Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

The Romanée Conti Expedition – I

June 2012. As we set off for Chablis – a lovely name don’t you think?  –  rain hammers down on the car and will continue to fall heavily for the whole of our 600 km journey, the final destination of which is Puligny-Montrachet south of Beaune – like Chablis, a famous wine village. Our spirits remain buoyant, despite the dreary weather, as we have much to look forward to: a number of visits to top wine domains and as many delicious meals as can be packed into four days. One of the high points of the trip will be a tasting at Domaine de La Romanée-Conti.

My companion is Mike, a friend since childhood in the industrial Midlands. As a young man, immediately after national service, he moved to London and got a lowly job with a multinational company. A bit of a rebel who relished arguments, he rose steadily through the hierarchy at work, finally achieving a very senior position indeed. He eschewed many of the luxuries his senior position entitled him to, always refusing to travel Business, Club, or First Class when making the innumerable international flights his work entailed.

He also showed an understanding of the thoughts and feelings of subordinates and more than once put a stop to bullying (in one case getting rid of an executive who’d brutally manipulated a shy and modest employee). For many years he devoted a great deal of his spare time to helping the Samaritans, which entailed countless hours receiving calls from often suicidal people as well as quite a few all-night watches in the same cause. He’s one of the most thoroughly human persons I’ve ever met, striking up conversations with – almost literally – every individual he meets, invariably leaving them livelier and more bright-eyed than before. And often chuckling as they go on their way.

We spend the first night in Chablis, a pretty-enough village surrounded by the chalk-streaked vineyards that have made the village’s name known all over the world. These noble hills, shaped like upturned soup bowls, give some of the world’s most incisive and complex white wines. No tasting visits have been arranged here, though: time is short and I’m counting on finding a bottle or  two of something delicious on the wine list of the place where we’re staying, Hostellerie des Clos in the centre  of the village.

Ensconced in the restaurant, we begin with an ‘09 Chablis Tête d’Or from the respected house of Billaud Salmon. A relatively simple wine, clean and well-made and probably from younger vines, it’s agreeable but in no way arresting. It works well as an aperitif though. Altogether more impressive is an ’02 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos ***/* from Vincent Dauvissat. Rich, full, and with a big aroma of grapefruit and honey, it has a long, discreetly earthy finish which shows a lot of minerality. Wholly dry and of great rectitude, it is good to drink now, at 10 years, but will improve immeasurably over the coming decade.

Now a red: an utterly delightful Corbières – ’06 Voult- Gasparets Romain Pauc ***/* (their top cuvée). Dark, velvety, and full of energy, it is beautifully balanced and sheer joy to drink. In fact it knocks into a cocked hat many clarets at a similar price level. Though it’s unfair to those who make them, such underestimated wines are a godsend for true winelovers, who as a result can still find reasonably priced wines of distinction on some restaurant wine lists.

The Hostellerie’s restaurant used to boast one Michelin star. It is a star that started to fade quite some years ago and has since vanished from the firmament. The place is still elegant, the service friendly and attentive, but the food is no great shakes. The appetisers and first course are unmemorable: limp asparagus with a peculiar sauce followed by scallops (which have clearly been deep frozen, or else soaked in water for a long time!) also with a peculiar sauce.  The main course, lamb cutlets, arouses feelings of active repulsion.  The meat is soggy and tasteless and gets pushed aside by us both. The waiter, a true professional, grasps the situation immediately and offers to replace the lamb with beef or fish. Without rancour we decline and go on to cheese and dessert instead.

The next morning sees more heavy rain and finds us in Gevrey-Chambertin, where my first visit (Mike wanders around the village taking photographs) is to Domaine Rousseau. The cellar is in a state of chaos, as it’s being rebuilt. To complicate matter still further, bottling is in progress, so the usual tasting is postponed for another time. Charles Rousseau receives me, as he has done for the last forty years. Close to ninety, he walks a little stiffly but is as full of life as ever. “The standard of wine making has gone up immensely, all over,” he says with a judicious nod, as if to include the entire world. “As to the 2010 vintage here, the quality is very high but the harvest very small…”.

