Vosne-Romanée holds an exalted status in the minds of burgundy ‘worshipers’ – in this context I use the term, worshiper assuredly – any day of the week, rain or shine, you will see a steady flow of worshippers making a pilgrimage up a bumpy road that is barely wide enough for their car, to have long-suffering wives (usually, but not always) take their photo next to a stone plaque in a low wall; a plaque that bears the name Romanée-Conti. The flow of people is so high that this year the domaine has placed a notice on the same wall asking people to respect the vineyard and keep out of it!
Of-course the village is not only about one vineyard, perfectly demonstrated if we look to the 1913 classification of the Côte d’Or vineyards by Monsieur Raymond Brunet (A Travers les Grandes Vignobles) – whose work had more than a passing nod to the earlier work of Jules Lavalle – he ranked his top ten red wine vineyards from one to ten. Of the top five, remarkably only one lay outside the borders of Vosne, and that was the second placed Clos de Vougeot at which time had only 15 proprietors – though a mere 20 years earlier (from which most of its esteem was doubltlessly based) it was still under a single ownership – a monopole. For the record, his top 10 are shown in the table, right:
As you will by-now have noted, not for nothing is Vosne-Romanée known as the ‘the pearl of the Côte’. Recieving its AOC on the 11th September 1936, Vosne-Romanée today covers just over 200 hectares of vineyards that nestle between Nuits St.Georges and Flagey-Echézeaux – in 1861 only 167 hectares had such a classification.
From a historical perspective, it’s impossible to talk about Vosne-Romanée without reference to the Abbey of Saint-Vivant and the Croonembourg family. That the Abbey of Saint-Vivant also controlled the next-door village of Flagey-Echézeaux and because it’s premier cru vineyards are also called Vosne-Romanée is reason enough for me to include them in this profile.
Records suggest that Vosne certainly existed as a village in the sixth century though the spelling of ‘Vosne’ was often changed. In 890 the priory of Saint-Vivant which was to be linked to so many of Vosne’s vineyards was established by Manassès the 1st and his wife Hermengarde – Manassès was vassal to Richard the Justiciery, but a very high-powered vassal, as between them they owned most of Burgundy! The priory which was subordinate to the priory of Vergy (itself part of the Cluniac order) started with 28 people before eventually losing both its status and lands during the revolution. During the twelfth century the lands dependant on the village of Flagey-Echézeaux and the village itself came into the possession of the abbey. What the abbey didn’t own was mainly in the possession of the Croonembourg family, indeed it was the Croonembourgs that sold in 1760 the vines which would one day be called Romanée-Conti to Jean-François Joly who was acting for the Prince de Conti. The ruins of the abbey are slowly being restored and still form a vital part of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s work, as the latest vintage is usually housed there until the previous years is bottled.
Not until 1866 was Romanée appended to Vosne, the new name was part hommage, part marketing and without doubt brought (indeed still brings) an extra level of cachet or recognisability to ‘Vosne’ and its ‘average’ wine. Some people ask why append the name Romanée – as in La Romanée – rather than Romanée-Conti?: Setting aside the less sonorous qualities of Vosne-Conti or Vosne-Romanée-Conti, the vineyard known today as Romanée-Conti only took that name in 1764 – for many years before, it was simply known as ‘Romanée’.
In 1797 the last Abbot of Saint-Vivant died – François Trouvé – his body rests in the church of Vosne. Vosne has known plenty of hard times, either from pestilence or war it sits on a knife-edge of boom or bust; amongst others there was great suffering due to the Austrian occupation of 1814-15, and again around 1870 due to a nearby battle during the Franco-Prussian war. Phylloxera followed, as did the two world wars – it is only the last 1-2 generations that have seen some consistent reward – particularly the current generation, though the next ‘pest’ could be just around the corner…
The village itself always appears very quiet; a worker here or there, walking up the small incline towards the vineyards though most do this in white vans or on their giraffe-like tractors. Vosne-Romanée actually straddles the Route Nationale 74, though only a few houses are to be found on the eastern side of the road, and none of the vines are classed as ‘Vosne-Romanée’. On the western side of the road, there are few domaines of repute – e.g. Robert Arnoux and also a new hotel; Le Richebourg. Working your way up the incline you will pass diverse architecture – grand houses are dotted between much humbler dwellings. Approaching the heart of the village – which officially (I suppose) should be the open square in front of the large ‘Marie’ – you are already bordering the vines; Chaumes to your left and the Clos des Réas behind you. Look directly at the Marie (pictured above) and you have a choice of route; to the left is the road that will take you up the Route des Grands Crus, to the right a road that passes the Château de Vosne-Romanée of Domaine Comte Liger-Belair that comes to the church square and the main bus-stop – this, to me, feels more like the village centre.
