There are few words that can describe the eight Grand Crus of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2019 – and no words allowed to be spoken – at an annual tasting steeped in tradition and ritual. The most coveted wine tasting bar none, with the world’s most perfect Pinot Noir, Romanée-Conti, costing this year a cool £3,600 a bottle. Our drinks editor Peter Dean had a ‘Golden Ticket’, talked to the ever-charming Aubert de Villaine, who retired last year, and tasted the domaine’s first-ever Corton-Charlemagne.
“Omicron dictated this year that the number of attendees be reduced, that timings be staggered and that the tasting be held in the Drawing Room. With all the key players there it was a little like a wine version of Cluedo – Inspector Oz, in the Drawing Room, with the La Tâche,” writes Dean.
It was not without a little irony that this year’s tasting of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2019 wines had an instruction at the door with an aphorism written by a Roman slave. “I often regret that I have spoken; never that I have been silent” said the sign quoting Publilius Syrus (85-43 BC) followed by a request by DRC’s importers Corney & Barrow, “We ask that you taste in silence.”
Given that the release price of a bottle of Romanée-Conti this year starts at £3,600 and could have bought the freedom of half of the slaves in ancient Rome I mused that maybe we didn’t need further encouragement to be speechless or that some of Syrus’s other ‘sententiae’ might have been more appropriate – “It may not be right but if it pays think it so” or maybe “The poor man is ruined as soon as he begins to ape the rich.”
This annual Domaine de la Romanée-Conti portfolio tasting is a law unto itself, and so it should be. After all, Romanée-Conti is not just a bottle of wine but the Holy Grail of wine – the most perfect manifestation of Pinot Noir on this planet bar none. Tasting the eight wines on show which have ‘transparent fidelity to the quality and characteristics of each vineyard’ is the simple, irrefutable proof of terroir.
And, arriving as it does one year after all the other Burgundies of the same vintage, there is a sense of déjà-vu … I remember 2019… that was the ripe year when picking time was down to which minute you chose. There is also a sense of resolution, in that you have tasted all the other attempts at making a 2019 Pinot… now here’s the answer.
Or, as Publilius said…
“It takes a long time to bring excellence to maturity.”
There is also a quasi-religious air to this tasting as wine critics, done up in their Sunday best, bow their heads in deep silent contemplation, nay reverence, over wine for whom ‘ethereal’ was coined. Tasting glasses are rinsed with a ‘fluffer’ Pinot, the quality of which alone could have freed 100 Syrus-es, the stemware duly prepped for its union with a wine from an altogether higher place.
There is a frisson too – from the moment the invite lands, asking you not to tell anyone about it (“Darling I’m just popping up to town for something”), to one’s pilgrimage to 1 Thomas Moore Street, outside of which the Union Jack and Tricoleur are draped, announcing the presence of vinous royalty inside.
The night before the tasting I had a genuinely troubled night’s sleep not just through the excitement of the approaching day but also the impending challenge of writing about it. After all, describing what one drop of fermented grape juice tastes like to someone who doesn’t have that same drop of fermented grape juice in their mouth, is not always easy. When that liquid sets off an out-of-body experience words can, well, lie out of reach.
“I’m looking forward to what you are going to write about it this year,” Corney & Barrow’s chief Adam Brett-Smith, said, leaning in, at the last tasting two years ago. No pressure then.
“It is better to have a little than nothing.”
Omicron dictated this year that the number of attendees be reduced, that timings be staggered and that the tasting be held in the Drawing Room. With all the key players there it was a little like a wine version of Cluedo “Inspector Oz, in the Drawing Room, with the La Tâche.”
And, make no mistake, this is a tasting that all the key wine writers will find room in their diaries for as this really is supping from the high altar no matter how seasoned you are – the calendar entry no doubt afforded the same status as a wedding or confirmation service. I suspect that even if this year’s obligatory Lateral Flow Test had registered Positive there might have been some who would have tempted to suggest otherwise – “The line on the T is only ‘waffer’ thin.”
No need for the tasting samples to be reduced, however, at £4.80 a milliliter (ex VAT) they are understandably small, although my pour of Corton hardly had the legs to reach my lips, if that doesn’t sound too weird. I soon found that if I walked behind one critic and asked for ‘an Adam-sized portion’ I had enough to send me into a paroxysm of ecstasy. But as our old chum Publilius would have said “It is better to have a little than nothing.”
“You need not hang the ivy branch over the wine that will sell”
The few times I have tasted Romanée-Conti in my life I am reminded of that scene in the animated film Ratatouille when, pen poised, food critic Anton Ego first tastes our hero’s eponymous dish in the restaurant.
He lifts a small forkful to his mouth, tastes, and then his eyes widen as he is transported to his childhood and that seminal tasting of ratatouille – the dish his mother made that set him on a lifetime of loving food – and the pen tumbles out of his hand onto the floor. There are no words necessary, no need for a critical review, he recognises brilliance and simply tucks in.
A seasoned wine hack once advised me “don’t bother about Burgundy,” his reasoning being that those who buy top end Burgundy are always going to buy top end Burgundy no matter what anyone writes about it. I don’t agree (although I get the point) but with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti it is probably quite true.
In point of fact Corney & Barrow probably doesn’t need to have this tasting at all from a sales perspective (“You need not hang the ivy branch over the wine that will sell” – Publilius Syrus again) but it does serve a useful function in distributing a ‘dusting’ of the wines to the premium on-trade and it is really important to Aubert de Villaine and Perrine Fenal, with 2019 being co-director Fenal’s first vintage. Incidentally, the management of the domaine is split between the two owning families de Villaine and Leroy with Perrine’s mother being a Leroy, her fellow co-director is Bertrand de Villaine who replaced his uncle Aubert at the end of last year.
“For vignerons, each vintage remains a mystery until the wine is run off into barrels where it will age. It is somewhat like waiting for a child to be born without being able to predict its future,” de Villaine says in the press handouts.
Talking to him first-hand at the tasting, he is quiet, unassuming and utterly charming, he explains that this tasting is so important to him as it is the first time that the finished wines see the outside world as a portfolio.
He is delighted to hear that I think his debut vintage of Corton-Charlemagne which comes from a 2.9 hectare holding leased in 2018 from Bonneau du Martray is everything you could possibly want from a Corton-Charlemagne – it has the power, the broad ripeness but also the freshness to make it all work.
“With Corton-Charlemagne it was the first time we make this wine – with the Montrachet we pick late and go for very ripe – and it is the same with Corton-Charlemagne we picked much later than others.”
“The key with the whole vintage was when you picked to capture the ripeness but also get freshness. We had this with 2019 and 2020. 2021, though, was like the old Burgundy where you waited for the ripeness.”
De Villaine adds that with more than any vintage 2019 eschews comparison with any other, although Brett-Smith suggests 1865 with “even more eerily” 1864 being very similar to 2018. As for the drinking dates? The domaine suggests hanging onto your Romanée-Conti until 2033 before drinking it although good luck with that! It currently has everything in its right place – simply perfect – and, as Publilius Syrus quite rightly said “It is hard to keep that which every one covets.”
The wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are sold and distributed in the UK by Corney & Barrow who are a supplier partner of The Buyer. You can discover more about them by clicking here.