“When you green-harvest, as we do, you never know what the ultimate result will be.  If the size of the harvest increases or decreases thereafter it can change the results quite a bit.  Regarding 2011, it’s a bigger harvest than 2010 but the quality is only average.” He smiles at a thought that comes to him. “The biggest compliments we get are precisely for those average years, ’04, ’00, and so on. We never hear anything about the great vintages!”

***

Some of the most memorable tastings are those you have, alone in the cellar, with the person who makes the wines. Of necessity, such a person works alone a lot of the time, a situation that brings out the reflective side of most people. And few if any good winemakers are unreflective types. Subterranean cellars are usually dimly lit and there’s virtually no sound from outside. From now on the loudest noises are those of corks being pulled, of wine being poured. Moments like this produce a rare intimacy, two minds focusing with total concentration on the often sublime, and always absorbing, liquids that are siphoned from cask or bottle into the waiting glasses. Such is the tasting I’m now about to have with François Millet, the man who makes the wines at Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé.

I’ve been visiting this property for some forty years and first met the late Comte around 1977. He was one of the most charming persons I’ve ever come across – totally open, welcoming, spontaneous, and with a keen sense of humour. He had an engaging, devil-may-care manner that made it easy to believe that he’d been active in the Resistance during World War Two. The quality of the winemaking in those days, however, was not always as good as it might have been, even if some vintages from that period did turn out well in the long term. After the Comte died there was a hiatus, during which things were run by a nephew of de Vogüé, Comte Geraud de Causans. He, however, soon became seriously ill and died while still a young man. To cut a long story short, the estate was then thoroughly reorganized under a new regime, and François was chosen to start making the Domaine’s wines in the not very auspicious 1986 vintage. Not surprisingly, quality wobbled a little in the beginning, not least because the first couple of vintages were mediocre; but after only a few harvests François found his feet and the wines were once again among the region’s very greatest.

Tasting young wine is always a challenge, especially red burgundy, because of its delicacy and extreme subtlety. And it’s even more difficult when the wines have not yet finished their malolactic fermentation. This process, which converts the wine’s powerful malic acid into the considerably milder lactic acid, makes the wine fuller-bodied, rounder, and more harmonious – and, of course,  quite a bit easier to assess.

What immediately strikes me about the Domaine’s 2011s is their deep and lustrous colour and intensity of fruit. The vintage is the 26th vinified by François. “It was a crazy vintage,” he declares. “Spring was summer and summer was autumn. As to the wines, they’re in total harmony with the terroir.”  The 2011 Les Amoureuses, it seems, had a runaway malo which he arrested for a while by dropping the temperature to 10 degrees.

The 2011 Chambolle Village, very much pre-malo, has a lovely colour and smells full of fruit. It shows lots of vitality, and should develop extremely well. Next, the ’11 Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses (****), a super Premier Cru that commands Grand Cru prices because of its unsurpassed finesse and inimitable style.

The sample glows in the darkness and is richly aromatic, with a flavour of great intensity. Allowing for the high residual level of malic acid – to be transmuted into lactic acid well before the wine goes into bottle – this seems sure to achieve excellent balance in time. On to the Bonnes Mares (****), a Grand Cru, which immediately displays more volume and power if less delicacy. The Musigny (*****), invariably the Domaine’s greatest wine, has an even more lustrous colour as well as great presence: you know from its intensity of colour and the distinction of both nose and flavour that it will become great in time. The fact remains, though, that tasting great wines at this early stage is like getting a quick glimpse of a sculpture at the very earliest stages, when it’s still at the rough-hewn phase. So much has to be deduced, not to say intuited,  from  unresolved  factors  that you simply have to give  every scrap of your attention  to  this  as  yet  inchoate  liquid: not even the most elusive clue should be allowed to  escape your attention.

