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May 06, 2011

The Best Wines on the Planet?

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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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.

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Though it won’t be enough to satisfy the voracious demand for DRC’s wines, in 2008 the domaine leased nearly six acres in Corton, a grand cru vineyard several miles from Vosne-Romanée. The debut vintage, 2009, will be released in 2012. The move into Corton, DRC’s first acquisition since the late ’80s, was big news in Burgundy. But then everything DRC does is big news there. While quick to downplay his own influence, de Villaine recognizes the domaine occupies a unique perch, and where it leads, others tend to follow. “I see that we have this position,” he says. “I know people watch what we do.”

Down in Bouzeron, de Villaine has maintained a deliberately lower profile with A. et P. de Villaine. The winery, which is attached to his 16th-century stone farmhouse, makes wines from three grapes—Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Aligoté, all cultivated organically and consistently very good. Native to Burgundy, Aligoté is an aromatic grape that yields crisp, refreshing white wines, but it is generally considered an afterthought. There are only around 4,000 acres planted in the region, versus more than 30,000 acres of Chardonnay. But Aligoté is Bouzeron’s signature grape, and de Villaine has given it pride of place at his 46.2-acre domaine. He even succeeded in getting Aligoté wines from Bouzeron their own appellation.

For years de Villaine ran the Bouzeron property by himself. In 2001 he hired another of his nephews, Pierre de Benoist, to assist him, and the 38-year-old now runs the day-to-day operations. After de Villaine officially retires from Romanée-Conti, this is where he can quietly keep one foot in the winemaking business, and even that light footprint in the limestone soil will be a hard one to fill.

DRC’s Best Wines

This is a golden age for Burgundy, and the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays being crafted at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are universally regarded as the region’s benchmark wines. DRC currently produces seven wines—six reds and one white, all grands crus. They’re made in very limited quantities and can range in price from several hundred dollars per bottle to several thousand. Romanée-Conti and La Tâche are the most famous, and among oenophiles with a passion for Burgundy and enough disposable income to form an opinion, debating the relative merits of these two grands crus is a favorite drinking game. La Tâche ($960–$1,040 for the 2007) is all about silken elegance and is also the most seductively perfumed wine I’ve ever encountered. The Romanée-Conti ($2,875–$3,430) is slightly more masculine and brooding—slower to reach its apogee, but once it does, there’s a transcendent depth, balance and persistence. Le Montrachet ($2,000–$2,175), DRC’s lone white wine, is a rich but astonishingly refined and detailed Chardonnay, the most sought-after white wine in the world, and it’s easy to understand why. To find more DRC wine retailers, go to wilsondaniels.com.

Another Side of Burgundy

Though more modest in pedigree and price, the wines of Domaine A. et P. de Villaine in Bouzeron are terrific in their own right—and widely available in this country. The Bouzeron ($25), made entirely from the Aligoté grape, is a source of particular pride for de Villaine. A crisp, refreshing white bursting with citrus and mineral influences, it also offers excellent value relative to the quality. The Bourgogne La Digoine ($40) is an earthy, supple Pinot Noir that can be enjoyed immediately upon purchase or cellared for a few years.