world, and not just in Burgundy. For many years he has been the partner of Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac in the Triennes estate in Provence, although these days he is more of a sleeping partner.
And with his wife’s cousin Larry Hyde, a much respected grower in Carneros, he produces a range of Napa wines under the HdV label. He continues, with his nephew, to run the Bouzeron property, and was at the forefront of a campaign to preserve the Benedictine abbey of St Vivant, as the domaine occupies its former cellars in Vosne-Romanée.
He is involved in the annual music festival held at Clos Vougeot, and spearheads the campaign to have the Côte d’Or recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
He is surely a most uncontroversial choice for Man of the Year. It is not only his achievement at the domaine that deserves to be honoured, but his complete integrity, and his willingness to involve himself in the wider community.
If the domaine’s wines unavoidably slot into an elitist niche, de Villaine himself refuses to play the elitism game, and eagerly associates himself with other Burgundian producers, celebrated or obscure, who share his commitment to quality above all else.
It is hard to think of a proprietor anywhere who is held in higher esteem and affection by his fellow growers – and notably by a whole younger generation typified by Seysses at Dujac, whose son is named, not coincidentally, Aubert – and by the lucky few who are able to enjoy these ethereal yet profound wines.
Written by Stephen Brook