The Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is a very discreet operation; you won’t find the trappings of fame, reputation or ostentation; the domaine’s smart but unpretentious buildings reflect the understatement and even humility of its public face – Aubert de Villaine – only the doorbell gives the game away. Once past the (locked) red gates, the offices and reception room are very much working areas rather than ‘places to receive’. The cuverie and barrel cellar are just round the corner from the offices (~100 metres away & next door to the Château de Vosne-Romanée) and sport the same red colour gates as the offices. As we moved from the offices to the bottle cellars below, we pass an open door where shrink-wrapped pallets of wooden cases await their consignment – it’s just like any other domaine, except for the monetary value of those cases.
I was (for weeks) looking forward to my first visit to the domaine, and in particular the opportunity to spend a little time with Aubert de Villaine before visiting the cellars; but what should be the focus of this article? There are many fine synopses of the domaine’s history, so in addition to offering you a view of the vintage 2004 wines and a rather splendid selection of La Tâche tasting notes, I chose instead to focus on some aspects of the viticultural work of the domaine and in particular their connection to, and their efforts in, the vines of Romanée Saint-Vivant.
The domaines’ vines
Provignage was essentially a ‘sacrifice’; it was the burying of an entire vine leaving shoots visible to fill gaps brought about by the death of another vine. One ‘burial’ might bring about the ‘birth’ of two or three new vines from shoots that would themselves root. This was from an era when vines were not cultivated in neat rows, but were effectively (at root level) an interconnecting network – where one vine started and another ended was conjecture.
Across the Grand Cru vineyards of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti the vines have something in common; they are all the ‘grand-children’ of the last ungrafted pinot noir vines of the Côte d’Or – the vines of the Romanée-Conti vineyard.
At the start of the 1940’s all but the vines of Romanée-Conti and a small part of Richebourg had already been grafted onto American rootstocks to provide some measure of resistance to a pest that had ravaged the vineyards for over 60 years: Phylloxera, that insidious and tiny insect that eats away at the indigenous vine’s roots allowing multiple entry points for infection, was first recorded in Vosne in 1882.
Across the Côte d’Or multiple unpleasant chemical treatments were used, first to combat, and then to try and contain the pest – it was an expensive, and ultimately, losing battle. Apart from the above-mentioned vines, by 1940 the domaine was already on grafted rootstocks. The availability of chemical treatments dwindled to nothing in the war years and the suffering of the ungrafted vines intensified. For Romanée-Conti, this suffering was ended in 1945; after a harvest that yielded only 10% of today’s output (2.5 hl/ha), the last old ‘Pinot Noir Fin’ vines of the Côte d’Or were uprooted. The vineyard was left fallow until replanting in 1947 – the young, now grafted, vines gave-up their first cuvée in 1952.
From the early 1900’s, coupled to American rootstocks, grafting had been the domaine’s choice of defence against phylloxera, and the source of those grafts had been Romanée-Conti. The key points of the Romanée-Conti vines were that they were naturally low yielding, producing only small clusters of fruit that matured relatively early. Of-course a vineyard, particularly one that for (maybe) 100’s of years had vines replenished by ‘provignage’, does not provide only one ‘shade’ of pinot noir; some 50-60 genetically differentiated vines were identified in Romanée-Conti’s 1.8 hectares, and today, the clones of this palette is still used to restock the domaine’s vineyards.
It’s a fact of life, vines will sooner or later need to be replaced. Some vines are still in their prime at 70 years old, whereas others – maybe even from the same clone – are already ‘tired’ at 50 years. The domaine employs three routes for replacing vines: The first route is to (annually) replace individual dead and dying vines ‘as required’. The second, and more severe route, is to uproot entire sections. In October 2005, both these techniques could be seen in the Romanée-Conti vineyard – seen in the pictures below – separated by the collected spent vines. There is also a third route, called ‘surgreffage‘. It allows the grafting of in-house clones directly onto adult vines, with the obvious advantage of seeing their behaviour on older vines rather than having to follow the evolution of the fruit on very young vines.
Romanée Saint-Vivant in context
As burgundian vineyards go, at 9.44 hectares Romanée Saint-Vivant is rather large, as Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards go it is very large. It accounts for 35% of Vosne’s Grand Cru land. Whilst retaining the limestone base of it’s neighbours, the soil of Romanée Saint-Vivant, being at the bottom of the hill has, as one might expect, a higher percentage of clay-based soil than the vineyards that lie above – over many generations, the rain has taken much soil downhill. The lightly sloping vineyard runs from the edge of Vosne-Romanée village up to the edge of Romanée-Conti and Richebourg – at one time all of these owned by the Abbey of Saint Vivant when the land was simply called the Clos de Saint-Vivant.
