The Best Wines on the Planet?
The Romanée-Conti vineyard dates back to at least the 13th century. A document from 1794 noted that its wine was “the most excellent of all those of the Côte d’Or….Its brilliant and velvety color, its ardor and scent, charm all the senses….Well kept, it always improves as it approaches its eighth or tenth year; it is then a balm for the elderly, the feeble and the disabled, and will restore life to the dying.”
The de Villaines bought the vineyard in 1869 and registered the name Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in 1912, under the oversight of Edmond de Villaine. Edmond passed it to his son, Henri, in 1950, who handed it over to his son Aubert in 1974. The start of Aubert’s era was dramatic. In May 1976, de Villaine was one of the participants in the so-called Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting in which a couple of upstart California wines bested a handful of renowned Burgundies and Bordeaux. The shocking result made headlines around the world and briefly turned de Villaine into a persona non grata back home. “People thought I was a traitor,” he recalls. But the Paris tasting turned out to be a blessing. It introduced competition and spurred French vintners to become more quality-conscious. “It was the best thing that could have happened to French wines and to Burgundy,” de Villaine says. “Before, we were persuaded that we were the only ones on the planet who could make good wine. It was the best kick in the ass we could have received.”
De Villaine wasted no time implementing changes at DRC. During the harvest that autumn, the domaine became the first in Burgundy to use a sorting table to weed out inferior grapes. As quality control went, this was a revolutionary step. He also instituted more stringent vine selection, and the vines were pruned with greater rigor to keep crop yields in check and produce more concentrated fruit. To obtain healthier grapes, DRC stopped using pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers in the mid-’80s and converted to organic viticulture. A decade ago, de Villaine went further and began farming the vineyards according to biodynamic principles, an ultra-organic approach that is increasingly prevalent in Burgundy.
The renewed focus on terroir has brought spectacular results, though it has helped that Burgundy has had stellar vintages of late, notably 1999 and 2005. However, de Villaine seems to take more satisfaction from wines made in lesser years—vintages when the grapes lacked greatness but the domaine still made first-rate wines. One such year was 2007, which I was lucky to taste with de Villaine in a dimly lit cellar at the winery.
De Villaine goes about the tasting with an almost monastic seriousness. He says he knows the personalities of his vineyards as if they are people, and his chief concern is to see those personalities reflected in the wines—that there is “transparency,” as he puts it. All six of the vintage’s reds are a bit reticent. But we are able to tease out enough aromas and flavors to form some impressions of how the ’07s are evolving.
“The Richebourg is very typical: muscular, with an animal side and some joie de vivre,” de Villaine notes. With the Romanée-Conti, he finds “a slight green note that is always in the wine” and says that even though the ’07 is very tight at the moment, it shows the incredible texture and length that sets Romanée-Conti apart. “It was a difficult vintage, but these wines show what great growths can give even in a difficult year,” he says. “It is a vintage to keep—the wines will be wonderful in 20 years.” (The ’08 reds, which were recently released, are superior to the ‘07.)
We finish up with the lone white, the Montrachet. In contrast to the sleepy reds, it is an exuberant, utterly enthralling wine that elicits a triumphant smile from de Villaine.