It’s therefore an especial pleasure now to taste the white Musigny 2011 (***/*), as it has already undergone the “malo” and started to take on its definitive form. The fascinating aroma, full of finesse and a special kind of minerality, promises real excellence in the years to come. “White Musigny has the same structure as the red,” says François with the kind of certainty possible only to one in close daily touch with the wines.

This rare white wine, by the way, will be sold simply as Bourgogne Blanc. There’s a cogent reason for this.  When the new regime took over  they  found that the Chardonnay  vines  from which it’s made  were  totally  degenerated and needed to be uprooted.  To this day the replanted plots are still too young to give the necessary concentration and complexity to merit the invocation of the name Musigny, hence the declassification. That’s not to say that the wine is not very good indeed. Only that it’s not yet as great as a Grand Cru should be.  It does, though, cost quite as much as many other white Grands Crus that have not been declassified!

After a delightful l lunch at the nearby Le Millésime restaurant – three courses for less than 20 Euros – we drop in unannounced on Domaine des Lambrays, source of one of Morey Saint Denis’s five Grand Cru reds. The estate runs to 10 hectares – very big for a Burgundy monopole – but any part of production that’s deemed to be less than wholly satisfactory is sold off as Morey Saint Denis Premier Cru, at an appreciably lower price.

The 2010 (****+) – to be bottled tomorrow – is of crystalline appearance and has a soft, extremely refined scent of wild strawberry, strawberry, and fine clay. The texture is velvety. Tout en finesse, as the French say. The ’09 (****+) is just a little darker, its nose rich and concentrated, conjuring up strawberry compote, red cherry, and raspberry.  It’s very closed up on the palate but will clearly evolve in a very good way over the decades to come. The ’08 (****+) also shows well, with an intense purple “robe”, a very vital aroma with a faintly salty aspect, and an assertive, balanced flavour and aftertaste of considerable length.

Dinner at Chez Guy in Gevrey-Chambertin.  With the classic Burgundy starter jambon persillé, an ’07 Pouilly Fuissé Hors Classe from the great J.-A. Ferret estate. Sadly, the bottle is not in good condition:  volatile acidity undermines the wine’s obvious depth and fine structure. At some stage this precious bottle has received brutal treatment.  As main course, ox cheeks stewed in red wine. At its best this is a wonderful dish. The finest examples I ever enjoyed were (1) on my first visit to Chez Guy some years back; and (2) chez M & Mme Abeille of the Mont-Redon estate in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Both showed that, when properly cooked, this simple and inexpensive cut takes on an extraordinary sapidity, with a texture like velvet. It is one of the great dishes of French cuisine bourgeoise.

Chez Guy seems to have grown a little lax since that first visit and the meat is just a shade leathery, while the sauce has not been thoroughly degreased and as a result is a bit cloying.  Luckily, a wine I spot on the list, and guess to be a perfect partner to such a dish, proves to be precisely that:  a 2000 Madiran *** from Château Montus. Dark and assertive, with great sweep, it almost smells like the very ox cheek we’re eating, with bay leaf spiciness and a prolonged, powerful aftertaste bolstered by grainy tannins. Not even the most concentrated of red Burgundies could have filled the bill half as well. No criticism of Burgundy: each and every good wine has its own unique functions to perform, and Burgundy performs best with refined dishes.

***

Tasted on a second visit to the very good Le Millésime restaurant in Chambolle-Musigny:

2007 Vosne Romanée (Meo Camuzet) ***

Brilliantly-coloured, this has a delightful, very pure Pinot Noir scent, with typical Vosne silkiness, of red and purple fruit and berries. The flavour is poised and of medium length. A charming wine and a joy to drink in its youth; but not a great deal better than, say, a Chorey from Tollot-Beaut.

***

Now at last Domaine de la Romanée Conti.

