The Wonder that is Domaine Romanée-Conti
By Bruce Palling
An edited version of this report appears on The Economist’s More Intelligent Life website.
When it comes to getting an accurate picture of our individual knowledge, perhaps the quickest way to nail down our context would be to find out what various acronyms mean to us. Take AC. It can refer to a fabulous retro sports car, an electrical current, a sexual preference or even a wine category.
DRC is also a potential minefield in the acronym world. Even ignoring Drug Rehabilitation Centre or Dutch Reformed Church, it is more commonly used to mean either the Democratic Republic of Congo or Domaine Romanée-Conti. Just think of the contrast between these last two – the former is perhaps the most misruled, war torn kleptocracy in Africa while the latter is the most rarefied and expensive wine in the world. Not that I have ever personally confused the two, despite having a friend who actually lives in the DRC with the unenviable task of trying to reduce its world record status for sexual violence.
DRC, or Domaine Romanée-Conti, has form – centuries of it. The Romans cultivated this tiny slice of Burgundy a couple of millennia ago and when they had to flee the scene, the Bishops of Langres and Autun quickly stepped in before being ousted by the Benedictines in the Tenth Century. Its most illustrious five-acre vineyard was purchased by the prince de Conti in the Eighteenth Century. A first cousin of Louis XV, he entertained the leading figures of the Enlightenment and Mozart frequently performed at his Paris mansion. Romanée-Conti couldn’t be purchased by the public and was only drunk at his dining table until his death, when it was sold to one of Napoleon’s bankers. Even then, only a few hundred cases were produced annually, which still remains the case today.
But this sort of pedigree doesn’t really matter – it is the calibre of Romanée-Conti and the handful of other wines produced by the Domaine that have earned its huge reputation. It is produced in such miniscule amounts, that this too adds to its mystique. The First Growths of Bordeaux – Latour, Lafite, Mouton, Haut-Brion and Margaux – produce on average 100,000 cases annually, whereas DRC releases something in the vicinity of 6,000 – and less than 500 of these are Romanée-Conti. The only other exclusive or monopoly wine they produce is La Tâche, in twice the amount as the Romanée-Conti, plus major portions of Richebourg, Romanée-St.Vivant, Grand Echézeaux and straight Echézeaux.
This rarity, combined with the extraordinary generosity of the Domaine in releasing it through its agents at prices sometimes a tenth of the market value, ensure there is an unholy scramble to get even a tiny allocation of it annually. One friend of mine who used to help allocate it in the UK for Corney & Barrow, said it was commonplace for senior staff to disappear for days after the allocations were made to avoid being shouted at and hounded by normally polite customers who thought they should have been given far more. Conversely, they don’t respond well to pressure either. One famous London chef was invited to an annual DRC tasting and as he was about to leave, was asked if he would like to open a general account with them. He said he would wait and see how much of a DRC allocation he was given. A week later, he received a single bottle of Echézeaux, the cheapest of them all. Still, you can’t entirely blame them – there is an apocryphal story of one UK customer who paid for his child’s education purely on the back of the sales of his annual allocation. Prices for the 2005 vintage are astronomical – the entry level Echézeaux is now around £600 a bottle, while La Tâche is upwards of £2,500 and Romanée-Conti nearly three times that.
Like most of the much-touted great experiences of one’s life, they are not always so thrilling on first encounter. One factor which probably ensures the greatest disappointment with DRC is that the vast majority of it is drunk far too young. Any DRC from a great vintage shouldn’t be touched for at least 20 or 30 years and even from lesser ones, not until 15.
I have never tasted their white Montrachet or a mature Romanée-Conti – just barrel samples at the Domaine and at Corney & Barrow, but I have tasted the others probably 50 times. (The best place to enjoy them in a restaurant at “reasonable” prices is Enoteca Pinchiorri, the great Three-Star Michelin restaurant in Florence, where they have them going back for half a century and more)
The first serious tasting I went to was 20 years ago, when the then co-proprietors Aubert de Villaine and Lalou Bize-Leroy hosted a dinner at the Groucho Club in Soho. However, none of the dozen or so wines really bowled me over because the oldest one was only 15 years and until they mature, they can be incredibly tight and unyielding.
