Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2008
Aubert de Villaine was in New York the week before last and hosted a pre-release tasting of the 2008 vintage from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, or DRC as it is known. De Villaine, who is 71, makes an annual visit to New York to present DRC’s newest wines to sommeliers, retailers, auctioneers, and journalists. He also does a similar event in the Bay Area. It is admirable, and quite remarkable, that he and DRC’s U.S. importer, Wilson Daniels, continue to put on these tastings. DRC is Burgundy’s most acclaimed winery and hardly needs to do road shows: its six grand cru reds and one grand cru white are coveted like no other wines in the world. But de Villaine, whose grandfather, Edmond Gaudin de Villaine, formally established the estate in 1912, takes nothing for granted, which helps explain why DRC has reached such spectacular heights under his stewardship.
This year’s tasting took place at Del Posto, a restaurant in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. The tall, courtly de Villaine was in good spirits and seemed very enthusiastic about DRC’s 2008s. In some ways, it was a miracle vintage. A westerly wind on the weekend of Palm Sunday was a time-honored indication, de Villaine said, that a challenging growing season was in store, and the breeze didn’t lie. A prolonged flowering period produced lots of millerandage, or uneven fruit set, and a hot, humid summer led to problems with mildew and botrytis. Steady rains during the second week of September seemed to extinguish all hopes for the vintage. De Villaine recalled that it poured unrelentingly on Saturday September 13th, at which point he feared DRC might not even be able to make any wines. But the following day, a sustained northerly wind moved in, blew away the clouds, and dried and concentrated the grapes. The sugar levels increased by 1.5 brix each of the following two weeks, and the harvest began with an air of cautious optimism—and some very aggressive sorting—on September 28th.
De Villaine told us that he learned two big lessons from the 2008 vintage. The first is that pinot noir has “an extraordinary facility to ripen very fast at the end of the cycle.” If there is sufficient heat and light, as well as adequate humidity in the soil, the grapes can ripen in a hurry, which is exactly what happened in 08. He said the vintage also reaffirmed for him the importance of working organically or biodynamically (DRC is now fully biodynamic). He believes the vineyards were in synch with “the rhythms of nature” and that this yielded grapes that were better balanced than they would have been had they been farmed conventionally. DRC ended up with a crop half the normal size in 2008, but the grapes that were left had “a very good harmony,” as he put it.
In addition to its grands crus, DRC also turned out a premier cru in 2008, the Vosne-Romanée Cuvée Duvault-Blochet (named for Jacques-Marie Duvault-Blochet, an ancestor of de Villaine’s who in 1869 acquired the Romanée-Conti vineyard and thus set the foundation for the establishment of DRC). The Duvault-Blochet was first produced in 1934, but then didn’t appear again until de Villaine revived it in 1999. The wine is not made every year: According to de Villaine, they bottle this cuvée , which is drawn from younger vines and grapes that are harvested during a second pass through the vineyards, only when they feel that it can adequately “shows the characteristics of a vintage”; otherwise, it is sold off. He also talked about the newest addition to the DRC stable: in 2008, the domaine leased nearly six acres of vineyards in the grand cru Corton appellation. The vines are spread over three climats, but de Villaine decided to bottle it all as a single Corton in 2009, which will be the debut vintage for the wine.
De Villaine is currently spearheading an effort to have the vineyards of the Côte d’Or declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and towards the end of the Del Posto event, he spoke for several minutes about this initiative; he sees it as a way of recognizing the historical significance of these vineyards, and perhaps also a means of protecting them from future encroachment, à la the controversial bridge over Germany’s Mosel River. De Villaine, who has been at the helm of DRC since 1974, is now grooming his 40-year-old nephew Bertrand de Villaine to succeed him. But he told me after the tasting that he is still a few years away from retiring. He said that he remains as motivated as ever, in part because his vineyards and vines continue to teach him things, as was the case in 2008. “I find that I’m still learning, still discovering, and this makes me want to keep going,” he said.