In error, we go first to the old premises up a tiny, sloping side street behind the village church. This was where I’d first reported for a DRC tasting some 35 years ago and on several subsequent occasions. A disembodied voice from the entry phone advises us to proceed to the new (in fact, extremely old) premises beside Vosne’s modest square, a structure once occupied by the monks of Saint Vivant. There we meet up with three American oenophiles, clearly as besotted with fine wine as I am – and that’s saying something.  Like many true aficionados they’re soft-spoken, observant, and very open. We’re received by M. Noblet, whose father Alfred was cellarmaster and wine-maker before him. Before elaborating on the visit, let me quote my impressions of the father, written by me in a Swedish magazine in 1983, almost 30 years ago:

“…a ruddy-faced giant of a man, bursting with life, with bright, alert eyes and a quick smile. He loves to compare wines with women. “They’re just like each other: sensuous, scented, generous, with wonderful body. Take this ’63 Richebourg we’re tasting now, for example. Excellent, though not at all from a good vintage.  Just like a woman who’s not all that pretty but who has lots of savoir faire in bed!… A woman, like wine, should have a well-balanced form, be well-rounded and soft, and yet have an underlying strength. Life has so much to offer: gastronomy, music, l’amour. I love all good things. We have paradise on earth! All we really need to do is appreciate, and make full use of, all of life’s gifts!” So saying, he would uncork yet another dust-covered bottle. Here’s one tasting note that survives from then:

1971 ROMANEE-CONTI: “strikingly intense colour, deep and glowing, and a concentrated, noticeably spicy nose, very perfumed. In the mouth, gloriously full, round, and beautifully balanced. Very complex. A perfect wine. To drink from the year 2000.”

I’d make a guess that the wine is still superb today.

But back to the future (but in fact the present):  an overcast day in 2012.

Monsieur Noblet junior is just as big and powerfully-built as his father but not as extrovert.  All the same he opens up after a while, just like a good wine, and is clearly stimulated by the percipient comments of his professional visitors (Mike, loving good wine but not himself a specialist, merely tastes and enjoys).

Frank Ward with M. Noblet, cellar-master and wine maker at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

We’re now in the Domaine’s dark, subterranean cellars, moving from cask to cask, tasting the wines in sequence.  It’s the 2011 vintage and – just as at the de Vogüé estate – some wines have still not completed their malolactic fermentation.  “There are two ways of handling a vintage like 2011,” says M. Noblet, “when conditions are not ideal.  Either pick early, the moment the grapes are physically ripe, or risk waiting longer, in the hope that the grapes will reach full phenolic ripeness, at which point the tannins have shed all harshness.  We chose the latter course.”

What strikes me about all of the wines is their superb colour. In Bordeaux it’s easy to obtain rich pigment, as all the grape varieties there produce deep black-purple juice. But Burgundy’s delicate Pinot Noir grape generally produces a paler juice – a juice that may be lustrous but is seldom extremely dark.  But the DRC’s ‘11s are just about as dark as Burgundy can get. A very promising sign in a vintage that appears to be looked upon as merely average.

The first wine is designated a Vosne Romanée Premier Cru but is in fact a blend made from younger vines from the Domaine’s array of Grands Crus. It smells like a meld of damson, sloe, and liquorice and tastes like that too, with a bit of bilberry showing on the long finish. This will last well.

2011 Echézeaux (***/*) is, of course, quite different, with a much darker colour, a superb aroma of black cherry and blackcurrant, and a sustained spicy finish with hints of smoke and cigarbox. A taut wine, still gritty on the finish, that will improve for several decades.

2011 Grands Echézeaux (****) – its “malo” still not finished – has a similar colour and its aroma is richer and more concentrated, showing that special sweetness of wholly ripe grapes. It smells and tastes of plum, damson, and black cherry, with many layers of flavour and lots of substance. It will be still more impressive – fuller and better balanced – when the malo is over and done with.

