Aubert de Villaine stands in front of Corton Clos du Roi
Towards the northern limits of the the hill of Corton lies the small town of Ladoix, or more correctly Ladoix-Serrigny – this is the most northerly of the Côte de Beaune villages. Perhaps the town’s major piece of architecture is the high-walled, moated and turreted Château de Serrigny, home to the family of the Prince Florent de Mérode since the early 1700s.
Mainly centred on local Aloxe and Ladoix vines (there was also some Pommard) the Domaine Prince Florent de Mérode reached almost 12 hectares (6 owned), but in 2008 the prince died, and so did his wife – a member of the Lur-Saluces family of Château d’Yquem. The family chose to dispose of most of their vines, sold (reported by Clive Coates) to Vincent Sauvestre of Maison Béjot. Three remaining plots of grand cru Corton, totalling 2.27 hectares were leased by the family to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
The wines of Prince Florent de Merode have, for many years, been a watchword for quality that exceeded their modest price, so it raised more than a few eyebrows when it was announced that the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti would take over exploitation of three of their Corton grand crus. On the 11th November 2008 the management of the vines changed hands. Actually, it would be better to say that the ‘direction’ of the vines changed hands, as the talented Didier Dubois, who managed the the vines for de Mérode since 2000 retained his position, only now with a reporting line to Vosne-Romanée and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s vineyard manager, Nicolas Jacob.
“When Prince and Princess de Mérode, whom I knew, died six months apart, their children contacted us and offered to lease three grands crus they own in Corton,” said DRC co director Aubert de Villaine. “These vineyards are situated in the heart of the historic part of the appellation with a good proportion of old vines. These two factors give a high potential to produce great wines.”
From: Winespectator online, Dec 3rd 2008
I note that one Jules Ouvrard, former owner of Romanée-Conti and the (whole of the) Clos de Vougeot, also owned much of the Corton Clos du Roi vineyard – it’s hard to tell from my sources whether he owned all or ‘only’ most of the vineyard – it is almost like the wines are coming back into the family I suppose!
A walk in the vines with Aubert de Villaine and Didier Dubois
There was a threat of rain on the overcast December morning when I met Aubert de Villaine and Chef de Culture Didier Dubois. We met halfway up the hill of Corton, then we followed the vineyard road to a small parking area next to Corton Clos du Roi. Fortunately the rain stayed away – at least until the afternoon. It was a chance, not just to visit and get a feel for the orientation of their vines, but also to chat with the new team, to learn about what they have changed, not changed and to get a feeling their plans.
The vines cover a prime area in the mid-slope of the hill, and all are within the village limits of Aloxe-Corton. Corton Clos du Roi (0.57 ha) sits proudly in the mid-slope above the road, continuing its line northwards into Renardes (0.51 ha). Bressandes (1.19 ha) follows both, but below the road and you need some steps down into it in places – there is maybe only 3 metres difference in elevation between the bottom of Clos du Roi and the top of Bressandes, but much much more between the top of Clos du Roi and the bottom of Bressandes! clearly the ground here has a reasonable slope – you would soon find yourself going too fast for your legs if you decided to run down the hill. The slope encourages erosion when the rains are heavy, evidenced by the limestone bedrock of the vineyards being very close to the surface, and the need to bolster the ground with crushed rocks at the bottom of the vineyard. Bressandes, not surprisingly, has just a little more depth of soil.
In each of the vineyards, there are sections of old vines – planted at the end of the war – they are now almost 65 years old. The rest of the vines, replaced as required, range from about 15-25 years old. Since Didier arrived at de Mérode, vineyards were managed on an organic basis with lutte raisonné treatments. Pruning was already quite short as Didier had reduced yields. For the 2009 vintage all the pruning and training work fits well with the new team’s philosophy, so is unchanged. The key area of change is that everyting is now done in a biodynamic way.
There is some virus in the vines of much of Corton which naturally helps to reduce the yields of pinot noir, that coupled with their short pruning provided ~30 hl/ha yields, pushed up a little because many of the berries were quite large.
The wines to come…
Making wine from the hill of Corton like this, is not the easiest thing for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti – we have here ‘only’ 2.2 hectares of vines, so only a little more than the area of Romanée-Conti (1.80 ha) – if they were to isolate the vieilles vignes from each parcel, that would be only about 2 barrels per vineyard. Aubert is very clear that such a volume would be below what he considers ideal for a high level of consistent quality – note that Romanée-Conti itself delivers something like 15-20 barrels.
Driven by these volume considerations, the domaine’s initial plan for their innaugural 2009 vintage was to bottle two cuvées; a Corton Vieilles Vignes, and a Corton from the younger vines. With their experiences so-far, they are already considering whether there may be another approach – but we are getting ahead of ourselves…
Clearly the new vinification regime is very different to what went before at de Mérode; their recent wines were 100% destemmed and used up-to one-third of new oak. This is not the approach of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. I asked Aubert if he could already see the different characters in the Renardes, Bressandes and Clos du Roi; whilst he first added the caveat that he doesn’t really taste wines before the malolactic fermentation is done, he did say that he thought they had strong individual characters and that he is very impressed by their power and structure. He added that at this early stage, the wine from the younger vines was really exceeding their expectations, and whilst it is too early to make a decision, there is even a chance that they will be good enough to make just a single ‘Corton’ bottling.
I have the impression that this new challange is really interesting for Aubert, he seemed highly enthused. So with a little luck, maybe there is a chance to taste the results before they are bottled, and to see what kind of a benchmark their total philosophy will bring…