Sacred land in Burgundy

Friday, 4. August 2017 - 11:00

Aubert de Villaine does not look his age at all. Alert eyes, an almost light-footed step, his handshake is surprisingly firm given his slender, wiry figure. The now 77-year-old led the bid for the Climats de Bourgogne to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The successful conclusion of this bid represents a second lifetime achievement for the man who, for more than 40 years, has been in charge of the most famous domaine in the world: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy.

A wine treasure

The vineyard in Vosne-Romanée has been in the de Villaine family since the end of the 19th century; in 1942, they sold half of the shares to their friends, the Leroy family. Since then, these two families have jointly operated the ‘Société-Civile du Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’. One member from each family runs the business, currently Aubert de Villaine and Henri-Frédéric Roch. The company is overseen by a supervisory board, in which Henri de Villaine and Perrine Fenal also have equal representation. Perrine Fenal is the daughter of Lalou Bize-Leroy, who was joint manager with Aubert de Villaine between 1974 and 1991, before leaving to found her own vineyard, the now world-famous Domaine Leroy. Since 2008, de Villaine has been preparing his nephew, Bertrand de Villaine, to follow in his footsteps — Aubert and Pamela de Villaine have no children of their own. But they do have other vineyards — one in Côte Chalonnaise, along with the joint venture HdV (Hyde and de Villaine) in Napa Valley, California (Pamela is a member of the Hyde family).

The name Société-Civile du Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is written on the plain doorbell panel of the company’s headquarters in Vosne-Romanée, as if it were a tax consultancy or a doctor’s office. About three years ago, the domaine moved to the historic winery of the monks of Saint-Vivant. It was with them that the glorious history of the vineyard, at that time known as Cros des Cloux, began in 1131. Only later did it become Romanée-Conti. The offices are now located in this historic place, and the 2015 vintage is stored in the cellar in mainly new barrels. The wine store, shipping department and offices for the outdoor operations are located about 200 metres away. In a third building in Vosne-Romanée is the cellar housing presses and fermentation vats where the 2014 vintage is currently waiting in barrels to be bottled. “We only bottle the wines when the moon is both waning and descending, and in high-pressure weather conditions. This may be the case in January 2017, but it could also be April. There is no pressure,” explains Aubert de Villaine. There is certainly no sales pressure. Customers wait patiently for their allocation. However, being a sales partner of the most famous vineyard in the world also has its pitfalls. What at first appears to be like getting all six numbers on the lottery every year, proves to be highly complex during the daily business of distributing the wines on the market. Albert Kierdorf, owner of KierdorfWein and a specialist in high-quality Burgundy, took over sales and marketing for the German market at the beginning of last year. This is a diplomatic mission, because the guidelines are very strict to prevent speculation and ensure that 80% of the wine is sold to top restaurants and drunk there rather than being sold on abroad. To make matters worse, only very small volumes of the current 2012 and 2013 vintages are available. Anyone who orders a bottle in a restaurant and hopes to take the empty bottle home as a trophy will be disappointed. Sommeliers are instructed to destroy the empty bottles in order to prevent counterfeiting.

The de Villaines are resolutely leading the fight against fakes. All the bottles have an anti-counterfeiting seal, similar to euro banknotes. All the corks show the vintage, the name of the winery, and the initials of the vineyard. Since the 2012 vintage, a thin layer of beeswax on the cork has prevented direct contact with the metal capsule, thereby protecting against bacterial infections. A similar process is also used for the barriques, whereby the staves around the bunghole are also coated with beeswax. This helps to keep the area around the barrel opening hygienically clean. Absolutely everything is done to ensure the quality—in the cellar, and of course, especially in the vineyard.

The moon connection

In 1988, de Villaine, motivated by his friend Nicolas Joly, started his first trials using biodynamic methods, having already cultivated the vineyards using organic methods since 1985. By 2006, 7 ha were part of a long-term trial, and by 2007, the domaine officially switched to biodynamics. Today, the vineyard soils look healthy and fertile: the earth is loose, with a harmonious mixture of light limestone and red-brown clay soil.

In general, there is a great deal of experimentation. This includes the planting density, which is usually 11,000 vines per hectare at Romanée-Conti. The vine spacing is 1 metre by 90 centimetres. Two small parcels in the Crus Romanée-Conti and Grands-Échezeaux were planted with a higher density of 14,000 vines per hectare, but de Villaine was not satisfied with the result. “It has been shown that a true balance cannot be achieved in the vineyard at this density. Vine training becomes very complicated.” When parcels have to be replanted, this is done only using their own vine material. But such new plantings are delayed as long as possible. “Of course, old vines are important to us. That is why, in 40-, 50- or 60-year-old vineyards, we prefer to replace individual vines before we actually tear out and replant an entire parcel,” explains de Villaine. “Biodynamics helps us, because it acts like cell therapy for the old vines.” Nicolas Jacob, who had already gained experience with biodynamics before his involvement with Romanée-Conti, has been responsible for managing the vineyards since 2007.