The A-Z of Premier Cru Vineyards:
Les Beaux Monts or Beaumonts
The spelling is rather variable, frankly, the wines can be too. The altitude is quite high and there are more than a few weedy or simply uninspiring wines; not that this wine doesn’t have the opportunity to excel, bordering as it does the grand cru of Echézeaux, albeit above. Beaux Monts covers a little over 11 hectares that cross between the notional boundaries of Vosne and Flagey, and can be further subdivided into Beaux Monts, Les Hautes Beaux Monts, Les Beaux Monts Hauts(?) and Les Beaux Monts Bas. A good bottle has a high-toned perfume and a relaxed but complex demeanour, perhaps less dense than wines from lower down the slope.
Good producers for Beaux Monts: Domaine Bertagna, Bruno Clavelier, Leroy. Good producers for Beaumonts: Recent Hudelot-Noëllats, Louis Jadot, if funds are no barrier Henri Jayer or slightly easier on the credit-card is Emmanuel Rouget’s follow-up.
This wonderfully sited vineyard runs about half the length of the Veroilles section of Richebourg, extending further up the slope but separated by only a notional boundary. At the highest part of the slope the name changes to la Combe Brûlée which covers about 40% of the 4.5 hectare total, you can find bottlers e.g. Pascal Chevigny who chose to label as Combe Brûlée. The style of the wine is often quite mineral with a streak of spicy black fruit, the name implies that this might be a hot area of the hill, but it doesn’t seem to translate into a specially ripe aspect when compared to its near neighbours.
Great producers of Brûlées include: René Engel, Domaine Leroy and Domaine Méo-Camuzet
This vineyard might ‘only’ cover ~6.5 hectares, but seems to have one of the longest lists of owners. Maybe it’s the number of owners or maybe its because it’s the first in this list that sits at the bottom of the slope where the soil is much deeper, but it’s hard to find really good bottles. The profile of the wine is often a little plummy and less spicy and focused than most of the other premier crus. I’m currently finding Comte Liger-Belair’s to be a lovely wine, though his tiny parcel of vines do border La Tâche! Daniel Rion also produces a nice bottle as does d’Ardhuy in recent vintages.
The renown of this vineyard can only be associated with one person; Henri Jayer. After the second world war he single-handedly cleared the one hectare of overgrown scrub, rocks and even vegetable gardens to plant the vines. Despite sitting directly above Richebourg, pre-phylloxera Cros Parantoux had a poor reputation (Lavalle), on the same level as other vineyards that are today classed as ‘villages’. The ground was hard to work and so, post-phylloxera, this poorly rated piece of land was little replanted. Jayer, saw something and piece by piece bought all the separate plots from their then owners. Jayer did not really reach the heights of winemaking until the 1970’s, probably due to a mixture of finding the best approach and finally the vines coming of age – or at least the earlier wines don’t seem to exist anymore for comparison. Parantoux today has two owners/exploiters; Méo-Camuzet and Emmanuel Rouget through his retired uncle by marriage, Henri Jayer who we sadly lost just before the 2006 harvest.
La Croix Rameau
This tiny vineyard, only 0.6 hectares, was once part of a much loftier appellation – Romanée Saint-Vivant – but it seems that this sub-division was always regarded as being of inferior quality to the rest. Location probably has the most influence here, La Croix Rameau is in the flat of the land on the edge of village, way below most of the 1er cru vineyards and even below the level of many villages Vosnes. Today there are few bottles to be seen, the best-known are Lamarche and Cacheux, in recent vintages probably Lamarche being the most consistent bottling.