It was one Nicolas-Joseph Marey who in 1791 bought the entirety of Romanée Saint-Vivant after it was sequestered at the revolution. Until 1898 the Marey-Monge dynasty held Romanée-Saint-Vivant as a monopoly, only the second owner and exploiter since records of the vines began in the 1100’s. One area which was then Romanée-Saint-Vivant but today is not, is the area marked by the number 4 on the map. This area which was called ‘La Plante’ and was already described as ‘not in the same class as the others’ by the government when they sold to Marey. He concurred and after renaming it the Clos de Saint-Vivant, he subsequently sold the vines – they are today the Vosne-Romanée 1er La Croix Rameau.
In 1898 the Marey-Monge family decided to sell a significant portion of the vineyard – marked as ‘1’ on the map. This area was called Le Clos des Quatre Journeaux and was bought by the Latour family. The Latours then resold around half of their new possession, retaining the half (from top to bottom) that abuts the section marked as ‘2’. Although this ‘Clos des Quatre Journeaux’ is today exploited by the likes of l’Arlot, Arnoux, Cathiard and Thomas (soon to be Dujac) plus a number of négociants, Latour retained the rights to the name, so only their bottles declare ‘Les Quatre Journeaux’. Three other producers exploit an area of vineyard that runs from the very top of section two (on the map), to the bottom of section 3. This, the most northerly section of Romanée-Saint-Vivant, had been sold to Charles Noellat and is today the home of the vines of JJ Confuron, Hudelot-Noellat and Leroy.
In 1966, Mlle Marey-Monge, the last of her line, leased the remaining family-owned vines (the majority of sections 2 and 3) to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti – some 5.28 hectares or 56% of Romanée-Saint-Vivant’s total area – they (the domaine) were also given the option of ‘first refusal’ should the holdings of the Marey-Monge estate come-up for sale. In 1988 the Neyroud family, who were the heirs to Mlle Marey-Monge, approached the domaine and a deal was done. To finance the purchase, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti sold their vines in Echézeaux and a smaller amount in Grands Echézeaux, though retained the use of the land on a renewable 30 year lease. Vines were also sold in Vosne-Romanée 1er Les Suchots, Vosne-Romanée Maizières (villages) and Vosne-Romanée Clos des Goillotte (villages) to Henri Roch (part owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and owner of Domaine Prieur-Roch) – these were not leased back.
Hard work in romanée-saint-vivant
Such a large area of vines, unsurprisingly, is anything but homogenous. The domaine, for many years, kept the négociants happy with barrels of Romanée-Saint-Vivant, and the domaine’s own wine was often a blend of different qualities. When Aubert de Villaine took control in 1991 he decided to tackle the vines of Romanée-Saint-Vivant in a much more systematic way than had been done before; by vinifying each section separately he was able to focus on where action was required. He describes the vines as ‘a patchwork of different plantings’. Much replanting was to be done, and naturally with the grandchildren of Romanée-Conti.
Still there are many areas within the vineyard that require different management to get the best results; for example some areas of vigorous growth are to an extent ‘tamed’ by allowing the weeds to grow between the vines, whereas in others, the reverse is required. The pruning regimes are also tailored to the parcels, 80% are Taille Guyot with one short and one long cane, others being Cordon Royat. Everything is tried to maximise the quality.
This concerted effort has produced a well-recognised improvement in the quality of the wine. Slowly, more parcels achieve the desired quality, such that the domaine’s yield of bottles has slowly increased – despite at the same time their yield per hectare going down. On occasions in the last two or three years, the Vivant has become a real contender for usurping the place of the Richebourg as the domaine’s ‘third’ red wine. As the new plantings produce ever more expressive fruit the domaine has bottled more and more wine – currently about 3.5 hectares of their 5.3 are bottled for sale – Aubert thinks that 10-15 years could see most of their grapes in their own bottles.
I look forward to keeping an eye on this progression…
the 2004 vintage
Plus a few additional bottles. A vintage where the domaine’s prime focus was the removal of rot. Normally it takes 7 days for the domaine to harvest, but for 2004 it was 10 days and as we will see there was a second pass through the vines. The wines have already been racked for the one and only time prior to bottling early next year…
Medium-plus colour. Deep, brooding fruit on the nose with trace of oak. In the mouth there is sweetness coupled to very fine tannins and good acidity – quite some density of fruit here. Very long but with just a faint edge of bitterness – most likely from the oak. This is clean, concentrated, very forward and very, very friendly. The resurgence of this bottling continues.
