Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Greatest Winery in the World

As ever, a morning tasting and simple lunch at the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is the most important, and most enjoyable, part of my annual trip to France, or, should I say, Burgundy. This year there was the extra anticipation of tasting the ‘09 wines from barrel, and the somewhat surprising newcomers to the Domaine, its vineyards in Corton.

Alas, I shall have to wait to taste the Cortons. They are in the second cellar – part of what was the winery of the monks of the Abbey St Vivant 900 years ago – above which a new office is being built for the Domaine, after 100 years in the simple, indeed spartan, office and reception area around the corner.

These works have temporarily blocked access to the second cellar, so I had to content myself with Aubert de Villaine’s answer to my question ‘Do they speak more of Corton or more of the Domaine?’ (A Dorothy Dix, I will admit). The response ‘Corton, absolutely – it is another world.’ Further questions led to the confirmation that the same vinification techniques were used, in ‘09 with a very high percentage of whole bunches.

Much has already been written about the ‘09 Burgundy vintage, along with the ‘05 the only two really successful vintages of the decade for pinot noir. It so happens that they are among the greatest vintages of the past 40 or more years, quality more than making up for the lack of quantity.

Moreover, ‘09 has made, or will make, everyone happy: the grape growers, the winemakers, the shareholders, and the consumers. Yields were good (for the low-yielding Domaine 28 to 33 hl/ha, around two tones per acre) and the growing conditions so perfect that there was little or no need to sort out defective bunches (rot, etc) in the vineyard or in the winery.

Aubert de Villaine says the vintage has elements of ‘59 (supple, succulent pinots that entranced drinkers from the word go, but had greater longevity than the ‘85s, that started on the same track) and ‘99 (in Aubert’s view, the greatest DRCs made in his time). And there is one thing that is immediately obvious as you being the tasting in the cellar: the ‘09s have the same deep colour of the freakish ‘99s.

The wines have a velvety richness and a profound depth of flavour that is almost shockingly seductive. Theoretically, you have to wait 20 or 30 years for the very different seduction of the perfume of DRC to take you in its embrace. This, certainly, is true of the Grands Echezeaux and Romanée St Vivant, and the more formidable, masculine even, Richebourg. They certainly speak of their terroir and overall provenance, but also of the vintage.

With the two jewels in the crown, La Tache and Romanée-Conti, the fulcrum swings a little, the grace and elegance of these two wines shining through. Here you have the best of all possible worlds.

Contrary to rumours that have swirled around Australia for the past few years, Aubert de Villaine has no intention of retiring any time soon. To his great relief, he has retired as Mayor of Bouzeron, a town so small the mayor sweeps the floor, puts out the cat, attends suicides (successful or not), and is on call 24 hours a day.

He is gradually inducting his 32 or 33-year-old nephew Bertrand de Villaine into the business as an assistant; at first it was for one day a week, now two. While he is genuinely interested in wine, Bertrand has built up a small chain of optometrists (his wife is an optometrist) that is still growing. So no one is in a hurry.

In the vineyard, one hectare of Romanée St Vivant is in the middle of a three-stage replanting programme. It is not that the vines are so old they have ceased to be productive, although there were planted by the prior owners, the Marey-Monge family, rather that the style of the wine is not true to the vineyard. Tasted from barrel (the last third is still to be replanted) it was easy enough to see the difference, but only the Domaine would not hesitate to remove it.

The customary tasting of blind bottled wines followed the barrel tasting. First up was a ‘99 Echezeaux (vintage disclosed), then another – something clicked without thought and I said ‘90, which it was. Discussion followed on the precocious character of DRC’s Echezeaux when it is young, when five to ten years old capable of upstaging its far more illustrious DRC stablemates, and we agreed the ‘90 was at its peak. Another foray into the museum cellar eventually led to another bottle. Disaster for all: Aubert inadvertantly showed the chalked E 64 on the side of the bottle. ‘Did we see it?’ to which there was only one answer, and the cork was already out. Moment of glory denied? Improbably. Embarrassment avoided? More likely. Anyway, the wine had been recorked in 1988, and was in fine fettle – all the slightly foresty/mushroomy nuances to the bouquet, and fraises du bois on the palate. A more than satisfactory lunch wine.

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