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2001 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

. . . . the purest expression of pinot noir?

There was something of the doctor’s waiting room, or maybe people huddled together in a moving lift – old acquaintances were greeted with the merest nod of recognition but few words. Actually it was a little more reverential than that, but then this was Romanée-Conti, and a very good Romanée-Conti too.

To briefly summarise the wines I would say the following: Not the (once in a lifetime?) magically balanced intensity of the 1999’s and perhaps not the beguiling aromatics displayed by some of the 2000’s at the same stage last year – but then some of those 2000’s didn’t show quite the same level of guile on the palate! This is a range of wines that are concentrated and for the most-part balanced. They develop in the glass, sometimes closing down and then returning, sometimes scaling new heights – you really need at least 15 minutes with each wine to fully appreciate the changes.

These 2001’s show density delivered with subtlety and superbly fine tannins – only the La Tâche shows a little less manners in this area. Where they excel is their purity of expression, the mid-palate of the Romanée-Conti is absolutely incredible in it’s crystalline delivery. The Richebourg showed in a less satisfactory way, though I really think that it was tasted too early – but more of that later. If there was an ‘over-achiever’ then that award would surely go to the Romanée-St-Vivant, today the equal of Richebourg in price, but on this showing a clear head above.

These are wines that offer no hard edges and could easily be drunk relatively young i.e. before their 10th birthdays, but the structure – in terms of an almost perfect balance – is there to provide the basis for many years development. I bought at least one example each of the 2000s because I loved their expression and superb aromatics, for the 2001s and despite unsubtle price increases (in GBP/EUR/CHF not USD!) there are wines here that I just have to have – but to drink in their 12-20th years.

I’m fortunate this year to have two separate opportunities to taste these wines, the ‘second opinion’ will sit here with the first directly after that tasting and will also include the Montrachet, so check back after the 10th of May.

The day

real londonIn invitation to taste from Corney & Barrow is almost like an invitation from the Queen – at least if the number of Royal Warrants at the head of the invitation is an indication. It was also my first visit to their shiny new offices close to the Tower of London. This was as much a treat as the tasting itself as this is a part of London I haven’t really explored before. It’s just a short walk to Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and then into the ‘real’ City of the exchanges and banks – superb architecture from the Orwellian (1984) Adelaide House to Sir Norman Fosters new piece of penis envy – the Swiss Re building – actually more like a patchwork marrow, but striking all the same. Then there’s the history of the old churches – St Dunstans and St. Magnus the Martyr. Then onto the Sir Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren Monument to the Great Fire of London – a mini Nelson’s column surmounted by what looks like a golden thistle – actually flames rendered in copper. I spent close to two hours in the tasting room then another three wandering through the streets – despite the cold weather a great day.

The wines

Yields in 2001 were very low, lower even than in 2000:

Starting with the Échézeaux – even at 9:00am – you are struck by what a very good wine it is – in any company. Apart from a slight hiccup with today’s Richebourg you move up the hierarchy in subtle jumps only realising how far you’ve come if you start again after the top wines . . .

