Inside Domaine de la RomanTe-Conti

Richard Orders goes inside Burgundy's greatest wine domain.

As you turn into the village of Vosne- RomanTe off the N74 which connects Beaune and Dijon in the heart of Burgundy, there is no ôIci Hollywoodö or equivalent sign or even (as for other Burgundian domaines) a modest arrow pointing you in the right direction. Only a rust coloured iron grille, and a modest brass plaque in the Rue DerriFre Le Four tells you that you are outside the greatest domaine in Burgundy and possibly the finest wine estate in the world. Domaine de la RomanTe-Conti. DRC or just ôthe Domaineö. Within a surface area of just over 60 acres is situated the finest expression that pinot noir can achieve together with a small plot of the pinnacle of chardonnay.

The history of the DRC estate reaches back into the centuries but was famously acquired by the Prince de Conti, a relative of the King of France, in the 18th century, who promptly added his name to the best of the vineyards and reserved its entire production for his own consumption. Sequestered during the revolution, it was then, in 1869, acquired by Jacques-Marie Duvault-Blochet from Santenay, and in 1942, his descendants sold a 50% share to the nTgociant Henri Leroy. The current ownership remains shared between the two families with Henri LeroyÆs two daughters Lalou Bize-Leroy and Pauline Roch holding their late fatherÆs interest and Aubert de Villaine, who runs the estate, and who is a direct descendant of Duvault-Blochet, representing his familyÆs shareholding.

It is the custom for each group of shareholders to provide one manager, and for some years, Aubert de Villaine and Lalou Bize-Leroy were nominated by their respective families in this capacity. However, it was never an easy relationship, although both are hugely talented winemakers and dedicated to producing wines of the highest quality. Indeed tasting at Madame Bize-LeroyÆs own Domaine Leroy is itself an extraordinary experienceà but perhaps thatÆs another story.

The tension between the two erupted in 1992 over certain practices with regard to the marketing of DRC, for which Leroy had the exclusivity worldwide except for the UK and US, which had resulted in a grey market developing in certain markets, disruptive to some of the established distribution arrangements. Madame Bize-Leroy was ousted in a Boardroom coup, at which, it is said, her sister Pauline voted against her. Charles Roch, eldest son of Pauline was appointed as joint manager in Madame Bize-LeroyÆs place, but tragically, he was killed in a car crash almost immediately thereafter. His brother, Henri Roch, took his place and remains Aubert de VillaineÆs co-manager, although Monsieur de Villaine is the de facto senior partner and full-time director of the Domaine.

The DRCÆs holdings comprise almost entirely grands crus, the highest ranking vineyards of Burgundy and a small amount of premier cru Vosne-RomanTe. They produce no village wines. The grands crus start with EchTzeaux, often somewhat patchy in quality in some growersÆ hands, through Grands EchTzeaux, RomanTe- St-Vivant, Richebourg, and then the two great monopoles or sole ownership climats, of La TGche, and what has been described as ôthe pearl in the Burgundian necklaceö, RomanTe-Conti itself. There is also a holding in Le Montrachet which can often vie for the title of the best wine in white burgundy, although others may, with some justification, lay a similar claim.

Aubert de VillaineÆs wine-making philosophy emphasises above all else that great wine is made in the vineyards and that the winemakerÆs role is to do the minimum necessary to produce the finest fruit consistent with total respect for the individual terroir of each appellation. After many years of following strictly organic methods, the Domaine is now run biodynamically, and the present average age of the vines is 45 years plus.

Aubert de Villaine is also a firm believer in maximising ripeness and picking as late as practicable û DRC is often the last domaine to pick in a given vintage. The triage, or grape selection, is carried out with great rigour and a ruthless selection of healthy fruit is made. As a consequence, yields are very low, reducing still further an already meagre production quantity. The selected bunches are then transferred, with the inclusion of the stems, to the fermentation vats for the cuvaison, which can be a month or so (including a cold pre-maceration period) before being transferred into 100% new French oak barriques where they are aged for 18 months. Racking is minimised and the wines are bottled without filtration.

