You don’t get very far in a journey towards being a wine lover without hearing the words “Romanée-Conti” spoken with some combination of reverence and amazement. And in today’s world of Asian fueled wine-auction speculation, even those with casual interest in wine have heard of this famous domaine. Equally referred to as both the best wines in the world and the most expensive, the wines produced by the small Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are inarguably some of the most revered and sought after wines in the world.
Their price and scarcity mean that many wine lovers with modest means may never taste these wines, except at the generosity of collector friends who are lucky enough to have enough money to buy them at auction, or the connections to buy them upon release.
I was lucky enough to taste the current releases after being invited to the annual trade tasting, where a small group of individuals gets to taste each new vintage.
DRC, as it is affectionately known, has been synonymous with the pinnacle of Burgundy for a long time. Its history, or more accurately, the history of its two most famous vineyards, La Tâche and La Romanée-Conti, go back to the 13th century. In 1232 in the little town of Vosne, the Abbey of St. Vivant bought about four acres of Pinot Noir vineyard. The monks quietly made their wine for the next 400 years, until, for reasons unknown, the vineyard was sold to de Croonembourg family, who, for equally obscure reasons, renamed it La Romanée. At the same time, this family acquired the already well known neighboring vineyard named La Tâche, whose name translates to “the spot” or “the stain.”
These two vineyards were sold again in 1760, and famously prompted a bidding war between two lifelong rivals: Madame de Pompadour, the well known mistress of King Louis XV of France, and Louis François Ier de Bourbon, also known as the Prince de Conti. You can guess who won.
After paying what was, at the time, an astronomical price for the winery and its vineyard holdings, the prince appended his own name to the Romanée vineyard, which it still bears today.
The vineyards changed hands several times over the ensuing centuries, and in 1869 the winery and its vineyards were bought by Jacques-Marie Duvault-Blochet, who went on to acquire other Grand Cru vineyard holdings in Échezeaux, Grands Échezeaux and Richebourg, effectively creating the domaine that the world knows today.
The domaine’s vineyard holdings continued to increase over the next 100 years, with the addition of several hectares in Romanée Saint-Vivant and some additional vineyard land adjacent to La Tâche that was combined with that vineyard in 1936 to form what is the Grand Cru of La Tâche today. La Tâche, like the La Romanée-Conti vineyard, is owned in its entirety by DRC, earning the French term monopole.
Since Duvault-Blochet’s assemblage, the domaine has essentially been in the hands of two families and their descendants. The family trees are complicated, but suffice it to say that the two men who run the domaine, Aubert de Villaine and Henri-Frédéric Roche can reasonably say that they represent the present tense of a family ownership that stretches back directly to Duvault-Blochet.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti farms, as it has for more than 80 years, approximately 62 acres in 7 Grand Cru vineyards, two of which are the aforementioned monopoles. In 2008 the domaine acquired leases for three parcels in the Grand Cru Corton appellation, bringing the number of Grand Crus bottled by the domaine to eight, as of this 2009 vintage.
Romanée-Conti has practiced biodynamics on its vineyards for a total of about 10 years, with the last three or four representing a total commitment to its practices. In addition to using the Biodynamic preparations and farming methods (which includes the use of horse power only in the vineyards), the domaine takes great care in the genetic diversity and heritage of its Pinot Noir vines, propagating the various strains of from the Romanée-Conti vineyard with the idea that it represents the pinnacle of both quality and heritage.
De Villaine spoke at length about the intensive efforts undertaken with a group of 30 other wineries to find the oldest Pinot Noir vines in Burgundy, and begin using the selection massale method (which does not isolate specific clones) to build up a “bank” of plant material that can be used to replant a number of the vineyards that need replanting, including sections of the Corton vineyards that the domaine recently acquired.
For all the fuss about DRC wines, there’s not a lot of conversation about the winemaker. Officially, De Villaine is the winemaker, but he has lots of help in the cellar. Perhaps it is appropriate that none of these helping hands get billing as the winemaker (a term which De Villaine does not actively don himself) given the philosophy that the majority of the winemaking takes place before the grapes are cut from the vine.