2001 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Échézeaux
Medium, medium-plus cherry red. Bright and intense nose of red and black cherry – shaded to red – with raspberry and subtle spice. The palate is sweet with very smooth tannin, nice concentration and just a little vanilla on the finish – a finish of 20-30 seconds. Smooth, understated and very drinkable – I’m surprised how easily this drinks. With time the impressive nose develops a little more spice. To put this wine firmly into context, after the La Tâche and Romanée-Conti, the nose is slightly less concentrated and certainly more diffuse. Still, there’s super length if less depth on the palate – in a word the wine is just ‘simpler’ than the top two, but nonetheless a very fine Échézeaux.
2001 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Grands-Échézeaux
Again a medium, medium-plus cherry red colour. Where the Échézeaux was ‘broad’ in the nose, this is more focused though giving-up less. Higher toned with more maraschino cherry. The palate shows higher acidity and again, svelte, discrete tannin. The palate is also more focused and deep, though less ‘broad’ than the Échézeaux. There’s similar outstanding length, but to start with the wine doesn’t have the overall appeal of the Échézeaux. Slowly the nose starts to develop a wide, subtly spicy undertone (takes more than 10 minutes in the glass) which also starts to increase in depth. The palate is unchanging. I tried the second bottle and there was more obvious oak – though transient. This showed a little more depth than before and even a black edge to the fruit on the finish.
2001 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée-St-Vivant
By a short-head this is the darkest wine on display – though still medium, medium-plus cherry red in colour. The nose is a melange of red fruits – mainly cherry – vanilla and a nice white pepper note. Instantly obvious is the extra fat and density of fruit when compared to the previous two wines. Again the tannins are super-smooth. Much more interesting length than the Grands Échézeaux. This wine really impresses – an appreciable step-up. Given extended time in the glass the nose becomes more focused on the red fruit and shows a touch of mocha. I seem to have written the least about this wine, but it is actually the most outstanding of the six – relative to their appellations of course.
2001 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Richebourg
Less deep colour than the Romanée-St-Vivant – but marginally. The nose has a more black aspect to the fruit, subtle aspects from the stems and is quite high toned. Doesn’t seem to develop in the glass to the same extent as the others, but there’s still some change with the oak spice becoming more pronounced and a little more meaty. The palate has really good depth and fat, similar to the RSV, the quality and fineness of the tannin shining through – more so than the previous wines. The finish is very long, but seems more oak than wine. Has the depth of the Grands Échézeaux but shows in a more backward way – lovely smooth coating on the teeth though. A wine that’s not all joined-up yet, oak, fruit and oak but not a ‘whole’ wine just yet.
2001 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, La Tâche
A funny wine, in a large glass on the serving table this looked the lightest wine on display, whereas take a modest serving in a tasting glass and it looks altogether darker. The nose is La Tâche – dense, heavy laden branches of red cherries and raspberries, then a little cedar and blood-orange too. Then the nose closes down for a while only to return with tar and mint. Not as incredibly changing as the 2000 at the same stage last year, but like I said – it’s still La Tâche. In the mouth it’s much more explosive than the Richebourg with a super finish that’s carried on by a wave of perfect acidity. If anything, these are the grainiest tannins of all the wines – but then it’s all relative!
2001 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée-Conti
In the tasting glass, this wine is a shade lighter in colour vs La Tâche, it’s also the only wine in the line-up to show some ruby colour. The nose starts with a blast of fruit and spice – very much like La Tâche – but closes down much faster. A quarter of an hour with the glass yields a few more floral notes, and then something a little green that morphs into a cedary pencil-lead note. The palate is very round, without the initial fireworks of the La Tâche, in fact it’s very understated. This is a wine that you could easily overlook after La Tâche and the RSV, but what sets it apart is the crystalline purity of fruit in the mid-palate and the faint but haunting finish. Very special.

So, I’m still going to go for at least one each of these, but the wines that show that little bit better than expected are the Échézeaux and the Romanée-St-Vivant. The others do exactly what they’re supposed to do given the usual hierarchy, only the Richebourg is worthy of criticism, but should come together with a little more time – so am I being harsh? – not really when you consider the price, but yes when you consider it’s made to drink from 10-30+ years of age, not 2!

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and value

How do you put a price on ‘best’? Just like you can’t say a $10,000 Hi-Fi system is twice as good as a $5,000 system, you also can’t say that a bottle of Romanée-Conti is 5x better than a bottle of de Vogüé’s Musigny Vieilles Vignes. What you can say is that there is a difference, and to those people where this difference matters, then the cost/value can be justified. It’s not possible to say that (to everyone) La Tâche is better than Musigny, but you can certainly compare the relative value of La Tâche vs La Tâche from different vintages. In the table below, taking the 1998 release as the baseline, you can track the ‘price-index’ of the Domaine’s wines.

This ‘index’ takes into account only the offer price in GBP and the declared yield, the simple formula assumes that higher yields should give lower prices and vice-versa, so 1.00 means no change, whereas the 2.59 for Echézeaux 1999 means plus 259%(!) actually the price increased by 60%, but the yield almost doubled, hence, 2.59. The smaller number in the top left-hand corner of each cell is the declared yield. There’s no word here about ‘quality’, but the numbers are still interesting… It was, perhaps, a little unfair to use 1998 as the baseline for this type of calculation, simply because the yields that year were so savage. As an aside it is striking how consistently low are the yields for the Romanée-St-Vivant. I understand that the Domaine’s holdings are split into quarters, and that one quarter is never used – this probably gives an artificially lower ‘yield’ given that the fruit from this section is likely sold to negociants – but I’m prepared to be told otherwise! Given that the ‘effective’ prices went up so much, I thought it might be better to go further back to Euro prices – I tried this, but assume that Corney & Barrow have absorbed some of the increases as the ‘indexes’ looked even worse – so I stayed with GBP. Seems that 1998 was a ‘relative’ bargain…

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?