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The Best Wines on the Planet?

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© Andy Friedman

A $5,000 wine? Legendary winemaker Aubert de Villaine says the world’s best wines start in the vineyard.

“‘Proud,’” says Aubert de Villaine, the owner of Burgundy’s venerated Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, “is not a good word for a winemaker. You must realize how dependent you are on your terroir.” We are standing on a hillside a few hundred yards from the village of Vosne-Romanée with long rows of vines spread out before us. From this vantage point we have sweeping views of six of the estate’s grand cru vineyards, including its crown jewels: the fabled La Tâche and the much tinier vineyard that gives the domaine its name, Romanée-Conti, a four-and-a-half acre parcel that is the most hallowed patch of soil in the entire wine world.

The wines that are born in these limestone-rich fields sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars per bottle. La Tâche runs well north of $1,000; Romanée-Conti is closer to $5,000—even more for exceptional vintages like 1999 and 2005. It would be easy for de Villaine, a tall, agile 72-year-old with a finely chiseled face and a scholarly disposition, to claim credit, but ask him about the success of his wines and he’ll repeat what he always tells people: The vineyard matters much more than the vintner. He is more caretaker than creator. “You have the right to feel satisfied,” de Villaine says, “if you are capable enough at your craft to enable the terroir to express itself through your wines.”

This has been de Villaine’s guiding principle during his 37 years at the helm of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti—or DRC, as it is commonly known. The estate’s cachet owes a lot to its vineyards, the finest incubators anywhere of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. But credit, though shirked, also belongs to de Villaine, who has propelled DRC to levels of quality and consistency unmatched in its long history. Indeed, in the past couple of decades, the notoriety of DRC’s six grand cru red wines and one grand cru white has eclipsed even the likes of Latour and Lafite. Made in depressingly small quantities—DRC’s output is about 80,000 bottles a year, a fraction of what the Bordeaux first growths typically produce—they are coveted like no other wines on the planet.

The first sip of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is a wine drinker’s rite of passage. I certainly remember my first time. It was at a dinner in New York, where I was offered a glass of the 1978 La Tâche. It exuded the most seductive perfume I’d ever encountered in a wine, a blend of damp earth, dried flowers, ripe red berries and exotic spices. The writer Roald Dahl remarked that drinking DRC was akin to “having an orgasm in the mouth and the nose both at the same time.” At that moment I understood exactly what he meant.

Such adulation helps explain why de Villaine’s pending retirement—he says he expects to be at the helm only for another few years—is a major issue in Burgundy and why so many people are watching closely as he grooms his 40-year-old nephew, Bertrand de Villaine, to take over. “Aubert is the moral conscience of Burgundy,” says critic Allen Meadows, whose quarterly online newsletter, Burghound.com, is the go-to guide for Burgundy collectors. “With his devotion to terroir and the fastidiousness with which he has tended to his vines, he has inspired an entire younger generation.”

He has also set another important example. While managing DRC for the past four decades, he has simultaneously operated the small winery Domaine A. et P. de Villaine in the village of Bouzeron, about 40 minutes south of Vosne-Romanée, in a peripheral part of Burgundy known as the Côte Chalonnaise. De Villaine and his American-born wife, Pamela, settled there in the early 1970s and have been fashioning earthy, elegant wines under their own label ever since. With their help, the area is now a dynamic subzone of Burgundy, producing toothsome reds and whites that have the added virtue of being very affordable. De Villaine is more than a Bouzeron vintner, he’s a vrai citoyenne. From 2001 to 2008, de Villaine was better known as the town’s mayor than the world’s best winemaker, a fact he relates with uncharacteristic pride. That de Villaine is among the vintners working these less exalted hillsides and selling wines for under $40 a bottle is a reminder that quality and value are not mutually exclusive concepts in Burgundy.

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