The Domaine Romanée-Conti is the most rarefied and expensive wine in the world, with vintages that need decades to mature. At a tasting for the 2006 DRCs, Bruce Palling hears one vintage intone “Leave me alone you fool—don’t you know I am trying to sleep?”
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
March 3rd 2009
The acronym DRC is a potential minefield. Besides Drug Rehabilitation Centre or Dutch Reformed Church, it more commonly refers to the Democratic Republic of Congo or Domaine Romanée-Conti.
The former is perhaps the most misruled, war-torn kleptocracy in Africa, the latter is the most rarefied and expensive wine in the world. My preference is always for the Domaine Romanée-Conti: less sexual violence, more deliciousness.
The wine has a long history. The Romans cultivated this tiny slice of Burgundy a couple of millennia ago, with the Benedictines taking over from the Bishops of Langres and Autun in the tenth century. Its most illustrious five-acre vineyard was purchased by the Prince de Conti in the 18th century; upon his death it was sold to one of Napoleon's bankers. Then as now, only a few hundred cases were produced each year.
But it's not the pedigree that really matters. Rather, it's the calibre of Romanée-Conti and the handful of other wines produced by the Domaine—all in mystique-fuelling miniscule amounts. The First Growths of Bordeaux—Latour, Lafite, Mouton, Haut-Brion and Margaux—produce on average 100,000 cases annually, whereas DRC releases around 6,000—and less than 500 of these are Romanée-Conti. The only other exclusive wine they produce is La Tâche, in twice the amount as the Romanee-Conti, plus portions of Richebourg, Romanee-St.Vivant, Grands Echézeaux and straight Echézeaux.
It's tricky to describe the difference in taste between red Burgundy and Bordeaux. Burgundy is more difficult to grow; only a handful of producers succeed in regions beyond Burgundy itself. At its best, it is floral, mouth-filling and heady, appealing more to the emotions than the intellect. But when off-target it is thin, weedy and without depth, which is why many Bordeaux lovers think it is a complete con (particularly as wines from the same region vary dramatically in price and quality). Bordeaux is more linear and straightforward, whereas Burgundy is more elusive and sensuous. Bordeaux is Bach, Burgundy is Mozart.
So the Domaine's rarity, together with the fact that it is released at prices that are often a fraction of its market value, ensure an unholy annual scramble for bottles. One friend of mine who used to help allocate the vintage in Britain for Corney & Barrow, the country's exclusive agents, said it was often necessary to hide himself for days after the allocations were made to avoid harassment from otherwise polite customers. But who can blame them? A story going round is that one British customer paid for his child’s education purely through the sales of his annual allocation. Prices for the exceptional 2005 vintage are astronomical—the entry level Echézeaux is now around £600 a bottle, while La Tâche is upwards of £2,500 and Romanée-Conti nearly three times that.
But like many of life's most trumped up experiences, DRC vintages are not always so thrilling on first encounter. Alas, most are drunk far too young. Great vintages shouldn’t be touched for at least 20 or 30 years; lesser ones demand patience for 15. The 2005 DRCs, for example, probably won’t even begin to re-emerge until the middle of the next decade. Most connoisseurs will tell you that the earliest vintage that you should drink now is the '92.
I have tasted most all of them probably 50 times. The first serious tasting I attended was 20 years ago, when the DRC's then co-proprietors, Aubert de Villaine and Lalou Bize-Leroy, hosted a dinner at London's Groucho Club in Soho. Only one of the ten or so wines really bowled me over that night because the oldest was only 15 years. Before they mature, DRC wines can be tight and unyielding.
I remember being at dinner with a friend in the mid-1990s; he opened a bottle and asked me to guess the vintage. It was prickly, dense and powerful—I rashly assumed it was a great Rhone—a young Hermitage or perhaps a Côte-Rôtie. To my surprise it was a La Tâche '66! It took more than an hour for it to settle down in the glass, and by then I was acting like a crazed junkie, attempting to wrest a few more drops from the long-emptied bottle.
That remained the greatest wine I had ever tasted until a La Tâche '42 and then a Richebourg '42, offloaded by the Rolling Stones business manager because he thought they must have passed their prime. Even hours after the Richebourg was finished, the glass smelt intensely of ripe plums.
Quite a few bottles of DRC are consumed merely for their snob appeal. A friend of mine was dining at a famous Hong Kong restaurant when he heard a commotion at the neighbouring table. He turned around and saw that it was a group of friends who had opened seven different vintages of bottles of Romanée-Conti for a vertical tasting. They happily offered him glasses of each and every one. My last serious tasting of La Tâche was also courtesy of a Chinese millionaire, who ordered a '93 at the Square in Mayfair. Although it was a tad young there was no doubting its power and quality.
