Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Tasting 13 Mature Wines from Domaine de la Romanée Conti

May 2014. In vinous terms, the commune of Vosne-Romanée has often been described as the jewel in Burgundy’s crown. In particular, the wines from Domaine de la Romanée Conti (DRC), based in that commune, are possibly the most sought-after reds in the entire world. They are also astronomically expensive. This means that scarcely anybody who is not extremely wealthy ever gets a chance to taste them. Or even to sniff the cork.

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And that’s just the young vintages.

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Even the lighter DRC wines take an age to reach true maturity. And by the time they’re fully mature the price has reached even more dizzying heights. At that stage, with the wines in full glory, you’re most likely to get a chance to taste them if you’re a head of state (who might not care much for wine), a Russian oligarch who secretly prefers vodka, or the superrich manager of a famous football club. If by chance you’re a serious taster for whom great Burgundy is the Holy Grail you’re far less likely to get lucky.

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When I received an invitation from Christie’s to attend a tasting, with four-course dinner, of fully 13 Grand Cru wines from DRC, supplied from “an impeccable source”, I was in two minds as to whether I should to reserve two places, given the daunting cost (I’m too embarrassed to tell you how much). Over several decades I’d visited the Domaine on several occasions, tasted various new vintages, and even sampled a few well-matured bottles (for which my thanks to owner Aubert de Villaine), but had never had a really comprehensive tasting covering several mature vintages of most of the Domaine’s fabulous Great Growths.

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Could I justify the enormous cost to myself – and my accountant? Here is my thinking on the matter.

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Were I to purchase one bottle each of these wines, I would have to pay a sum at least sixteen times higher than that now asked by Christie’s for all 13. In fact, their price was less than the cost of one single bottle of a top DRC wine. And the likelihood of a similar tasting being organized in the near future seemed very remote.

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True, there was one regrettable (if understandable) absence from the list of wines to be tasted – Romanée-Conti itself, generally the most complete DRC wine of all. But a glance at its market price – artificially high to deter cherry-picking (many buyers would buy only Romanée-Conti, ignoring the other splendid wines) – makes you grasp why this was so.

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One could only hope and pray that, on the day, each and every bottle would be in perfect condition… But the overall composition of the tasting, despite the absentee Romanée-Conti, looked immensely impressive, both as to range of growths and vintages:

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Two vintages of Montrachet, arguably the greatest dry wine on earth; then four different Grand Cru reds from the excellent 1993 vintage, followed by three top years of Richebourg and four of La Tache – after Romanée-Conti itself, habitually the Domaine’s greatest red. The very last red of the evening was to be the La Tache from 1959, one of the all-time great Burgundy vintages.

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It was the inclusion of this last wine, by common consent one of the absolute pinnacles of Burgundian excellence, that finally made my mind up for me. Assured that the entire range of bottles was from an “impeccable source”, and given that all the wines were from top years with an unusual degree of maturity, every one of them should be sensational. And la pièce de résistance, the ’59 La Tache, would surely be one of the greatest wines I would ever have the chance totaste, to be measured against fabulous Chambertins from 1928 and 1969; ’76 Clos de Bèze tasted with Charles Rousseau, the genius who made it; 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle; 1870 Rauzan Ségla; 1917 and 1964 Pétrus; the ’26, ’28, ’45, ’49, ’59, and ’61 First Growths of the Médoc; ’49 Cheval Blanc (rather than the ’47), and quite a few other wonderful bottles.

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DRC wines are made for the long haul, not least the richly concentrated, splendidly proportioned La Tache. At 55 years, the ’59 ought to be on top form and at its very peak. So I went ahead and placed my booking.

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And how was the event? We shall see below – with photographic evidence!

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When we arrived at the venue – Christie’s panelled Board Room – we were greeted with warmth and civilty, and given a glass of Krug champagne. We presently entered the dining room, which was dark but lit with many candles, giving a cosy impression. The various bottles were lined up on a long table. To my surprise, several of them had very low levels, some well below shoulder. it transpired that there was only one bottle of several of the wines, to be shared between the 18 people present. Allowing for ullage and the loss of a small amount for pre-tasting samples, this would leave a mere 3-4 centilitres per participant of the one-bottle wines. To be fair, there were two bottles of some of the wines, so some topping up did occur in those few cases.

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Great domaine, fabled vineyard names, top vintages, but “some alarmingly low levels”.

One of the two hosts, Anthony Hanson M.W., is a respected expert on the wines of Burgundy and author of the invaluable “Burgundy”, a 700-odd page treatise on the region’s wines, producers, vintages, and terroirs. An indispensable guide for any lover of Burgundy. Throughout the evening he provided valuable insights into the DRC itself, the vintages we were now tasting, the characteristics of individual vineyard plots, and the nature and aims of the owners of DRC.

