Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2021 is a magical set of wines of great beauty and a look back over the shoulder at the style of past decades before the power of the sun became such an issue. The weather was cruel, however, with the yields the lowest for 50 years – Corton and Montrachet down to just 10% of production – although that is not apparent in the wines. Peter Dean heard from DRC’s co-directors Perrine Fenal and Bertrand de Villaine about the soul-searching the team experienced during the April frosts and their use of ‘candles’ for the first time and tastes through the wines at Corney & Barrow, DRC’s UK distributor.
“The highly-perfumed reds are like different facets of the same ruby with purity, delicacy and elegance leaning into beautifully managed extract, with suggestions of sweetness, richness and then a marked vivacity – a freshness and energy – on the finish,” writes Dean about Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2021.
Google ‘DRC 2021’ and you will be served up a fascinating report by the World Bank into the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s budget performance in that year. No mention of frost, tumultuous growing season or 100% whole bunch. Google ‘Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2021’ and it’s not much better – a couple of mentions. For, while the world has been luxuriating in the bounty that is 2022 Burgundy with one eye on another cellar-filling vintage in 2023, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2021 ‘hasn’t happened yet’.
This feint digital footprint is chiefly explained by the fact that DRC releases one year later but also because the world’s most famous wine domaine does not court publicity in this fashion – it doesn’t need to and it wouldn’t fit with its brand values.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti tastings are the only ones that respectively ask you not to share details on social media, transgression met presumably with a visit to the Tower within spitting distance of Corney & Barrow’s East London HQ, although it has to be said I have yet to see anyone spit a Romanée-Conti.
There’s also the no-small matter of British fair play. The wines are hard to come by at the best of times but the “Pathetically small” 2021 vintage means that distributor Corney & Barrow has eschewed its walk-in trade and press tasting for the first time since 1993, opting for a masterclass format, hosted by C&B managing director Adam Brett-Smith, and DRC co-directors Perrine Fenal and Bertrand de Villaine. And that means fewer invited guests.
Brett-Smith re-emphasises the point before proceedings commence:
“So many people want to stick pins into my wax effigy – and we don’t want to poke a stick at people who couldn’t be here – so please no social media.”
Smallest yields for 50 years
Before the tasting commences in monastic silence, Fenal and Villaine provide insight into one of the most meagre harvests in Burgundy’s history – this coming after 2020 that was the hottest vintage on record. The yields are terrifyingly small and would test the cashflow of many a mere mortal business. Corton, to take one example, had a yield of 5 hectolitres per hectare producing 105 cases (doz) which is 90% down on average.
Frost between April 6-8 with temperatures as low as -8°C, mixed with wet snow which also froze onto newly-budding plants saw DRC using ‘candles’ for the first time at the bottom of La Tâche and the bottom of Grands Échézeaux where frost can be an issue – but frost hit hardest at the top of the slopes.
“It was almost as if the candles lit in the vineyards to give the sanctuary of fractional warmth offered instead the darkness of a Requiem mass,” Brett-Smith said somewhat poetically in his introduction.
A wet spring offered no respite with illness constantly battled – first mildew and, in particular, oidium, then botrytis.
2021 was a vintage, then, which gave rise to a good deal of soul-searching by the DRC team – not just the ethical question of using ‘candles’ (“We have many in store that we will never use,” says Villaine), but also “how to go with the vegetative cycle.”
Fenal, who admitted some were “not so far from despair” said one of the key messages of 2021 for her was that “nature rules”.
“The vintage questions our relationship with the vineyard and nature in general,” she said, adding that one has to follow the possibilities offered rather than attempt to tame nature.
Villaine added that one concern of his is that after the bountiful 2022 and 2023 vintages “When will the vineyard have rest time?”.
Putting a positive spin on proceedings Fenal said that rather than feeling sorry about the quantity they feel blessed with the quality of wine that has been produced
“The wines are balanced, clean, approachable, each giving its own sense of terroir – an expression of joy – we feel joy to open these wines with you as scarce as they are and feel gratitude to the people who made that possible.”
The nod is to Maître de Chai, Alexandre Bernier, and his team who harvested between 23rdSeptember and 2nd October as the fruit matured with alcohol levels of 13.5% and 14% abv. 100% whole clusters were used (“We haven’t used the de-stemmer since 2017,” says Villaine), and the grades sorted berry by berry with thin-skinned fruit that had a reasonably high liquid-to-skin ratio.
Cuvaison was shorter than normal to promote gentle extraction, malolactic went smoothly, finishing slightly later than 2020, barrel ageing was slightly shorter with the wines then transferred to steel to avoid ‘marking’ by wood and the wines bottled earlier from mid-September to May.
