Spending a few hours at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in the company of Aubert de Villaine is a true honour. Shall we tell you a little more?
“I won’t be in the office tomorrow morning, I’ve got a meeting with Aubert de Villaine from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti…”. Surely every wine lover dreams of saying this at one point in their life?
And believe us, when this dream becomes a reality and the special day looms, no effort is too great. Waking up at the crack of dawn, choosing to drive because the French railways are on strike, navigating speed cameras, rain and wind…no setback could overcome us. When we pull up in a small lane with a mysterious name, the miles between us and the hectic Parisian life we left behind this morning are instantly felt: we have arrived in the “rue du temps perdu” (the road of lost time). Time stands still.
The gates swing open and the gravel crunches softly under our footsteps. From the courtyard, we catch a glimpse of the vines in the morning light, cover cropped and swaying gently in the breeze. We have arrived at the famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. After a few minutes, the master of the house appears, a smiling and understated Aubert de Villaine. Straight away he gets to the heart of the matter and proposes a tasting of the 2017 cuvées that are still waiting patiently in their barrels in the darkness of the cave. The svelte silhouette of the co-director of the domain slips into the cave and leads the way. We are here, and two hours of tasting lie before us. As we get ready to discover the domain’s latest vintage, Aubert de Villaine is using such words as ‘discretion’, ‘concentration’ and ‘transparency’ to describe his 2017 offerings of Pinot Noir…
Corton Grand Cru 2017
This cru comes from land that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti has rented since 2009 and includes the climats Renardes, Clos du Roi and Bressandes. Yields are limited to 30hl/hectare. Impossible to isolate each of these terroirs for reasons of size, this cuvée is a blend of the three climats.
If the nose is the discreet, the wine opens up in the mouth revealing crisp fruit and magnificent energy and tension. Although matured in 50% new oak barrels, the oak is nonetheless discreet and the wines boasts a delicate structure.
Echézeaux Grand Cru 2017
A precocious wine that normally spends 18 months in oak. This year, malolactic fermentation started early so bottling will take place sooner than usual, no doubt in December. Almost ready to drink at when we tasted it, this is an eager Echézeaux that is impatient to show off its qualities. The delicately spiced nose has aromas of liquorice and the mouth is long and complex with a spiced finish. The balance is superb.
Aubert de Villaine preserves this balance by strictly controlling his yields. The quality of the plant material and the ripeness of the grapes are of paramount importance. The domain carries rigorous and meticulous destemming during spring but doesn’t do green harvesting. As our host reminded us, despite the devastation brought on by phylloxera, the Romanée-Conti vines remained ungrafted until 1945. Although they were pulled up in this same year, their imprint remains thanks to the grafting carried out. In fact, the domain has constructed a “conservatory” of 36 rows of vines from this mythic parcel that are used anytime the need arises to replant a vine.
Grands-Echézeaux Grand Cru 2017
This wine has a wonderfully floral nose and a parfum enlivened by notes of forest floor and petrichor. The attack in the mouth is lively and the texture is fine. It offers beautiful acidity and freshness. The soil in the Grands-Ecézeaux parcel is very different from the Echézeaux parcel: rich in clay, the minerality is noticeable in the finish which is also very long with notes of liquorice.
Romanée Saint-Vivant Grand Cru 2017
The nose is restrained and less spiced. Perhaps the low pressure on the day we tasted it constricted it somewhat. In the mouth however, it reveals itself to be a pure and powerful Pinot Noir marked by aromas of red berries and marvellous acidity. The texture is tight with extreme finesse and a long, complex finish.
Richebourg Grand Cru 2017
The Richebourg has a magnificent nose with a bouquet of complex spices. The nose is powerful but lifted by herbaceous notes that give it beautiful freshness. In the mouth this wine is serious and it opens up slowly, holding back more than the Romanée-Saint-Vivant. Dictated by the phases of the moon that have an effect on pressure, this wine, that is normally more expressive, was discreet at our tasting yet showed a well-crafted structure. All the signs of a serious cellaring wine.
La Tâche Grand Cru 2017
As the visit and the tasting continues, the tension mounts and crescendos in the elegance of these fine wines. On the nose it’s evident that La Tâche 2017 is a masterpiece. More severe at first, this wine is cooler and imposes itself on the taster, making it clear that they’re not dealing with just any old wine. The nose, however, possesses all those beautiful fruit notes, perfectly ripe. This is an intimidatingly good wine. The particular complexity of La Tâche comes from the diversity of this climat that stretches from the bottom to the top of the domain’s grands crus. In the mouth the attack is fine and tight and there is a powerful energy accompanied by a remarkable tension. We regain composure but then comes the finish, which is persistent and intense. This is not a wine we will forget about anytime soon!
Romanée-Conti Grand Cru 2017
We finally reach the Holy Grail. A visit to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti shares similarities with visiting the famous cathedral in the French town of Chartres (a wonderful architectural feat). The labyrinth that greets you as you enter this magnificent building encourages introspection and meditation on all its visitors before they can gaze at the wonders of their surroundings. Tasting the different terroirs of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti prepares you in much the same way. Slowly, the jigsaw pieces fall into place as the characteristics of each wine tasted hint, delicately, to the big finale. Like the notes that make up a musical composition, they build up gradually together to create a harmonious musical ensemble. The intense fruit grows in the mouth of this wine and it boasts a spherical structure and unrivalled finesse. The silky texture delicately coats the palate, bringing perfect finesse and energy into balance and harmony. The finish has a spiced bouquet dominated by liquorice and pepper notes. Aubert de Villaine reminds us that we can swallow instead of spitting and we do so, joyously.
The 2017 tasting reaches a climax with the Romanée-Conti, a wine that that allows one to understand the subtle alchemy that takes place when tasting the different terroirs of the Côte de Nuits (the Corton of course being very apart in this ensemble). But Aubert de Villaine doesn’t stop there. Lovers of mature vintages that we are, he spoils us by taking us to far corner of his cave where the domain conserves its very old bottles. These pre-phylloxera wines lie in the darkness of the cellar. Chalk figures scribbled on a blackboard indicate how many bottles remain. In some vintages, this number is only 1 or 2… Curious, we ask Aubert de Villaine if has tasted all these wines. He tells us that a tasting organised by a collector allowed him to try some of these vintages: “these wines have lost their structure and their body, all that remains is their spirit. I hope that one day my wines will have the same effect on those who taste them”. An inspiring analogy of a human who wants his a part of his soil to live on in this terrestrial existence.
Aubert de Villaine then opens two very special bottles for us. To continue our tasting in the theme of “7”, we taste a bottle of La Tâche 1997. The nose has wonderful smoky notes. This is a closed wine, lightly austere, decidedly serious and the epitome of elegance. In honour of one of our visitors, Aubert de Villaine also opens a Grands-Echezeaux 1958. It is on this that we conclude our tasting, quelle chance! This wine is silky with a lace-like texture and has a delicate energy. Fruit notes are still present delicately robed by tertiary notes such as forest floor, moss and mushrooms. Discretion, concentration, transparency…Out of immense generosity, the master of the house offers us the bottle to accompany the lunch we have planned after the visit…a lunch that will lead to us missing our train back to Paris. But how can time possibly constrain you when you’re living in a such a perfect and timeless moment?
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