 

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In this latter regard, he announced that the man in overall charge at the Domaine, Aubert de Villaine, (who I’ve known on and off for some 40 years) had been invited to attend, but had declined, as he automatically refuses to be present at any tasting of DRC wines when he himself cannot wholly guarantee the wines’ provenance and condition.

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It was now clear that I was mistaken in imagining that the mention of an “impeccable source” meant that the DRC itself had supplied the wines directly. Other guests, I learned later, had drawn similar conclusions and some of us now had misgivings about the state of some the bottles now on display, some with such alarmingly low levels.

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Over 27 years I have shipped small quantities of top Burgundies from a handful of serious producers, partly to Octavian – probably the best-run bonded warehouse in the UK – and also to my own excellent cellars in Deal, Kent. When I go down to the cellar to look at a bottle of (say) 1976 Bonnes Mares from Domaine Dujac, a bottle that’s been lying there since 1988 after being stored at Octavian since 1978/9, or 1964 Léoville Las Cases (only 5 years younger than that La Tache) – I find that, as expected, the levels are virtually perfect. In fact, no wine much under 40, even 50 years’ old, should show much ullage at all if it has been stored in a dark, cool cellar. When the level of wines of that age is low, one can only suppose that the bottles have leaked or been exposed to unsuitably high temperatures.

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Tasting by candelight. Anthony Hanson M.W. (centre) noses a mature vintage of La Tache, one of the DRC’s two most sublime Grands Crus.

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To the action.

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One of the best wines of the evening – not least because it was in perfect condition – was also the youngest:

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2006 MONTRACHET *****

The radiant golden colour showed little evolution, while the fine, precise aroma was extremely subtle and elegant, with typical Montrachet power and authority. On the nose, a composite of white truffle, ripe wheat, and apricot. It had a certain affinity, with its fine acid structure and concentrated low-yield Chardonnay fruit, with a Grand Cru Chablis, though with more volume. There was also a feeling of white clay. The masterful aftertaste was long, homogeneous, and beautifully balanced. Hints of physalis showed on the mid-palate, while the aftertaste was extremely long and gently forceful.

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The DRC’s plot in Montrachet is wholly inside Chassagne Montrachet (this most complete of Grand Cru whites straddles both Chassagne and Puligny and some producers have parcels in both communes). It was fascinating to register that, over and above the unique Montrachet style, the quintessential terroir character of Chassagne showed in the refined earthiness (clayey-ness in fact!) on the sustained finish. It should improve or at least two decades. A great Montrachet.

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DRC only produces some 250 cases of this majestic wine in an average year.

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Now to four 1993s (a very good vintage on the Côte de Nuits).

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At this stage I have to point out that it was difficult to analyse the colours of the red wines in the rather dark, candlelit room (candlelight is excellent for romantic dinners but not so good for objective tasting.) As the great oenologist Emile Peynaud points out in his seminal work “Knowing & Making Wine”, sight is as crucial in judging wine as the other senses. “The colour intensity of a red wine is an indication of its ‘body’ and its volume; the hue of its age”. He adds that tasting with reduced visibility “increases the difficulty” of the exercise. For this reason, my remarks about colour are necessarily incomplete, and more to do with depth of pigment rather than hue – those subtle nuances of colour that reveal so much about a wine’s age, grape-mix, density, and overall constitution.

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1993 ECHEZEAUX *** (*)

The medium-deep colour has a similar intensity to, say, a Charmes Chambertin from Rousseau, while the soaring, magical aroma gives off a tracery of delicate scents, inclusive of strawberry compote and raspberry. There’s also a touch of blackcurrant and violet. These elements are repeated on the palate, which is however much less open, and there’s a distinct rasp of tannin, suggesting that the wine will gain from further ageing. It might even be slightly ascerbic.

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1993 GRANDS ECHEZEAUX *****

Somewhat darker, this has an altogether fuller, weightier bouquet, richer and more complex, conjuring up super-ripe cherry, cherry-stone, and – as the wine opens up – plum and orange peel. The long aftertaste has good freshness, due to the perfect acidity of wholly ripe Pinot Noir grapes. This bottle, in excellent condition, continued to improve throughout the evening and is destined for long life. One of the high points of the evening.

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1993 ROMANÉE SAINT VIVANT

Even in the semi-darkness, it’s clear that this has a browner tinge, suggesting faster evolution. I didn’t much care for this wine, the aroma of which has a slightly decadent quality, not unlike meat past its sell-by date. I re-tasted it several times; and while the exceptional qualities of RSV’s great terroir conferred a certain distinction on aroma and flavour, that faintly unwholesome element persisted. Had I opened this bottle at home, I would not have expected my guests to drink it.

