Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

TASTING THE 2006s OF DOMAINE DE LA ROMANEE CONTI

Avatar   February 2009

 

To Corney & Barrow, hard by the Tower of London, to taste the 2006 wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. l’d tasted the wines earlier, in May 2007*, when still in barrel, and it would be fascinating to see them again now that they were in bottle. I might also have a chance to have a chat with the joint owner, Aubert de Villaine, who I’ve known for well over 20 years.

 

M. de Villaine had already commented on the vintage: “This was not the brinkmanship of the 2004 vintage which we compared to the Emperor Napoleon’s great victory at the battle of Marengo, ‘I lost the battle at five o’clock and I won it back again at seven…’ No, this was more a rollercoaster of wildly fluctuating conditions – some brilliant, others a little crazy – that, in some peculiar way, contributed to those subtly complex hallmarks of the vintage.”

 

What in the end made the vintage were four weeks of “magnificent” weather that set in during September. August, by contrast, had been the wettest and coolest since 1986, and this could easily have resulted in a catastrophic year. In the end, however, the reserves of water thus accumulated provided sustenance to the vines and served to accelerate the ripening process. Nothing was left to chance though: as botrytis began to take hold in August the vineyard team “paintakingly excised” any rotting clusters and also thinned the vines as the grapes changed colour from green to black.

 

The grapes were harvested between the 20th and 27th of September, with meticulous sorting of the fruit both in the vineyards and at the winery. Yields averaged 28 hectolitres per hectare, and the fully ripe grapes dosed 12.5-13° alcohol. The vinification started spontaneously, without complications, and vatting lasted a normal 18 days or so. Aubert de Villaine comments: “We had ripeness levels that were as high as those we obtained in 2005… I believe the wines will be wonderful examples of Burgundy with supreme finesse and elegance, providing generous aromas and silky textures.

 

 

2006 VOSNE ROMANEE 1 ER CRU CUVEE DUVAULT-BLOCHET ***

(made from the young vines of all the DRC Grand Cru wines)

The round, strikingly smooth aroma is of red and purple cherries, red rose, orange peel, and (very subtle) oaky spice, with a phantom hint of liquorice. The flavour is buoyant and strikingly pure (I think of a Charmes Chambertin from Rousseau), with lots of finesse. There’s a faint suggestion of clove on the long, subtle aftertaste. Leave untouched for 5-6 years – longer if possible – and enjoy over the subsequent 10-12.

 

 

2006 ECHEZEAUX ***(*)

The nose is both more closed and more structured, with that typically Echezeaux sinew, veering more towards black fruits, especially damson but blackberry and liquorice too. The oak imparts the faintest touch of ginger. The flavour is dry, close-meshed, and harmonious, and shifts towards ripe plum. The aftertaste is gently mineral, dry without the faintest touch of astringency, with a super-subtle oakiness on the prolonged farewell. Keep for a decade and drink over the following one.

 

 

2006 GRANDS ECHEZEAUX ****

The oak is scarcely discernable even at this early stage on the lovely, gently lush aroma of raspberry, pink rose petals, and violets. There’s an explosion of luscious Pinot Noir fruit on the palate, where raspberry, cherry, and cinnamon present themselves in succession. The exceptionally pure, persistent aftertaste is at once sensuous and disciplined, with a perfumed quality, and has the clarity and integrity of a great philosopher’s thoughts. Wait 12-14 years before enjoying this over the following decade or so.

 

 

2006 RICHEBOURG ****

This has a fuller, more overtly oaky, aroma, more in the direction of black fruits – damson, blackberry, blackcurrant. A touch of peony too. The flavour is so refined and subtle it would be easy to miss the underlying power and concentration. Though no blockbuster, it has plenty of flesh, none of it extraneous. There’s a steely quality to the protracted aftertaste, which is marked by the kind of incisive, but not raw, acidity found in ripe plums. There’s a delicate sweep to this feminine wine which, while closed up, has great length. It will give great sensuous pleasure in 10-12 years’ time; and both sensuous and cerebral delight in the decade or so that follows.

 

 

romanee-st-vivant22006 ROMANEE SAINT VIVANT ****(*)

With a more solid, masculine aroma of Victoria plum, cranberry, and raspberry, this seems still fuller and rounder, with a nucleus of even richer fruit. A second swirl of the glass brings out a gush of strawberry compôte. There’s a reprise of ripe plum on the palate, with a hint of fig, and the long aftertaste, notably mineral, is gently sinewy and the weightiest so far. A lot of contained power. Drink 2021-35.