I visted the Domaine last summer, while driving down to the Riviera in the wondrous Morgan AeroMax (even rarer than DRC itself). The actual headquarters of the Domaine is a simple village house behind a high steel gate. This is where Aubert de Villaine and his team do all of the serious work after the harvest finishes in September. De Villaine is a thoughtful, self-effacing man who devotes all of his waking time to the Domaine, a half mile up the hill.
We tasted the more recent 2007 vintage from the barrel, which was thrilling but not revealing. One surprise was a 1988 Bâtard-Montrachet, which I didn’t even know they made. Apparently they only produce one barrel or about 80 cases, which they keep for their own use. Despite being 20 years old, it hardly showed any signs of age and could probably benefit with another decade in repose. The highlight should have been the Romanée-Conti, but it was virtually tasteless at this early stage of its life. De Villaine explained that this sample was impossible to judge as it was “still sleeping”. When great wines go dumb like this, it is only possible to asses their weight rather than future potential.
So my expectations were duly modest at a recent tasting for the 2006 DRCs at Corney & Barrow, held at the not-quite festive hour of 8:30am. I was suitably alert, despite the time of day and the fact that I had just returned from a trip to India the night before.
It was a tricky vintage, which came right only at the very end owing to intense sun in its last few weeks. In such cases it is down to the skill of the wine makers to bring out the quality of the vines. I was impressed with the way the terroir, or innate quality of the grapes and the dirt, lent consistency to the wines, yet they were each different in expression and nuance. (I declined to spurt such treasure into a waiting spittoon.) I give my tasting notes for the 2006 DRCs below. Anyone seriously interested should perhaps subscribe to Allen Meadows website, as his ability to describe great young Burgundy is better than mine.
Vosne-Romanée, Cuvée Duvault-Blochet (847 cases)
This parcel blends all of the young vines from every Grand Cru, and has only been released four times since 1999. Nose: prickly and red fruit dominated. Almost sweet/saline taste but then completely open and powerful chunky fruit. It would be infanticide, but this could be drunk now with pleasure.
Echézeaux (1402 cases)
Nose: just a hint of fruit buried within neutral odours. Purplish hue in the glass, which indicates a very young wine. Slate/saline/minerally entry. Firm full fruit with not much in the way of lift—just solid dependable quality with virtually no aftertaste.
Grands Echézeaux (783 cases)
Nose: zilch in the olfactory department, which is puzzling. Same slatey opening but then a thrilling sweet/menthol taste, which tumbles along for a considerable time. For the first time, the underlying structure comes slowly though, reaffirming the hotel adage that the best value is never the cheapest room but the next one up.
Romanée St Vivant (1183)
Major League. Nose: only a soft warm hint of red fruit, but its powerful taste shows high-toned aromas underneath. Is it a smell of shortbread or oatcakes? Definitely dry biscuit/cake flavours. A bit clumsy but frankly it is so early that it is merely getting its act together.
Richebourg (909 cases)
Nose: again, nothing doing nosewise. Soaring graceful slightly oriental flavours and slight spices but ethereal already and no hint of a harsh tannic structure. Manages to escape effortlessly at the end of the mouthful and leave a contented veil of what is still to come.
La Tâche (1845 cases)
Nose: the loudspeakers are firmly on now. A much bigger blast than the previous specimens. A massive chunk of power with tannins showing their presence too. Definitely not for this or the next decade. Sticky marzipan with a scorching endnote, it declares “Leave me alone you fool—don’t you know I am trying to sleep?”
Le Romanée-Conti (462 cases)
Nose: a stupefying range of delicate flowers in the early spring. As with the rest of the vintage, it features seaside slate/oyster shell flavours. Its entry is so graceful and delicate that it literally sucks the flavour buds out of my mouth, leaving me incapable of comprehension. Could not be more different than the La Tâche.
It will soon be possible to try DRC wines that are not from the Vosne-Romanée region as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has acquired three parcels of Grand Crus in Corton that used to belong to Domaine Prince Florent de Merode. They are not especially renowned wines—they sell for less than £500 a case in good vintages—but there must be some intrinsic potential that has caught Aubert de Villaine’s attention.
Diners hoping to enjoy DRC wines at “reasonable” prices should head to Enoteca Pinchiorri, a fine three-star Michelin restaurant in Florence, where they have them going back for more than half a century.
If you suspect you might still be around in two decades time, any or all the '06 wines are worth purchasing. Given the uncertain economic climate, prices for even the great 2005 DRC vintage has edged down slightly in recent months. It also means there has not been a huge rush behind the scenes to speculate in the 2006 vintage—so it may be possible to get hold of some at bearable prices. They'll never come cheap, but then, when you are dealing with the apogee of the Pinot Noir grape, it would be a shame not to try it once.
Bruce Palling spent 30 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Africa, including a posting as the first South Asia correspondent of the Independent. He lives now in London, where he writes about food, wine and travel
Photographs Corney & Barrow, Bruce Palling