Suffice it to say that the winemaking philosophy of the domaine manages to walk the knife edge of doing as little as possible during the process, while sparing no expense in the production. Call it the most expensive primitive winemaking in the world – with specially selected and cured oak barrels of a quality and construction available to no other winery in the world, and nearly everything done by hand in the winery the old fashioned way.
The winery produces approximately 8000 cases of wine per year across its 8 Grand Cru vineyards, every individually numbered and tagged bottle of which is sold through a tightly controlled network of distribution. In recent years, both in the face of growing wine fraud as well as increasing global distribution, the domaine has instituted some of the worlds most sophisticated anti-fraud and inventory tracking technology on the planet, allowing them to essentially keep reasonably close track of every bottle sold, and every time it changes hands in any commercial transaction.
I’ve recorded De Villaine’s thoughts on the 2009 vintage in my previous post, so I will not repeat them here. The 2009 vintage marks the debut of the Corton wine, which is made up of three parcels within Corton, one of which is much older (80 to 90-year-old vines) than the other two, whose vine age is about 50 years. Originally the domaine had thought it might release three wines, each from the different parcels, but there would just not have been enough of each to make much sense. De Villaine believes that this may be possible in 15 or 20 years after replanting, but for now, there will be a single wine combining the fruit from the three parcels.
Incidentally, De Villaine related that he was planning on releasing the initial Corton village under a different label than DRC, but the wine turned out good enough that he believed it deserved the DRC label. That doesn’t mean he’s satisfied with it, however. It was made with about 50% new oak, but he believes it needs less.
So what else is there for me to say about one of the most talked about wines and wineries in the world? The question always arises whether the wines are worth the money, which is not a question I can answer, other than to say to me it’s a moot point for my level of financial means. I believe in economics enough to point out that the worth of anything in a free market is merely what someone is willing to pay to get it. DRC is an incredibly scarce resource that people value at very high prices.
The wines are also tremendously good.
2009 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru Corton, Côte de Beaune, Burgundy
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of lovely floral and cherry notes with a hint of green herbs that grow more expansive and rich over time. In the mouth the wine has a deep, round fullness and a gorgeous weight on the tongue. Tart bing cherry and cedar flavors course across the palace, welded to an earthy undertone. Hints of dried cherry fruit poke through, and linger through an effortless finish that sails on, seemingly forever. Faint tannins and good acidity make this a quite balanced wine, but one with a slightly dark character, with a broadness and foundation that does not appear in the domaine’s wines from Vosne-Romanée. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2009 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Vosne-Romanée Premiere Cru, Côte de Nuits, Burgundy
Light garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of forest floor / pine duff scents with redcurrant other red berries. In the mouth the wine is bright and fresh, with juicy redcurrant and raspberry flavors and a lightness of step that is quite charming. There’s a hint of stemmy woodiness that is almost nutty in quality that merges seamlessly with a wet stone taste. The minerality and a hint of wet dirt linger with faint tannins around the edges of the mouth through the long finish. A little tart, or perhaps the better word is tightly wound, at this point and not as opulent as its brethren. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2009 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru Échezeaux, Côte de Nuits, Burgundy
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright forest berries, and a hint of wet dirt, like walking through the forest after a rain. In the mouth, velvety tannins lightly grasp a core of wet redwood bark and redcurrant, with hints of almost crystalline raspberry fruit. Smooth and silky, with gorgeous acidity, this is a wine you just want to keep in your mouth as long as possible. Plush and accessible at first, the tannins gain in attack as the wine moves on to provide a firmer grip, and the sour-cherry acidity lingers through an incredibly long finish. A bit narrow now, young as it is, but likely to grow more expansive with time. Score: around 9.5.