Still, this did not deter me and I remember that at one dinner given by a friend in the mid Nineties, he opened a bottle and asked me to try and guess the vintage. I didn’t have a clue, except that it was prickly, dense and powerful, so I rashly assumed it was a great Rhone – a young Hermitage or perhaps a Côte-Rôtie. Well, we all make mistakes, but this was ridiculous – it was a La Tâche 66! It took more than an hour for it to settle down in the glass and show its stuff but by then I was acting like a crazed junkie, attempting to wrest a few more drops from the long empty bottle. That remained the greatest wine I had ever tasted until I drank a La Tâche 42 and then a Richebourg 42, which had been offloaded by the Rolling Stones business manager because he thought they must have been past their prime. Even hours after the Richebourg was finished, the glass smelt intensely of ripe plums.
It is quite tricky trying to describe the difference between the taste of red Burgundy and Bordeaux. There is a commonly held view that Bordeaux is quite linear and straightforward whereas Burgundy is far more elusive and sensuous. My theory is that Bordeaux is Bach and Burgundy Mozart but that doesn’t really assist you in defining their actual tastes. Burgundy is far more difficult to grow, with only a handful of producers succeeding in regions beyond Burgundy itself. At its very best, it is floral, mouth filling and heady – it appeals more to the emotions than the intellect. The trouble is that when it is off target it is thin and weedy with no depth, which is why many Bordeaux lovers think it is a complete con. Then there is the confusion of wines coming from the same region or commune but being completely different in price and quality.
The other thing that can cause severe disappointment is that many great wines go through a closed or “dumb” phase for several years. From what I hear, this has now occurred with all of the 2005 DRC’s and they probably won’t even begin to re-emerge at least until the middle of the next decade. In fact, most connoisseurs will tell you that the earliest vintage that you should drink now is the 92.
Sadly, quite a few bottles of DRC are consumed merely because of their snob appeal, especially in the Far East. One friend of mine was dining at a famous Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, when he heard a commotion at the neighbouring table. He turned around and saw that it was a group of friends who had opened seven different vintages of bottles of Romanée-Conti for a vertical tasting. Once they saw his interest, they happily offered him glasses of each and every one. My last serious tasting of La Tâche was courtesy of a Chinese millionaire who ordered a 93 at The Square in Mayfair. It may have been a tad on the young side but there was no doubting its power and quality.
My only visit to the Domaine was last Summer, when I was driving down to the Riviera in a wondrous car even rarer than DRC itself – a Morgan AeroMax. The actual headquarters of the Domaine is a large village house behind a high steel gate, which is where Aubert de Villaine and his team does all of the serious work once the harvest is finished in September. As you might expect given the quality of his production, he is a thoughtful self-effacing person who devotes all of his waking time to the Domaine, which is only half a mile away up the hill. We tasted the more recent 2007 vintage from the barrel, which was thrilling but not very revealing. One surprise was a 1988 Bâtard-Montrachet, which I didn’t even know they made. Apparently they only produce one barrel or about 80 cases, which they keep for their own use. Despite being 20 years old, it hardly showed any signs of age and could probably benefit with another decade in repose. The highlight should have been the Romanée-Conti, but it was virtually tasteless at this stage of its life. In fact, Aubert admitted himself that this sample was impossible to judge as it was “still sleeping”.