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1993 LA TACHE **** (*)

This has an altogether deeper, richer colour and the excellent nose conveys an impression of voluminousness and density, with hints of ripe plum, liquorice, and orange peel. There’s a meaty/truffly element too. The flavour, still young and full of vitality, is long and satisfying. Very harmonious, it’s by no means at full stretch at over 20 years and seems destined for greatness. Should improve for at least 15-18 years.

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1991 RICHEBOURG *** (*)

A lightish rose-red, this has a lovely flowery, expressive aroma of red cherry, cinnamon, red rose and carnation. This follows through to the palate but there’s still a slight rasp on the aftertaste, the tannins having an almost tealike edginess. Still young, this sinewy wine needs 5-6 years to reach a peak that should hold for another 8 or so at least. Smells better than it tastes at the present moment.

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1989 RICHEBOURG ****

Light but intense red-purple with vermilion highlights. The nose, if closed up, nonetheless emits some lovely delicate scents reminiscent of wild strawberry, raspberry, and other red fruits and berries. The flavour is intense, sinewy (read structured) and very focused, the finish fleshy and full of fruit, with intimations of plum, orange, and (faint) fig. Starting to mature but able to improve further.

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1971 RICHEBOURG (?)

Old Richebourgs never die, perhaps, but they do fade away. That’s the case here: it simply faded away. A pale amber colour, with a wash of pink, it smells like marc de Bourgogne without the alcohol (white leather and beeswax), dry Madeira, and marron glacé. Tasted blind, it could easily be taken for a delicate old Madeira. No longer recognizable as Pinot Noir.

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1985 LA TACHE ****

A glowing ruby-red, this had an extremely refined bouquet of nectarine, rose petals, and orange peel. Behind the overt delicacy lie real structure and sinew and the long, beautifully poised finish is very mineral. An extremely subtle La Tache, much more backward than other ’85 red Burgundies I’ve tasted recently (Clos des Ducs from Marquis d’Angerville, Corton-Bressandes from Tollot-Beaut, etc.)

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1978 LA TACHE *****

An intense ruby-red, this has a bouquet of exceptional purity and completeness. The scent– or rather scents, for they are legion – was truly inimitable, conjuring up wild strawberry, red cherry, and nectarine, when that latter fruit has started to grow honeyed. But that’s only part of the picture, the whole being so much more than the sum of its parts. Only the greatest red burgundies smell like this. Bouquet and flavour fuse seamlessly, and the aftertaste has a finesse to rival that of a great Musigny.

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(Another of those present, a serious and highly competent taster, told me that a bottle of this same wine he’d sampled a short while ago tasted just like this one, i.e. was in perfect condition.)

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1971 LA TACHE **** (*)

The colour is light but true, with an inner glow, while the fleshy, subtly meaty bouquet seems to have arrived at its apogee. It if has no more to give, what it does give is most impressive. The flavour, viscous and round, is full of noble Pinot Noir fruit, and while on the light side for a L.T. it shows considerable finesse. This would be lovely with white meat – Bresse chicken, roast veal, or veal sweetbreads – any or all with truffled sauce. Or why not a noble fish such as John Dory or turbot?

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(Richebourg might not last quite as long as la Tache, but the ’71 Richebourg (see above) should not have been so utterly dissimilar to this La Tache from the same year.)

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Four great vintages of the near-legendary La Tache. The label of the ’85 is “bien taché”, the levels of the ’78 and ’71 very low, but all three showed well on the night. The ’59 was severely ullaged and did not fulfill expectations.

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1959 LA TACHE (*)

What should have been the highpoint of the evening proved to be the biggest disappointment.

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The plum-red colour was good but the nose, despite fugitive suggestions of nobility, was not really clean, emitting a somewhat corrupt smell not unlike meat that’s a bit off. Something muddy too. The flavour, with typical La Tache volume and weight, suggested toffee, plum jam, and fig, but was tainted too. The earthy aftertaste had the length and volume of a great wine but not its complexity, purity, and finesse. 1959 was a really great vintage in Burgundy and a bottle of ’59 La Tache in perfect condition would surely have been nothing less than celestial.

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Frankly, I’d rather have drunk a really superb old-vine Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent from Beaujolais than this.

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1997 MONTRACHET ***

The yellowish colour showed some evolution while the bouquet was impressive, exhaling sweet walnut, toasted almonds, white truffle, and apricot. Like the ’06 it was big-bodied and assertive, with that typical Montrachet weight and authority. On the palate, though, it seemed a bit rustic, lacking finesse and complexity. It worked well with the cheeses but did not deliver the gustatory masterstroke that one might have expected at the end of a tasting of 13 Grand Cru wines – all from top vintages – from the fabled Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

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© Frank Ward 2014

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Photos : Jonathan Lee, Seoul.

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