Just a shade deeper colour. The nose is gorgeous, not so exuberant as the Echézeaux, but much more complex and finer with a creamy edge. Fortunately my expectations had not been set too high – the palate is indeed a match for the marvellous nose, delicate certainly, very fine tannins, there’s a lightness of touch but it’s really subtly concentrated. Wow. A really beautiful wine of great finesse.
Medium, medium-plus colour. The fruit is more linear and primary than the first two wines, subtly ringed with floral notes before gradually revealing additional complexity and creaminess. Also more linear delivery on the palate too – a more mineral personality. Whilst the tannins are fine, they are less elegant than the Echézeaux’s. Super mid-palate density in a fresh package. Showing a little tightness but impressive for all that.
Similar depth of colour to the RSV. The nose is fleshy and perfumed, slightly powdery with a transient trace of oak. Fatter and more forcefully concentrated. Fresh complexion with tannins that are on a higher level to the other wines yet retain a fineness of grain. Very long.
Similar colour once more. The nose is deep and monolithic, edged with barrel notes. Instant fireworks in the mouth, but this is partly due to a little retained CO2. Aubert decides that there is some reduction so we go to a second barrel… Here we have less barrel notes on the nose. The palate still has a little gas but has an extra layer of fat with beautiful acidity. Judgement deferred.
Again the colour is similar to the other wines. The deep nose is initially less compelling than that of the GE, but opens more and more until the complexity is just amazing. This wine is surprisingly ‘big’ and concentrated – seemingly more-so than the La Tâche. Again there is some dissolved CO2 which accentuates the fireworks but frankly makes it very hard to judge. Again very, very long. Judgement also deferred.
In 2004 there were two passes through the vines. Unlike 1999 and 2002 when the cuvée Duvault-Blochet contained the young vines fruit, this cuvée – which may, or may not be released – is not young vines, so the quantity, if released, is very small. Lovely nose, wide and high-toned. Nice density of fruit against a creamy background – lovely fruit. Not so focused as the last wines, but given the label, outstanding – and that’s after tasting Romanée-Conti!
There won’t be so many press tastings for this vintage as the average harvest across the domaine was a mere 18hl/ha – I guess I was lucky to taste this. Medium-plus colour. The nose is wide and deep with fresh berries, a little time in the glass gives up an extra spicy edge and extra purity to the fruit. In the mouth it’s fat and creamy and is loaded with velvety tannin and concentrated dry extract of fruit on the finish. This is a fascinating expression of the vintage, drier and less fresh than 2004 which I prefer.
Tasted blind. Medium, medium-plus colour. High-toned, less dense than the previous 2003, narrower and more floral, slowly adds weight and dimension. Lovely palate, plenty of fine tannin, fresh candied red fruit. Good density, a slow diminuendo to the reasonably long finish. Very stylish. Someone else guessed the vintage, I got the appellation.
Tasted blind. Medium colour. The nose starts a little tight with some barrel notes, then marzipan, pear-drops slowly becoming a little spicy and creamy. The palate just makes you say ‘Ooh!’. It’s amazingly complex, long, long, long and ever-changing. Gorgeous texture, simply a tour de force. The multidimensional palate was exactly as I remembered the 2002, but the acidity seemed less gushing than when last tasted, so I made a flying guess at a lower acid vintage – 1997 – I was wrong it was the 02!
A vertical of La Tâche
A super evening in London expertly organised by Linden Wilkie of Fine Wine Experience with the discussion led by Anthony Hanson, Burgundy author and a consultant to Christies’ wine department. This was a true evening of ‘Ultra-Wine’.
Medium, medium-plus cherry-red. High-toned, a pure core of red-cherry perfume that’s under-pinned with subtle spice, swirling accentuates the spice. Ripe tannins and intense red-fruit compete with acidity that needs a little taming. Tons of complexity and purity, fading from the mid-palate burst into the medium-plus-length finish. No shrinking violet this one, but the quality is quite apparent – save for at least 5 years before returning.