2009 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru Grands Échezeaux, Côte de Nuits, Burgundy
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of pine duff, and floral notes with a hint of forest berries and the tiniest breath of wood smoke. Silky, sexy and seductive are the first three words that tussle unclothed in the mind as bright raspberry and redcurrant flavors flow effortlessly over the tongue. This is a wine that feels weightless in presence, floating above the palate on a cloud of berry fruit whose underside hangs with forest floor and the mixed piney flavors of the Alaskan tundra. The finish lingers delicately for a long time. So unbelievably tasty now, I shudder to imagine how incredible this wine will get with age. Now it is like the perfectly wound swiss clockspring, with a remarkable potential energy. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2009 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru Romanée-Saint-Vivant, Côte de Nuits, Burgundy
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor with a hint of smoke, wet stones and a cloud of ethereal floral berries. In the mouth this wine seems a bit tighter wound than its brethren, with grippy but supple tannins and green herbs, raspberries and raspberry leaf flavors. Great acidity, but not quite as satiny in texture as the Éschezeax wines. Longer herbal finish. A bit cloistered in its youth, the texture and tones of this wine speak to an epic flowering at some point in the future, despite being damn pleasurable at the moment. Score: around 9.5.
2009 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru Richebourg, Côte de Nuits, Burgundy
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of piney resin, cedar, and forest floor, with notes of berries and other floral qualities. Bursting with bright acidity and a sappiness, this wine’s tannins are very powdery and coat the mouth, as juicy sour cherry and redcurrant flavors dance with richer raspberry notes across the palate. Mouthwatering in the literal sense, it sends a rush of saliva into the mouth as the flavors linger for a long time. This wine has a crystalline quality and comes across with the unpracticed ease of royalty. Regal and opulent even now, it will clearly be a knockout with age. Should anyone be so impetuous as to drink now, however, they’d find it a hell of a good glass of wine. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2009 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru La Tâche, Côte de Nuits, Burgundy
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet cherry, wet stones and forest floor, though the nose is somewhat recalcitrant at this point compared to its brethren. In the mouth this wine has a poise and an attitude that are clearly evident. Somewhat cooler and more reserved in flavor at this point, wet stones and wet earth resonate deeply in the wine with red fruit and floral notes layered on top, but the fruit is conveyed more as scents than flavors. The core of the wine seems to express the soil. Somewhat tight, and stern, with lightly tacky tannins, the wine reminds me of a great statue, whose chiseled features have not yet been softened by the winds of time. Mineral, even crystalline in quality through its long perfectly balanced expression. Give it some time, and then watch out! Score: around 9.5.
2009 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru La Romanée-Conti, Côte de Nuits, Burgundy
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of wet stone and forest floor and loads of dry, dusty earth. At first it appears somewhat muted and restrained, but upon deeper contemplation a faint sweet floral quality drifts out of the wine, softly, along with hints of red berries peeking through. I just want to sit and smell this wine for hours. In the mouth, the wine’s texture is remarkable, with an incredibly sexy, rich quality to it that is breathtaking. Supple but firm tannins enclose rather explosive flavors of wet stone raspberry and redcurrant, with sour cherry notes that linger on the finish. Juicy acidity and a deep minerality pervade the wine and the finish lasts for a long time. The word that comes to mind, after the initial lustful thoughts evoked by the wines texture, is charisma. This wine draws you to it like a magnet, and won’t let go. In 20 years, it might just be deadly. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2009 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru Montrachet, Côte de Nuits, Burgundy
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of rich piney lemon and wood sap, with wonderful grapefruit and rich wet stone aromas. In the mouth the wine has an incredible texture that I’m prompted to describe as liquid sex, and gorgeously balanced flavors that start with a hint of toasted nuts, and proceed with a bright candied lemon peel and saline quality. This mouthwatering fruit gains a grassiness as it moves across the palate, through a finish that has a créme anglais quality that is quite charming. Lovely, and likely to develop beautifully over a decade. Score: around 9.5.