At Romanée-Conti, harvesting now takes place on average three weeks earlier than in the 1970s. “At that time, we started picking on 8 October. Now it is 15 September. But this is not only due to climate change. I would estimate that two weeks are due to climate change, and one week is due to the improved management of the vineyards,” he says. “This has caused a slight reduction in the yields, which also means that the grapes ripen earlier. Thanks to biodynamic management, however, we still have an ideal balance in the vineyards.” De Villaine also strives to achieve this balance in the wines. “Wine has the fantastic ability to catch up on the last percent of ripening in the bottle if the grapes have not yet reached 100% of their phenolic ripeness when harvested. We always try to harvest perfectly ripe grapes, but they are never overripe. Very slightly green components lift the tension and provide freshness.”

Vinification is carried out by cellar master Bernard Noblé, always in consultation with the family. Noblé is in a highly unusual position. His cellar receives grapes from 28 ha of vineyards spread over nine Grand Crus, whereby the ninth, Bâtard-Montrachet, is not even offered for sale. “We have only 13 ares, which produces around 400 bottles. Such a tiny amount would turn the wine into a purely speculative item. That makes no sense. We drink the bottles here at the domaine when we welcome guests.” And this is indeed the case: the 2000 Bâtard-Montrachet is a Chardonnay with an incredible lushness and maturity, with ripe aromas from white nougat to lime-blossom honey. The only white wine from Romanée-Conti that is sold on the market is Le Montrachet, from the most famous white wine vineyard in the world. However, the quantity is also extremely limited, as the wine is grown on ‘only’ 68 ares, meaning that only a few bottles are available on each market. It is therefore traded at similarly high prices to the red wine icon Romanée-Conti. Both wines cost several thousand dollars, whether they appear on a wine list or in a catalogue.

The terroir

The Romanée-Conti Grand Cru, the vineyard with the same name as the domaine, is a monopole (an area controlled by a single winery) measuring 1.81 ha. It is a place of pilgrimage for wine enthusiasts from all over the world who want to be photographed in front of the wall with the famous lettering. Today, many prefer to take a selfie with Romanée-Conti. The constant comings and goings are easy for the domaine to follow as the vineyard is within view. De Villaine has been asked a thousand times what the secret is of this at first glance seemingly unspectacular location at the foot of a hill. “Nothing special, just good drainage, an ideal soil thickness, not too much and not too little, underneath which is limestone with hairline cracks that allow the roots to penetrate into the rock. This was never more evident than in 2003, when all the vineyards suffered under the immense heat and the leaves were wilting. Except Romanée-Conti.”

The second monopole, La Tâche, is practically the company’s calling card. With more than 6 ha under sole ownership, it is the most widely distributed wine of the domaine. This provides the best opportunity to discover a reasonably affordable bottle at a restaurant or from a dealer.

The “most affordable” wine in the programme is Corton. This is the only wine that is not aged entirely in new barrels, and also the only red wine from the Côte de Beaune. De Villaine and his colleagues managed to lease the 2.3 ha of vineyards in 2008, the last time the domaine was expanded. In exceptional years, a Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Cuvée Duvault-Blochet is also bottled – the winery’s only wine that is not a Grand Cru.

If you are lucky enough to get hold of one of the domaine’s bottles, then comes the inevitable question: what is the ideal age of the wine to open the bottle? De Villaine considers and answers, “A safe time window for a Grand Cru from the Côte de Nuits is an age of about 15 years. Say 1997, for example, or 2000. They would now be at their best. But the wines can also be great fun when they are younger. They are open and full of power before they close for a few years.” A bottle of La Tâche 1997 provided liquid proof of this statement, with fine raspberry and blackcurrant fruit, undergrowth notes, liquorice and black tea, succulent, and with ripe but full tannins, good muscles, but no fat, unaged, but delicately matured. But whatever the age, a bottle from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is reminiscent of the closing scene of Sideways: there is no need to wait for a special occasion, because the wine is the special occasion.
Sascha Speicher

This article first appeared in Germany’s Sommelier magazine, published by Meininger Verlag. Sascha Speicher is editor-in-chief. W