 

 

 

2006 LA TACHE *****

la-tache2The nose is fuller, more expressive, and richer, suggesting ripe plum, pomegranate, and oriental spices including saffron. There’s something grainy and mineral too, and the promise of silky intensity. A second sniff coaxes forth a lovely Pinot Noir warmth and succulence, a restrained opulence. The flavour, despite its extreme youth, is glorious, with a quiveringly intense quality that almost makes you want to pat the glass, as you would a trembling thoroughbred racehorse. The perfect acidity, like that of a blood-orange, gives added cut to an aftertaste of oriental spices, orange, and minerals. Great! To enjoy over the next 35 years +.

 

  

2006 ROMANEE-CONTI *****

romanee-contiThe round, refined, infinitely subtle aroma conjures up red rose, carnation, raspberry, blackcurrant, and cinnamon. It’s a lovely, expressive aroma; Romanée-Conti at its most feminine. The sub-aromas intertwine in the most fascinating way. In the mouth, a succession of flavours: cherry and cherry-stone, ripe plum, a variety of red fruits, cinnamon, and minerals. The vibrant, lingering finish is unforgettable.

 

In a sense, this great wine (like Beethoven’s music, Rembrandt’s paintings, or Wren’s architecture) belongs to all humanity, representing one of the pinnacles of human achievement; but unlike music, painting and architecture, it cannot be enjoyed (or in this case, consumed) by all those who long to do so. We can at least hope, though, that those privileged enough to own such bottles will take a point of honour to share them with poorer wine-lovers in the decades to come.

 

I did have my chat with Aubert de Villaine after the tasting and asked him about recent reports that the DRC had acquired several choice plots in Corton, the Côte de Beaune’s one and only Grand Cru red (all the other 23 Grand Cru reds are on the Côte de Nuits). He confirmed that this was the case.

 

Corton is, in fact, the biggest of all Grand Cru reds with some 160 hectares of vines. Several proprietors – notably Bonneau du Martray, Tollot-Beaut, Pousse d’Or, and Domaine d’Auvenay – make excellent Corton, though seldom attracting the same attention, or commanding the same high prices, as Richebourg, Bonnes Mares, Clos de Bèze, etc. The DRC’s investment in Corton will send a signal to Burgundy lovers all over the world that the region’s most prestigious domaine considers Corton to be one of the region’s very greatest wines. It is sure to galvanize all existing growers with plots in Corton, making each and every one of them aware as never before of Corton’s innate greatness. As M. de Villaine himself points out, “Corton, in the old days, was looked upon as the equal of Chambertin.”

 

Great judges of the past are agreed on this. Dr Lavalle, a revered Burgundy authority, wrote: “The wines of Corton in a good year are perfect; worthy of offering to the most discriminating gourmets, to be served on the most august occasions.” Morton Shand, a pioneer English wine writer, observed in 1924 that “Corton is held to be the most brilliant in colour of all burgundies. It is rather harsh and rough when young, but in seven or eight years’ time it develops into a matchless suavity of flavour and a wealth of bouquet which has been described as redolent of the perfume of violets.” This accords well with my own memories of Cortons from the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Corton gets its name from that of a long-ago owner, the obscure Roman Emperor Orthon: the curtis (estate) d’Orthon. Only about one-quarter of Corton is called Corton tout court. The rest is made up of a score or so of distinct plots – all Grand Cru – with the name of their own lieu-dit tacked on: Corton-Bressandes, Corton Clos du Roi, Corton Pougets, Corton Perrières, and so on. One such plot, part of which had been acquired by the DRC, is Corton Renardes (“Foxes”). According to Burgundy lore, this is supposed to be due to the wines having a “foxy”, or gamy smell. It is true that, when many years ago I was enjoying a series of 20- and 30-year-old Corton Renardes from Domaine Gaunoux, I always detected a meaty, faintly farmyardy quality in the wines. According to an article in the magazine “Fine Wine”, resistance fighters who were obliged to eat fox during World War Two, and who knew the wine, declared that there was a distinct affinity between the two!

 

I asked M. de Villaine if he thought the supposed characteristic was due to something in the soil or whether some growers, believing that foxiness was a central trait of the wine, consciously or unconsciously took measures to accentuate that tendency, e.g. by allowing the grapes to achieve overripeness. While by no means sure, he thought the latter the more likely explanation. As to whether the DRC would do separate bottlings of their different Corton plots, or would instead make an assemblage, he replied that he hadn’t the faintest idea at this stage.

 

In “The first Circle”, Solzhenitsyn writes about “the Rule of the Final Inch”. The work, he wrote, has almost been completed, the goal almost attained, everything seems completely right and the difficulties overcome. But the quality of the thing is not quite right… This is the point at which many give up, having achieved excellence but not greatness. “Finishing touches are still needed, maybe still more research. In that moment of fatigue and self-satisfaction it is especially tempting to leave the work without having attained the apex of quality.”

 

The Rule of the Final Inch is the rule already followed by the DRC. When applied to its plots in Corton it will establish beyond all doubt that Corton truly is one of the greatest of all burgundies.

 

* See my article

 

 

© Frank Ward 2009

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