2011 Corton (****) – only the second vintage of the DRC’s one and only Grand Cru RED from the Côte de Beaune – has a wonderfully deep “robe” and a noble, homogeneous nose showing all the classic Corton traits: forcefulness, body, power, and depth.  It also displays that special restraint found in all really good wines made in a wholly natural way. Black cherry, liquorice, and cinnamon intermingle on the palate and the intense aftertaste has a rippling quality.  A great Corton made from three separate plots, each of which gives wines with its own unique  personality, but which meld together superbly in this  unique blend (a kind of vinous “three tenors” effect).

2011 Romanée Saint Vivant (****), not quite as dark, has a round, indeed voluptuous nose of black cherry, fig, and blackberry jam. The oak cask imparts a subtle touch of spice to a long, succulent flavour   that wells out to incorporate a subtle hint of ginger. The aftertaste is long and complex.

2011 Richebourg (****) has an expansive nose, subtly different, that conjures up lushly ripe black cherry, truffle, and damson. On the palate, it swells out to include blackcurrant and other autumn berries, and the finish is complex and full of nuances. A second sniff is rewarded with a delicate supplementary scent like that of freshly sharpened pencil.  A 30-year wine at the very least.

2011 La Tache (****/*), not quite as dark as some, has big, round nose, all of a piece, of cherry and raspberry and its mouth-filling, luscious flavour is packed with dense Pinot Noir fruit. The texture is velvety and I find truffle on the sustained finish, which is that of a complete wine.

2011 Romanée-Conti (*****) has the lightest colour of all – if very intense – and the aroma of unmistakeable nobility is broad and noticeably ferruginous. It smells of cherry, violet, and bilberry and the flavour, if more reserved than the rest, shows extraordinary subtlety and delicacy. A wine of great tensile strength that will live for decades.

“La Tache is always an extravert wine,” says M. Noblet. “While Romanée-Conti is always more reserved and discrete – like a beautiful woman of great culture.”

We’ve now tasted the last 2011 – but not the last wine. We now go on to  a trio of bottle  samples, all  served blind. If you are accorded the privilege of tasting wines at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, you are in return required to show your mettle as a taster!

RED No.1

The evolved colour suggests a wine that’s about 20 years old. The nose is full, earthy, and ferruginous, with a chocolaty element.  As well as getting a distinct smell and taste of iron, among the highly vinous elements, I can also pick out something clayey; and if the flavour shows a lot of power it also has a delectable freshness. Long and voluminous on the palate, with a hint of leather, it has a deeply satisfying aftertaste with a lovely raspberry freshness. (One of our American friends, who imports DRC wines, correctly identifies this as 1999 La Tache ****).

RED No. 2

The colour is more evolved – browner – and the nose more developed, suggesting carnation, coffee, strawberry compote, and arctic cloudberry. There are also hints of rose petals, orange peel, and camphor. I’m struck by the wine’s volume and power and think at first (remember, it’s a blind tasting) of Echézeaux. Then it strikes me this has to be La Tache too, because of its great volume and assertiveness, and because of its distinctive personality. M. Noblet confirms my guess that it’s La Tache.  After a couple of hesitations I aver that it’s about 20 years old but that it  isn’t a ’90 – a more voluptuous year – and finally plump for 1991, an underestimated  vintage that in fact gave many great bottles. (1991 La Tache ****/*).

UNKNOWN WHITE

Evolved, nuanced 20-year yellow-gold colour. Rich, luscious aroma of orange blossom, apricot, and honey. Full bodied yet streamlined, no extraneous flesh.  Very mineral, with a lovely texture and a honeyed aftertaste with deep-terroir profundity. Perfect degree of body and lovely balance, with both power and subtlety. Excellent acidity. Great white burgundy. Because of its great authority and perfection of form, I guess that it’s a Montrachet but in fact it is 1999 Bâtard-Montrachet ****/*.

 

© Frank Ward 2012

>> Continued : The Romanée Conti expedition – Part II

Related articles :

Tasting the 2006s of Domaine de la Romanée Conti

Burgundy Excursion

One Response to “The Romanée Conti Expedition – I”

  1. […] The Romanée Conti Expedition – Part I […]

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