And so to the wines
Nine wines were shown, poured straight from bottle, with Montrachet the customary absentee from the range.
In summary the wines have an ‘old school’ magic about them – a harp back to earlier decades before solar opulence became the norm. The highly-perfumed reds are like different facets of the same ruby with purity, delicacy and elegance leaning into beautifully managed extract, with suggestions of sweetness, richness and then a marked vivacity – a freshness and energy – on the finish. The Corton-Charlemagne has a purity and restraint in the wine that I could never find in the wines of Bonneau du Martray that has leased the plots to DRC. Almost all you could quite happily drink today, even though 8-9 years cellaring are recommended.
Vosne-Romanée-1er Cru Cuvée Duvault-Blochet*
DRC always pays great attention to this wine as it is the most accessible and gives a good impression of what the domaine is trying to achieve. In 2021 it is ‘above its pay grade’ with declassified parcels that normally find their way into La Tâche. See-through bright ruby, fresh, light, elegant, a lovely vegetal grip, nicely concentrated red and black fruit – one of the highlights of the tasting for me. On-trade only.
Corton Grand Cru
A blend of three tiny vineyards that have been leased to DRC since 2008 and is the only Grand Cru that is a generic Corton, that is coming “more and more into the family,” according to Villaine, who adds in a phrase of which Samuel Johnson would have been proud that this wine is “complex without complexity.”Beautifully perfumed, darker fruit, micro-fine ripe tannins, nice dry extract, tight finish. Has an almost sweet, rich core. £435 a bottle IB.
Échézeaux Grand Cru
The last parcel picked then bottled with some natural CO2 from fermentation which shows in its freshness. Refined, red fruit-driven aromas. Fresh, beautiful poise – the acidity and extract just right, dark fruit, wild earthy quality. This wine just gets better and better. £535 a bottle IB.
Grands-Échézeaux Grand Cru
In 2021 Échézeaux and Grands- Échézeaux “are less cousins than normal,” says Villaine. Slightly darker, broody, red and black fruit, much greater power on the front palate, touch of sweetness, fresh, ripe tannins, sweet and dark fruit on the finish. Energetic, taut and precise – lovely structure. £800 a bottle IB.
Romanée-St-Vivant Grand Cru
“A fist in a velvet glove – this is what I typically love to drink,” says Villaine, and who can blame him? Another highlight of the tasting for me. Darker ruby, pretty red-fruit perfume, firm, juicy, fresh, vivacious, energetic with that beautifully managed concentration mid-palate. Incredible depth and length with ripe, powdery tannins. £1,300 a bottle IB.
Richebourg Grand Cru
Production has necessarily been reduced since a replanting programme began in 2002. Sensual, rich, a greenness to the red fruit; on the palate there is more heft in its structure, beautiful extraction (which really is a common theme in 2021), fresh and lively finish. £1,280 a bottle IB.
La Tâche Grand Cru
Fenal says that La Tâche 2021 has a serenity about it that conceals the tumultuous growing season whereas “Corton feels like it has gone through things.” This is a joyous wine of great beauty and, again, one of the three highlights of the tasting. Pretty, ethereal perfume of red fruits. Fresh, lush, the balance is utterly perfect – power that is pulling at the leash but restrained at the same time. £1,470 a bottle IB.
Romanée-Conti Grand Cru
Magical with so much going on here – less ‘oomph’ than La Tâche but feels more relaxed with a calm, serenity at its core. Slightly paler, a leafy edge that lifts the old-vine red fruit wine. Gorgeous extract that veers between dry and lush, almost sweet, it feels almost casual compared to La Tâche. Dumbfounding that this is such a young wine. £4,250 a bottle IB.
Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru
Fenal claims to be “proud of this wine,” and so she should. As previously mentioned this has a beautiful purity and restraint. The nose promises the creamy richness of the site, zesty citrus, which is followed on the palate by a dazzling freshness and stony purity. £875 a bottle IB.
The release by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti one year after other domaines always allows greater persective on a Bourgogne vintage – like being shown the correct ‘answer’ long after you’ve handed your essay papers in.
The new masterclass format was welcomed by this scribe, promoting a greater level of focus and insight provided by Fenal and Villaine, although that’s easier said with a ‘golden ticket’ in my pocket. And the level of pour. Usually Lilliputian in the walk-in format (I was expecting glasses with a smudge of wine in) were here surprisingly generous. A stunning tasting, many congratulations and thanks, and a special shout out to Bertrand de Villaine attending so soon after surgery to reconstruct his shoulder.
The wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are imported, sold and distributed in the UK through Corney & Barrow which is a commercial partner of The Buyer. To discover more about them click here.