If La Croix Rameau is the tiniest premier cru, then Les Gaudichots, the next smallest, is perhaps the most complex and interesting – perhaps bewildering is the better adjective. There are a limited number of producers that bottle this wine each year and they can be very hard to find – or in some cases even to get allocations of. You see, Les Gaudichots was until 1932 very much larger, that was when the lion’s share of the vineyard was reclassified as grand cru – and La Tâche grand cru at that – more about that in that section! What now remains of Les Gaudichots are three tiny, unconnected areas of vines that all retain the same name, hence, the adjective bewildering. Régis Forey consistently makes a relatively good bottle, but I often find the presentation a little muddy so I’d put Nicolas Potel’s rather more sought-after négociant bottling ahead – unfortunately chez Potel there is often only one barrel to go round.
What’s in a name? It is said that Malconsorts was first planted only ~1610 – quite late for the village. Perhaps the name implies a poor impression of its standing next-to the rest of Vosne ‘royalty’. Stand at the top of Malconsorts and you feel quite high-up, you also get a great view of the other vineyards and the village of Vosne-Romanée below you. Sandwiched between La Tâche and the border to the appellation of Nuits St.Georges there’s no surprise that Malconsorts can be a big and structured wine, and just now and then, it can be almost as wonderfully complex as its famous grand cru neighbour. Despite its healthy 5.86 hectares, there are relatively few owners of these vines and not ones with a great reputation. Bichot and Thomas were the main owners and suppliers to many other bottlers but quality was not really a ‘given’. Sylvain Cathiard has been the reference point since the late 1990’s, Bichot has improved considerably since 2000 whereas the beefy wines of Domaine Thomas (Moillard) who were the largest owners, really needed at least 10 years to start making any sense and 15+ was preferable. With the 2005 vintage the Thomas vines were sold to Domaine de Montille and Domaine Dujac. With these vines we also have another Les Gaudichots moment; one small (0.50 hectares) part of Malconsorts is almost entirely enclosed by the vines of La Tâche – this will now be separately bottled by de Montille.
Au-Dessus des Malconsorts
Rarely seen on a label as it can ‘simply’ can it take the better-known label of Les Malconsorts, as some suggest – I think not. The small (1 hectare) area of vines sit below Malconsorts ‘proper’ and just south of La Tâche – almost mid-slope La Tâche. I only know (since 1999) Remoriquet in Nuits and Dominique Mugneret in Vosne who take the label.
Clos des Réas
A triangular vineyard with ostentatiously large walls forming two sides, yet for no apparent reason completely open on the third ‘side’ where the ground quickly falls away to the villages appellation of Aux Réas. The Clos is a monopole of Domaine Bernard Gros and with the exception of La Croix Rameau is the lowest-lying 1er cru designated land in Vosne. Despite deeper soil at the bottom of the Vosne hill than the top, this wine remains relatively fine and usually embodies understated complexity rather than density. The oak is quite apparent when newly bottled chez Gros, but allow 5-7 years in bottle and it is typically consumed.
Les Petits Monts
Set quite high up on the Vosne hillside and encircled by Richebourg, Cros Parantoux and Aux Reignots, for such a wonderfully sited vineyard it doesn’t seem to get all that much press. There are quite some owners here too; close to 20 – and that’s despite there being only a little under 3.7 hectares of vines – perhaps that’s why you don’t see it so often as the plots are so small. The best Petits Monts tend to be rather haunting and complex, they are not ‘blockbusters’, rather wines of finesse, and that’s despite sitting just above the powerhouse that is Richebourg. Just occasionally Petits Monts can come close to the quality of a good (if not a great) Richebourg – here I’m thinking of the 1999 bottle from Veronique Drouhin whose wine is usually near the top of the pile from this appellation. Others that are worth your time are supremely elegant négoce wine of Nicolas Potel, and the slightly more powerful wine of Pascal Chevigny. For 2006 I look forward to the (very small volume) wine of Comte Liger-Belair.