The result of Monsieur de VillaineÆs dedication to quality and terroir expressiveness is that while the wines are magnificent, particularly the two monopoles, quantities are tiny as the following table shows:

In short, production is around 7,000 cases (in total) of red and a little white to satisfy global demand for a multiple of this, now including significant buyers here in Asia, increasingly from China, and more recently Russia and Eastern Europe.

And what of the wines themselves? If anything, in recent years, the quality and in particular, consistency has perhaps ratcheted up a notch. I wonder whether the split with Madame Bize-Leroy has spurred both teams û at the DRC and at Domaine Leroy - to even greater heights as they compete to produce the finest wines in Burgundy. If so, all the better for those fortunate enough to be able to drink these wines!

EchTzeaux is a fine example of one of the lesser grands crus, but both it and its superior, richer and more concentrated stable mate, Grands EchTzeaux, lack the elegance and spiciness of the DomaineÆs best vineyards. The RomanTe-Saint-Vivant suffered slightly in the 1980s and 1990s from relatively younger vines, but has class and elegance and is now performing at its peak. Richebourg is altogether bigger and richer and repays long ageing and can occasionally go head to head with La TGche, one of the two monopoles. La TGche is indisputably a great wine. It has all 6 the richness and weight of the Richebourg, but significantly more majesty and complexity. The aromatics give off scents of soy, leather, nutmeg, all spice, intense black fruit and on the palate the famed ôpeacockÆs tailö of flavours which epitomises DRC is very evident in a long rich finish. RomanTe- Conti itself is utterly beguiling. This is a regal wine of great harmony, seductiveness and finesse û silk and satin, as opposed to the leather and spice of La TGche, and with an understated power and richness. There are those who will argue for the merits of La TGche over RomanTe-Conti. Either way, with La TGche at about a third of the price of RomanTe-Conti, you can debate relative value. Splitting hairs perhaps but in my own experience, most recently comprising a comparative tasting of the two wines from the vintages 1990, 1985, 1978 and 1966, RomanTe-Conti was superior in every year with the exception of 1990 when the two wines were judged to be lineball. Indeed the 1966 RomanTe- Conti, which I have had several times from bottle and magnum, is one of the three finest wines I have ever drunk, and I have seen it, served unprompted, reduce a high octane dinner party to silence (albeit for a few minutes only!), such is its impact.

As far as Le Montrachet is concerned, for those who like super ripe, rich weighty white burgundy with long aging potential this is the epitome of that style. For my taste, I prefer more tautness and minerality, indubitably fine though this wine can be.

The Domaine also has a small holding in Batard Montrachet which is not produced commercially but kept for drinking as a ôhouse whiteö(!) or sold to nTgociants. The 1996 tasted recently at the Domaine was a top class white burgundy now in its prime.

In certain years, Aubert de Villaine has started the practice of bottling the young Vosne-RomanTe vines as a premier cru under the name ôcuvTe Duvault-Blochetö. The 1999 and 2002 are both delicious, forward, elegant. Full of fruit, they can be enjoyed now or left for a few years.