I confess that this should have been my state of mind when I went to the tasting for the 2006 DRC’s at Corney & Barrow (the UK agents) as it started at 0830 and I had just returned from India the night before. However, I managed to maintain my alertness despite declining to spurt such treasures into a waiting spittoon. It was apparently a tricky vintage, which only came right at the very end with intense sun for the last few weeks of the vintage. It is generally acknowledged that it was ultimately down to the skill of the wine makers to bring out the quality of the vines. I was impressed with the way the terroir, or innate quality of the grapes and the dirt, gave an overall consistency to all the wines, yet they were each completely different in expression and nuance. For what it is worth, I give my tasting notes below for the 2006 DRC’s but anyone seriously interested should perhaps subscribe to Allen Meadows website, www.burghound.com as his ability to describe great young Burgundy is better than mine.
(This parcel of 847 cases is put together by blending all of the young vines from every Grand Cru and has only been released four times since 1999)
Nose – prickly and red fruit dominated. Almost sweet/saline taste but then completely open and powerful chunky fruit – admittedly it would be infanticide, but could be drunk now with pleasure, although it too will close up soon.
By contrast, not giving much away on the nasal front – just a hint of fruit buried within the neutral odours.
Purplish hue in the glass which is an indication of a very young wine. Slate/saline/minerally entry. Firm full fruit with not much in the way of lift – just solid dependable quality with virtually no aftertaste.
Zilch in the olfactory department – very puzzling except that great wines tend to close down after bottling only re emerge with more subtlety and finesse years or even decades later. Same slatey opening impressing but then a thrilling sweet/menthol taste which tumbles along for a considerable time. For the first time, the underlying structure comes slowly though – a good example of the hotel adage that the best value is never the cheapest room but the next one up – the superior category or junior suite.
Again, nothing doing nosewise.
Soaring graceful slightly oriental flavours and slight spices but ethereal already and no hint of a harsh tannic structure – manages to effortlessly escape at the end of the mouthful and just leave a contented veil of what is still to come.
Major League. Only a soft warm hint of red fruit on the nose but the taste is both powerful as well as showing high-toned aromas of the style underneath. Is it a smell of shortbread or oatcakes? Definitely dry biscuit/cake flavours. A bit clumsy but frankly it is so early that it is merely getting its act together.
The loud speakers are ever so firmly on now. A much bigger blast than the previous specimens. A massive chunk of power with tannins showing their presence too. Definitely not for this or the next decade. Sticky marzipan with a scorching endnote – almost declaring – “Leave me alone you fool – I have important things to do and besides, don’t you know I am trying to sleep?”
Floral – a stupefying range of delicate flowers in the early Spring. Again, that initial seaside slate/oyster shell flavours that is consistent with the entire vintage. Entry so graceful and delicate that it literally sucks the flavour buds out of your mouth and leaves you incapable of comprehension. Could not be more different than the La Tâche.
In the near future, it will be possible to try DRC wines that are not from the Vosne-Romanée region as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has acquired three parcels of Grand Crus in Corton that used to belong to Domaine Prince Florent de Merode. They are not especially renowned wines as they sell for less than £500 a case in good vintages but there must be some intrinsic potential that has caught Aubert de Villaine’s attention. One of the other monopoles of Vosne-Romanée is a wine called La Grand Rue, which is sandwiched between La Tâche and Romanée-Conti. However, it is thought highly unlikely that DRC would ever try to purchase it because the clone of Pinot Noir planted on the site is a high yielding one. This means if DRC wanted to replant the stock, it would take at least 20 years before the vines would be old enough to produce superlative fruit. While customers are more than prepared to wait this length of time for their bottles to mature, it would be harder to justify the expense of keeping such a hugely expensive portion of land essentially idle for the same length of time.
So, if you think you might still be around in two decades time, all of the existing DRC 06s are worth purchasing. Given the uncertain economic times we are in, there has not been a huge rush behind the scenes to speculate in this vintage, which means it may be possible to get hold of some at bearable prices. It is never going to be cheap, but then, when you are dealing with what everyone agrees is the apogee of the Pinot Noir grape, it would be a shame not to try them even once.