This vineyard commences with a geological fault at the top of La Romanée and extends steeply higher. There are faults in the ground allowing the roots to reach many metres of depth, hence, even in 2003 there was little dehydration in this vineyard. The vines of Liger-Belair (who owns about 45% of the vineyard) run all the way from the bottom to the top of the vineyard, whereas the other owners; Cathiard (top), Grivot (middle) and Arnoux (bottom) have significant differences in altitude – of these three, only Arnoux touches (like Liger-Belair) on La Romanée. The Bouchard P&F label has always been a decent bottle, but 2002 onwards has seen a gradual improvement due to the vineyard management of Louis-Michel Liger-Belair. I think of Reignots as a brooding, imposing wine, often with black-shaded fruit. I’ve never tried the Grivot wine and my experience of Cathiard and Arnoux have shown little commonality between those wines – good as they are!
Les Suchots is easily the largest of the premier crus with over 13 hectares of vines. As you might expect with such a large vineyard, there is a very long list of owners – perhaps this is the reason that, despite being sited between Richebourg, Romanée Saint-Vivant and Echézeaux, this wine has often been a little thin and disappointing. In recent years Pascal Lacheaux of Domaine Robert Arnoux has almost single-handedly put this cru on the map. The négociant offering of Potel likewise ‘cycles’ between good and excellent. A good Suchots can be a very concentrated wine when in the hands of Arnoux, but typically it distinguishes itself by the wonderful depth of its red-fruit nose. The wine of Sylvain Cathiard is also starting to appreciate in value…
The A-Z of Grand Cru Vineyards:
The topography of this ridiculously large grand cru is as variable as its 10 lieu-dits – each of which is bigger than some of its Vosne 1er cru neighbours. At close to 38 hectares this is a monster of a grand cru, and just like its ‘near size’ grand cru cousins the Clos de Vougeot and Corton, there is little that is consistent about the wines of this appellation. Dips, humps, compressions and sometimes (almost) excavations are filled with vines; couple this to a list of bottlers/producers as long as your arm and you will be in for a rough ride. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti exploit one of the largest parcels and equally produce one of the highlights of that appellation; this bottle has but one disadvantage – it is usually tasted in the company of the rest of the domaine’s wines, rather than in the company of other Echézeaux – in the latter case it would invariably shine. If I were to look at other consistent sources of good bottles, I would suggest Bizot and Mugneret-Gibourg, recent bottles from David Duband have also been quite interesting.
As vineyards go, Grands-Echézeaux is actually a little disappointing; there are many fine and imposing gnarled old vines throughout its 9.1 hectares, but topographically there’s not much to say, rather-like some after-thought, these vines all lie outside the walls of the Clos de Vougeot and by comparison seem to lack a little identity. Musigny (almost) similarly sits outside the Clos, but by lying above seems to confer an element of superiority, at least together with its own walls – which GE lacks. If this impression infers some inferiority then it’s only in the mind, as the average Grands-Echézeaux is rather superior to the average Clos de Vougeot, in fact the average Grands-Echézeaux is still one of the best wines of the Côte de Nuits. This is not just about terroir, it’s as much about the quality of the main producers; Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Joseph Drouhin and until 2004 René Engel, Nicolas Potel’s négociant bottling also regularly gets an honourable mention. Where a Richebourg impresses with density and power, Grands-Echézeaux impresses with transparency and stunning aromatics.
La Grand Rue
La Grande Rue only joined the Grand Cru ‘club’ in the early 1990’s. Some say it was because the wine wasn’t good enough before, others say it was down to the personality of the owner who didn’t want to join the club. If location is our only guide, then this could only be a piece of grand cru soil, wedged as it is between La Romanée and La Romanée-Conti on one side, and La Tâche on the other. It is a monopole of Domaine Lamarche. I have tasted the wine only twice – both were bottles from the 1980s and neither shined. Whilst a notch or two below the wines I mentioned above, the recent scores I’ve seen for this wine have been ‘on the up’. Perhaps a visit is called-for.
Given the relative scarcity of this cru it’s hard to believe that at 8 hectares, the vineyard covers even more area than La Tâche. It was once much smaller but there was an adjoining climat called Les Véroilles – old texts even refer to the Clos des Véroilles – that was until a court case brought by the proprietors of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti showed that wine from Véroilles had been labelled and sold as Richebourg for years, and more importantly fetched the same price. Véroilles from that date was officially incorporated into Richebourg. The wine is deep dense and intense, vs the other grand crus of Vosne it is easy to anthropomorphise as a ‘masculine’ wine. Given the area covered, there are relatively few owners in Richebourg – very few indeed if you lump together all those with the name Gros! 40% of the vineyard is owned by the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and as one would expect, this is a reference example. The best value wine was made by Mongeard-Mugneret but they were producing under a métayage agreement – it will be interesting to see how the bottles compare now that the vines have returned to their owners – the Nuits Domaine of Thibault Liger-Belair.