So how are DRC’s 08s? I think they are very good, and are especially impressive in light of the difficult growing conditions. But 2008 was not a great year for red Burgundies, and the DRC reds do reflect the limitations of the vintage. Although the wines have plenty of structure, the fruit lacks the brightness and fleshiness that you find in outstanding years. Not surprisingly, the Romanée-Conti and the La Tâche are a notch above the other reds; terroir matters, and these are the two finest pinot noir vineyards on the planet. But the Richebourg is also excellent. It typically vies with the Romanée-St-Vivant for best-of-the-rest honors, and I think it is the red to buy in 2008 if you can’t get your hands on the La Tâche or the Romanée-Conti . For my taste, however, the strongest wine in DRC’s 08 lineup is the lone white, the Montrachet (which actually isn’t the only white wine that DRC makes: they also produce a tiny amount of Bâtard-Montrachet, another grand cru, but they choose not to sell it). De Villaine told us that chardonnay was not beset with as many problems in 2008 as pinot noir; in fact, chardonnay yields were more or less normal. The 08 Montrachet is sensational, and there seemed to be general agreement in the room that it was the star of the show. That was certainly my verdict. It is the second year in a row that the Montrachet has eclipsed the reds; it did so in 2007, as well.
I haven’t listed prices with my tasting notes. If you have to ask…DRC’s wines are very expensive, and as the Chinese discover that Burgundy, not Bordeaux, is where the really good stuff is (sorry, Bordeaux fans—hard to suppress my Burgophilia), we can expect them to become even more exorbitant. Amazingly, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that DRC even turned a profit; neither de Villaine’s grandfather nor his father, Henri, was ever able to work at the domaine full-time because there was no money to be made from it and they had families to support. Things have changed, to say the least, and not just at DRC: Burgundy is prospering these days as never before. What hasn’t changed, however, is the basic character of the place: It is still a farming community, in which man is considered a servant of the land, and I think de Villaine deserves a lot of credit for the fact that prosperity hasn’t altered the region’s fundamental outlook. He has always viewed himself as merely a custodian, entrusted with some unusually blessed vineyards, and because he and DRC are Burgundy’s standard-bearers, his humility has done much to shape the attitude of other vintners. As Allen Meadows puts it, “He is the moral conscience of Burgundy.”
My tasting notes:
2008 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru Cuvée Duvault-Blochet: A very pale color and a simple but attractive nose marked by beetroot, cherry, spice, and tobacco aromas. Medium-bodied, with red fruit notes, a slightly chewy texture and a clipped finish. Pleasant, but I don’t think it has the depth to be anything more. B
2008 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Échézeaux: Savory elements dominate the nose, which is also a touch raw. A chewy, almost grainy texture, and the tannins do stand out here. There’s some agreeably tart red fruit, along with excellent minerality and earthiness, but I suspect that the structure will always have the upper hand with this one. B+
2008 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grands Échézeaux: An attractive bouquet marked by aromas of rhubarb, flowers, and earth, along with a pleasantly complicating vegetal note. A nicely balanced wine with good, succulent fruit, that same chewy texture, and a floral kick across the backend. The tannins are riper and more integrated, hence the higher score. B+/A-
2008 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-St-Vivant: A comparatively delicate nose, with hints of red berries, earth, and a very distinct floral aspect. There’s a lovely crispness to the wine, as well as a pronounced minerality and a hint of oak. A very pretty RSV that seemed to fill out a little in the glass, although the tannins are a bit dry. A-
2008 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg: A richer, more opulent bouquet than the RSV, with cherry, smoke, licorice, and cured meat aromas. A medium-bodied wine with cool, deep fruit flavors, excellent acidity and minerality, a touch of new oak, and a long, invigorating finish. Here, too, the tannins are slightly dry, but overall, a really impressive effort. A-/A
2008 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche: Although a bit reticent at the moment, the La Tâche is a step up in terms of depth and complexity. A beguiling rose petal scent emerges from the glass, along with red berry, licorice, and spice notes. The fruit has a tart edge to it, but the wine shows quintessential La Tâche elegance (I don’t think there is a more elegant or sensuous wine in the world), has a big floral kick across the palate, and ends with seamless tannins and a deliciously persistent aftertaste. A
2008 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti: Aromas of red currants, flowers, menthol, and soy sauce greet the nose. A medium-bodied wine with a fairly chewy texture, a superb balance of fruit, acidity, and tannins, and a long, radiant finish. As with the La Tâche, the RC is true to type, exuding a wonderful sense of completeness. What is always striking to me about this wine is its astonishing poise, and while the 08 rendering lacks the sumptuousness and concentration to be truly great, it is an awfully good pinot nonetheless. A
2008 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet: This has a gorgeous perfume redolent of lemon, lime, chamomile, and honey, along with a dash of minerality and a whiff of new oak. It is a full-bodied wine with a bit of sweetness to the citrus and green apple fruit. There is great richness here, but also plenty of freshness (credit the superb spine of acidity for the latter). This doesn’t quite have the clarity and precision of the 2007 Montrachet, which I think is a legend in the making, but it is a brilliant wine in its own right. A+