While elegance and purity have been hallmarks of the DomaineÆs core offerings for decades, recent vintages have tended to show perhaps these qualities to an even greater extent than in the past, without losing richness and power. The 2002s are likely to be extraordinary for this is probably the finest vintage between 1978 and 2005; while in 2001, a lesser but good vintage, which I think will surprise on the upside, the wines are more modestly priced and the style of the vintage should suit DRC. In 2000, the Domaine made wines of great charm, more approachable and less concentrated than normal: La TGche is particularly impressive and drinkable now, though will last. By contrast, 1999 was a great year for DRC but the wines need time although the EchTzeaux is beginning to be approachable: La TGche will be sensational in 10 years or so. 1998 was a difficult year but as with 2001 prices reflect this and again La TGche has performed outstandingly. Most 1997s are now for drinking and the vintage was not a great success for DRC although the EchTzeaux is surprisingly fresh and concentrated, but 1996 is a great year: these wines still have a tannic core which suggest they need more time but there is ripe fruit in abundance û the Grands EchTzeaux is an excellent example and more drinkable today than the very fine Richebourg while La TGche has great purity and concentration and will continue to develop for years. By contrast 1995 is a little disappointing perhaps lacking the balance and structure of 1996; La Tache is clearly inferior in this vintage. 1993 remains a controversial year in Burgundy but loyalists continue to rate this vintage very highly; DRC got the balance pretty much right especially with the Richebourg, and La TGche, while backward and with plenty of acidity has the potential for greatness. The 1992s are fully ready and drinking nicely now although far from serious; RomanTe-Saint-Vivant is particularly good and La TGche a fine example of the vintage. In 1991, La TGche is absolutely magnificent; more approachable now than 1990 and on a par with or better than RomanTe- Conti, while the Richebourg is also good in what is an underrated vintage generally. RomanTe-Saint-Vivant, however, is weak, and lacks fruit û the 1992 is much better. 1990 itself is going through some revisionism with many now saying that the wines lack balance and it is not the uniformly great vintage originally thought. However, DRC got it bang on with the RomanTe-Conti and La TGche both magnificent, but both needing much more time while the RomanTe-Saint-Vivant is very fine also. The 1989s are a mixed bag with the Richebourg attractive now, the EchTzeaux surprisingly fresh and concentrated, a good example, but the La TGche needing years yet: RomanTe-Saint-Vivant and Grands EchTzeaux both show the velvety quality of this vintage but also a slight lack of elegance. 1988 is a powerful, slow maturing year which generally needs more time, with La TGche a particular success, while in 1987, the La TGche is surprisingly good from a weak and difficult year, with a certain spicy richness û delicious now. In 1985, the Domaine performed brilliantly for the most part with Grands EchTzeaux and Richebourg both very fine û the Richebourg edging out Henri JayerÆs as the finest Richebourg of the vintage at a recent tasting. La TGche has a lovely silky quality to it but is perhaps a little lacking in power, while RomanTe-Conti is glorious, spectacular aromatics and complexity of flavours with years ahead.

Older great vintages include 1978, 1971, 1966, 1964 and 1962, although some bottle variability is to be expected.

And the much talked about 2005s, the vintage reckoned to be the finest in Burgundy for 50 years, perhaps ever? These are yet to be offered on the market û the current vintage being sold en primeur is 2004 û but I was fortunate enough to taste them at the Domaine with cellar master Bernard Noblet last November. Monsieur Noblet, a large, imposing, serious man, whose father was also cellar master, is not given to superlatives. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Domaine is quietly exuberant about the quality of these wines which may be among the finest they have ever produced. Certainly, even tasting from barrel, the wines already show great purity and richness, with harmonious ripe tannins. The RomanTe-Conti in particular is an awesome effort of great elegance and poise û lovely to taste even now.

In Hong Kong, DRC wines are scarce and very expensive, although I am told there will be some stock available of older vintages from WatsonÆs Wine Cellars post April 1st and the introduction of reduced duty. Vinum in Singapore carry good stocks across the range of climats and vintages and the UK agents are Corney & Barrow. Prices in bond in London range from ú400 to ú2,000 a bottle for La TGche and ú3,000 to ú6,000 a bottle for RomanTe-Conti, depending on the vintage. Richebourg is normally 50 û 65% of the price of La TGche with RomanTe-Saint-Vivant not far behind and the Grands EchTzeaux and EchTzeaux less expensive still. With luck, you might find an EchTzeaux in a reasonable vintage, say 2001 or 1998, for ú120 a bottle for a sense of what DRC is all about, although if there is a wine which represents relatively good value in this context, it is probably the Grands EchTzeaux which in certain vintages û 1962, 1969, 1985 and 1996 come to mind û has achieved quality well above its station.

And the wines have performed well in investment terms. To pick two examples: in the mid to late 1990s you could acquire RomanTe-Conti 1990 for around ú400 per bottle û it is now over ú6,000, while La Tache 1985 has doubled in price in the last year and is now close to ú2,000 as is the 1990.

RomanTe-Conti and La Tache remain the two greatest vineyards in Burgundy, and while RomanTe-Conti may be over the top in price terms every lover of pinot noir should try La Tache at least once û the 1991 is less than half the price of 1990 and virtually as good, and represents a true benchmark both for pinot noir and for BurgundyÆs greatest estate.
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