The smallest AOC in France at just 0.84 hectares. Lying just a little higher on the hillside it is separated from Romanée-Conti by a meandering track that is just wide enough for a tractor. Today the obvious difference to Romanée-Conti is that the rows of vines run perpendicular to Romanée-Conti’s – it is said that the strip of land would otherwise have been too narrow to accommodate a tractor’s turning circle. For a generation the vineyard tending and management was done by the Forey family of Vosne-Romanée and the commercialisation by Bouchard Père et Fils, both on behalf of the owners – the Liger-Belair Family. Since about 2001 there has been a gradual transition to the management of Louis-Michel Liger-Belair who will be commercialising the whole harvest for the first time with the 2006 vintage – hence, for the last few vintages there have been two labels. La Romanée has always been a jewel, but perhaps missed some lustre in the 1970’s and 80’s, there is, however, a real extra polish in the most recent vintages – 2005 is a work of art.
“The most celebrated and expensive red wine in the world, with reserves of flavour beyond imagination” – it sounds like Hugh Johnson is a convert. This is a jewel that has remained fully polished! No wine can be magnificent every vintage, but Romanée-Conti comes close. Form the picture (right) you can see that there are two tiers to the vineyard with a short step in-between (just above you can see the perpendicularly planted vines of La Romanée and higher still Aux Reignots). Romanée-Conti has been described by Allen Meadows as ‘spherical’ – a perfect sphere of a wine – it is not the ‘showiest’ of wines, but it takes all the attributes of the other grand crus, tones them down slightly, but integrates those parts magnificently.
4-500 cases per year are allocated throughout the world. Sadly demand is such that a significant proportion of these bottles – perhaps more than half – are destined to be traded and traded again due to their ‘investment potential’. A bottle could easily have 10-20 owners before eventually being drunk, and maybe it will not be in the best condition because of that. Release prices have been around 800-1,000 Euros per bottle in the recent vintages, grey market and restaurant prices are 175-300% of that – vintage dependant.
A small excerpt from this fuller description:
…[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 its 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.]…
Despite a relatively short list of owners, many sell-on barrels resulting in a multitude of bottlers – e.g. in 1999 I have found many more than 20 different labels.
Here there is only one label – Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. This is probably the most consistently excellent wine of Vosne-Romanée; consistent because it takes in the breadth of altitudes and soil depths that Vosne offers and is sufficiently large a harvest that blending and declassifying can always lead to something special – it is the synthesis of Vosne-Romanée. At one time it was a tiny vineyard, only complicated by the naming of another, larger vineyard called Les Gaudichots ou La Tâche – i.e. a vineyard that could take either name! The Domaine de la Romanée-Conti applied in 1932 for this latter appellation to also be classed simply as La Tâche – this was opposed by the then owners of (the smaller) La Tâche – the Liger-Belairs – the Liger-Belairs lost and eventually sold their vines to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. 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. Regardless of how the wine first presents itself to you, 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.
Despite the hallowed name, it is often said that one of the hardest jobs is to find a decent bottle of villages Vosne-Romanée – I would say that this was borne out from my notes below, which is a shame given that I chose a vintage (2001) that is typically characterised by fine tannins and the opportunity to show a pure fruit aspect – but take heart, I’ve done some of the work for you!
two ‘aspirational’ villages
If I put two glasses in front of you – blind – and told you that one was Leroy you would almost wrongly guess which one. If I then told you that the other possibility was Dugat-Py you would have a 50% chance of being correct – but it would only be a guess! What’s the problem? Well it’s not exactly a problem, more a matter of expectation; the Leroy is a very light (for Leroy) colour wine. Perhaps Domaine Leroy over-did their stems in 2004(?)
For comparative purposes…
a brace of ‘aspirational’ 1ers
We don’t get to drink these every day, but it’s worth keeping an occasional check on them…