The first unveiling of the finished Romanée-Conti 2020 wines took place in London last Thursday – an event that rivals Christmas for importance to most wine critics, and an event that engenders such FOMO that lucky invitees to Corney & Barrow HQ are forbidden to post images or mention the event before it happens. 2020 was the hottest vintage in Burgundy and the reds, in particular, can be hit and miss – so how did team Fenal and de Villaine do? Peter Dean went along to find out.
“We expect the 2020 vintage to find a special place among the great successes of recent years: it is unique, an original,” says Aubert de Villaine about the Romanée-Conti 2020.
It is to the credit of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti as winemakers that this ridiculously good array of wines belies the fact that 2020 was the hottest vintage ever recorded in Burgundy, the driest since 1945 with the earliest flowering ever seen there.
Old vines, deep roots, higher-trained foliage and their intuitive sense of timing have resulted in the wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2020 having a startling beauty without any of the idiosyncracies that some of the other top estates found – “freakish” opacity and depth of colour, black cherry notes, New World nuances and so on.
It is also to the credit of Corney & Barrow’s effusive marketing collateral that managing director Adam Brett-Smith always writes with such charm, that the scorching weather is also alluded to rather than delved into. The fact of the matter is that, although nature tested Burgundian resolve to its limits, low pH levels and relatively high levels of tartaric acid meant that the wines, where winemakers got 2020 right, have a thrilling freshness to them.
Pinot berries were more affected by the drought and were smaller with much higher levels of colour and concentration, many houses picking the fruit before Chardonnay. There were two trains of thought here – those who picked early and compromised with under-ripe skins, pulling back on extraction and banking on the wines sorting themselves out in bottle, and those producers who waited until the skins were fully ripe but then had to contend with higher levels of alcohol (14.5%+) and wines that risked not having a Pinot fruit profile at all.
Again, speaking generally, winemakers in 2020 used much less new wood, backed off on the extraction and ‘infused’ rather than punched down, and used more whole bunch which, although this actually decreases acidity, brings a sense of freshness to the wine. So it was with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti where, under the supervision of chef de cave Alexandre Bernier, vinifications were effected with 90-100% whole bunch for 18-21 days and extractions were natural and unforced.
The domaine pulled in an average crop – impressive in the circumstances – with just 1.5% of berries removed on final sort for being burnt or too large. But it was not a vintage for the feint-hearted. Brett Smith says that a game of patience was required to pick perfectly ripe but not overripe berries “with the grapes maturing at extraordinary speed.”
“As an example Richebourg was at 11.7°C potential alcohol on 10th August, 12.7°C on the 14th and 13.2°C on the 21st.”
Like the other estates that got 2020 right and didn’t allow the wines to show too much sunshine the DRC 2020 reds have an unexpected freshness and a joyous balance to them – with a remarkable purity and precision.
As Aubert de Villaine says in the vintage report “We expect the 2020 vintage to find a special place among the great successes of recent years: it is unique, an original.”
So what were the wines tasting like?
Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Cuvée Duvault-Blochet 2020
Rarely made and only ever in exceptional vintages – this ‘amalgam’ of La Tâche and the younger vines of Grands Échézeaux is only made available to the on-trade. Delightful, lifted aromatics of dark fruit, sweet spice, hint of forest. The palate is so inviting – open fresh, silky smooth mouthfeel – the fruit succulent and focused, powdery fine tannins, cedar on the finish.
Made from three of the finest plots on Corton – Clos du Roi, Bressandes and Les Renardes – this is riper on the nose, and in the mouth has more power and texture than the Vosne-Romanée – still silky fresh and elegant, but with a dry grip, hint of citrus. So tidy and complete.
The much darker look is more aligned to the density of 2020s shown last year. There is a heady, complex perfume to the wine, intense, youthful with sweet spice. Powerful, vivacious palate, beautifully fine ‘filigree’ tannins, with an undertow of darker more broody elements – suggestions of hearth, liquorice root and cardamon under the frame of beautifully extracted red fruit. One of my favourites from the tasting.
Grands Échézeaux, 2020
More restrained than the Échézeaux and showing more red fruit; the mouthfeel is open, warm and approachable, silky smooth with a light dusting of almost imperceptible tannins. There is a sweeter element in the fruit profile, balanced by a dry, taut redcurrant note. Rich, full and with a clenched power. One of the first vineyards to be picked (August 25).
Opaque ruby red; the nose is pretty, floral and smacks of sweet red berries; the mouthfeel is silky with profound tannins, suggestions of plum, a touch of resin on the tongue and sap on the long, dry finish. Driest of the wines so far in the tasting but with beautiful balance.
This wine is an exercise in restraint – structured with an unwound power; deepest ruby; on the nose you find fresh mulberry, incense, a savoury note; the mouthfeel is ripe, full, voluptuous with detail and precision. Just lovey!
La Tâche, 2020
An absolutely stunning La Tâche; my sample started with shyness then opened out with intensity and complexity – a heady perfume with meat, spice, forest floor and ripe berries; in the mouth the wine goes on a journey starting fresh, fruity with silky tannins, which then take on more texture before finishing on a dry and serious finish. Beautiful poise on the palate.
There’s not many times in your life when you utter the words “The Romanée-Conti please” as the sommelier pours you a sample. The 2020 is an extraordinary wine that expresses itself as the most perfect manifestation of a Pinot Noir that is possible to make. Massive, beautiful power with an effortless confidence – fresh, vinous, pure, complex, rounded, delicate, layered, savoury – a mass of beautiful contradictions that meet with utter harmony and balance in your mouth. “Everything is perfect” my notes say – both as a descriptor of the wine and a state of mind. The Nadia Comāneci of Pinot.
Just the second vintage of a wine which last year was one of my 10 wine experiences of the year. The fruit comes from a 2.9 hectare plot leased from Domaine Bonneau du Martray and was the last to be picked on 7-9th September. Like 2019 the marvel here is the balance between ripe, broad-shouldered power and stony, austere minerality that keeps the balance. Not tasted alongside each other (as if!) but the 2020 seemed a tad more oleaginous, a bit bigger but still exhibiting fantastic freshness as well as lush, creamy fruit. Marvelous.
The wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are sold exclusively in the UK through Corney & Barrow which is a commercial partner of The Buyer. To read more about them click here.