A wine that set the tone (hue) for the colour of the other wines – despite it’s relative youth, this wine was an old mahogany colour of medium-plus depth. On opening, this wine showed mushroom, forest-floor, inflections of soil, a deep peppery undertone and eventually a baked cherry note. Less round than the 2002 – the acidity sticks out a little. There is good length and weight, but the elements are somewhat disparate. This was actually the only wine that required extended air-time to show its potential. One hour later there was more harmony, less mushroom and a very strong ‘family’ resemblance to the wines that followed it. Don’t be disappointed if you have this wine – I wouldn’t be!
The deepest colour yet – looks quite old though with its mahogany colour and browning rim. The nose is a little gamey and still shows some mushroom – but this time much more subtle – together with high tones and jammy red fruit. Beautiful texture and weight in the mouth. This is the first wine with such volume. There is again a crescendo effect as you savour the wine, the finish being of bitter chocolate coated red fruits. Still a rasp to the tannins and lovely acidity. Very classy.
Almost as deep colour as the 1996, but perhaps with an extra hint of youth. On pouring the nose is a little diffuse, it needs time to develop into a wonderfully meaty mix of savoury and fruit driven aspects. Doesn’t have quite the volume in the mouth as the 1996 but rather than building it’s attack, it delivers a knockout punch right from the start – even seems slightly fresher than 1996. The tannins still have quite a rasp, but there’s the next 20 years-plus to wait for them to soften. Gorgeous intensity. I slightly prefer this to our bottle of 1996.
Virtually the same colour and shade as the 1996. The nose starts a little closed, delicate and precise. Wait a little and a tour de force greets you, richer, earthier, spicier, hints of blood-orange. Here is a wine of incredible intensity, it’s full-bodied, yet delivered with an amazing lightness of touch. The tannins are still quite young and there is a wonderful length. Unlike some 1990’s there’s no extra fat, this is true ‘ULTRA-WINE’. Sensational stuff.
Medium mahogany in colour. The nose is little vegetal and mildewy to start, slowly mature red fruit emerges plus a little pine-needle and earth, unfortunately just a wisp of TCA too. It’s not apparent on the palate, though there must be some diminution of the experience. Despite this there is a nice soft entry and a concentration that builds to a crescendo on the palate. In this company still a little subdued, certainly mildly corked.
Medium colour, again an old mahogany shade. Width on the nose, hints of resin, sweetness, doesn’t start spicy, rather broad and deep, becoming ever more intense and rounder. Wonderful effects on the inside of your mouth – fireworks certainly – quite rich, with a finish that defies reason. It’s about as mature as any wine could be in gamey yet sweet way. For me this wine is second only to 1990, though the 1959 was probably its equal.
Unfortunately our planned bottle of 1971 was corked, so this was the back-up bottle. Consistent colour with 86 and 78. Slightly mineral nose, some sweetness, smokey bacon covered with caramel coupled with fresh higher tones. The acidity is not quite so refined as the others – parallel here with the hot vintage and 1997 – and the tannins still have a grainy texture, but the fruit has real intensity. A very interesting bottle that (again) like the 1997 took on more balance with aeration and time. A very worthy backup.
Medium colour. The nose starts rather closed vs the other wines, taking rather a while to develop – ends up like a less intense, perhaps ‘junior’ 1978 – no bad thing! The palate is less explosive than most of the others, but the intensity still grows and grows in your mouth. Perfect texture and lovely acidity. It has everything that the other wines have, but on a slightly lower register – perhaps it’s starting to fade – it is, however, a beautiful thing.
What a wine! It’s actually a little deeper in colour than all the preceding wines – until you reach the 1990. The sweet nose has truffles and subtle rose petals, slowly expanding to provide a wonderful panorama of notes. Again beautiful texture and volume in the mouth, there’s even still a bite of tannin in the finish. Once again a wine that builds and builds in the mouth – Bravo. On this showing as good as the 1978 even if the 78 has a little more aromatic intensity.
There is an easily identifiable and persistent theme when you drink La Tâche, particularly on a scale like this. The wine is often purported to be the biggest, showiest, spiciest etc., etc.. In its youth it can be all those things and indeed more, but the real character of La Tâche is more subtle – it’s about its shape and the intellectual way that it speaks.
However the wine first presents itself, you must steal yourself for the fact that the door is only partly open, it is like walking into a large room from a small one – the wine always grows larger in your mouth, opening out before slowly fading in the finish. The wine is also a challenge, and for those that wish to take up that challenge, they will find something slightly different in their glass every time they return – whether it be for 15 minutes or 3 hours.
This is La Tâche.