For those who are neither wealthy nor connected, tasting Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is a treat of the highest order.
Arguably Burgundy's finest producer of red wine (and its white Montrachet is no slouch, either), Domaine de la Romanée-Conti--DRC for short--is the benchmark by which most other Pinot Noir producers judge their wines, though many won't admit it. These magnificent wines--Échezeaux, Grands Échezeaux, Richebourg, Romanée-St. Vivant, La Tâche, Romanée-Conti and the white Montrachet--result from a remarkable confluence of factors: superb, limestone-rich, organically farmed Grand Cru vineyards in the Vosne-Romanée and Flagey-Échezeaux communes of the Cotes de Nuits; meticulous farming and sorting of the grapes at the winery; and a commitment by management to produce only as much wine as permitted by the most severe quality standards.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti isn't just the superstar of Burgundy; it produces some of the finest wines in the world, and unquestionably some of the most collectable. I'll take DRC La Tâche over Chateau Latour any day.
DRC is so important that it's often referred to simply as 'the Domaine,' as if there were no other. For many Burgundy buyers, there is no other, and new-release prices start accordingly, at around $500 for the Échezeaux bottling and soaring into the thousands for the La Tâche and Romanée-Conti wines.
Of course, these wines are therefore beyond financial reach for the vast majority of us, and that's why a Jan. 31 pre-release tasting of the 2005 DRCs was so special. As the first to taste the wines on U.S. soil (their formal debut is Feb. 7 New York), our group of 16 shared one bottle each of the seven wines--no going back for seconds, so precious are they. Annual production can reach 10,000 cases, though in 2005, one of Burgundy's finest vintages, DRC bottled approximately 7,800 cases. That sounds substantial, yet collectors and restaurateurs grab up the wines and cellar them for 10 to 20 years--sometimes more--taking a large part of the volume out of immediate circulation.
The wines consistently display six traits: perfect balance, perfumed aromas, layer upon layer of flavor, silky texture, tremendous aging potential and extraordinarily quality no matter what the vintage conditions. Whereas some producers falter in cool, rainy years and/or in hot, overripe vintages, DRC pulls off the dove-from-the-handkerchief trick every year.
The 2005 reds are young, tight and unevolved, yet their personalities shine nonetheless, with plenty of sweet red fruit, firm yet ripe tannins, subtle oak influence, electrifying acidity and a mouthfeel that is sensuous and smooth at first, wrapping itself gently around the palate, then bursting on the finish with succulence and refreshment. Take a sip, swallow, wait two minutes and the taste and texture remain.
As we tasted, the room was so quiet that one person remarked, 'It's like being in church.' Indeed, DRC creates an atmosphere of reverence; great wine will do that. Scarcity tells you to savor every moment the wines are in front of you; their astonishingly deep character tells you to remember them, to commit the details to memory, and to thank the heavens for the opportunity. It's a privilege to drink such wine, and I don't think there was a taster in the room who didn't feel that way.
Hand-written tasting notes that usually take three lines become novellas, yet there is little temptation to list the de rigueur types of fruit, vegetation and spice that can be discerned. The words come easily yet are more abstract than precise, describing textures rather than flavors, sensations rather than what score to give the wine, and suggesting that perfect dish to serve with them. Each of the seven DRCs changed in the glass over time, revealing nuance after nuance. I ran out of wine before I ran out of words to write.
Then we talked about the wines in a way they are rarely talked about in such company. The group included principals from Wilson-Daniels (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's U.S. importer), and a few members of the media and trade. Such meetings sometimes bring out a lot of ego-driven posturing, but in this case, the tasting was more about learning, discovering, and exchanging ideas. Many in the room have tasted DRC for decades and know the wines far better than I ever will, yet by tasting with these experts, I left with far more knowledge than when I arrived.
And like so many other great wines, sampling the new DRCs dredged up memories of past bottles shared on only the most significant of occasions. Those occasions came flooding back; I remember where I was, who I was with, why we opened such a precious bottle, even what we ate with it. DRC is not alone in working this marvelous magic, yet the tasting of the 2005s reminded me of the reasons why I love wine in the first place.
True, I would not have the opportunity to drink the world's finest wines if I weren't a wine writer. I am fortunate beyond words on this count. Yet tasting the DRCs wasn't all that much different than the first time I remember having a wine other than White Zinfandel or Mateus. It was around 1986, and the wine was Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, served at a dinner party. It rocked my world and that of my friends, enhanced no doubt by the meal and lively conversation.
A few years later, the same thing happened with a Clos du Bois Merlot, then later a Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon and a Williams Selyem Pinot Noir; in 1999, a tasting of Bordeaux's First Growths elevated my knowledge and appreciation for wine. Each stop on my wine-drinking path has added complexity and texture to my life, with DRC being yet another pause. If you're not on the path, it's never too late to start.
I don't think I want to taste Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and wines of equal status all that often. I want them to remain special, to be anticipated with excitement, and never to be taken for granted. I want to remember each and every time such wines touch my lips. And another thing: these extraordinary untouchables help me appreciate the great achievements of those who make complex, delicious wines that sell for a fraction of a cost of DRC. Those are the wines I choose to drink every day.
Retail prices are not yet available. Wilson-Daniels is the U.S. importer.
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Echezeaux (Burgundy, France) 2005: Exceptionally floral (rose petals, violets) and crystalline in its cherry/raspberry fruit, black tea and stemmy notes. Ripe yet firm tannins, subtle oaking and nervy acidity complete the pretty package. While it's lighter than its siblings, it has plenty of color and flavor at this very young stage--very elegant and refined. 92
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Grands Echezeaux (Burgundy, France) 2005: Offers more complexity, structure and richness than the 'regular' Echezeaux. Minerals, earth and black tea notes spice up the core of sweet black cherry and cranberry fruit. It's quite rich and luxurious, velvety in texture and with mouthwatering acidity on the long finish. 94
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Richebourg (Burgundy, France) 2005: Darker in color, firmer in tannins and showing more oak influence, the Richebourg at this early stage is a touch less generous than the other wines. Its black cherry and pomegranate fruit should open up with bottle age. Full-bodied and dense, it's slightly loamy and stemmy, with smooth texture, balance and brisk acidity. 92
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Romanee-St. Vivant (Burgundy, France) 2005: Luscious, deep-fruit aromas rise from the glass, and the palate is crisply layered and mouthfilling, with slightly gritty tannins. Ripe black and red fruits get complexity from hints of dried herbs and earth, and the texture is of crushed velvet. The impeccable balance and racy acidity ensure a very long life. Exciting stuff. 96
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, La Tache (Burgundy, France) 2005: Not quite as intense as the Romanee-Conti bottling below, this vintage of La Tache is heady nonetheless, marvelously complex and seductive. Very dark in color and lightly floral on the nose, its flavors are of red currant, exotic blueberry, tea leaf, anise and toast. Beautiful, satiny texture, firm structure and DRC's typical electrifying acidity. 95
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Romanee-Conti (Burgundy, France) 2005: The fullest, most powerful of the group, 'RC,' as it's called, is incredibly aromatic, with very ripe fruit, minerals, subtle leafiness and creamy vanilla. Muscular for Burgundy, it still has sophistication and elegance, being sumptuous and refreshing at the same time. There is a touch of barrel char on the persistent finish. 97
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Montrachet (Burgundy, France) 2005: It's DRC's custom to pour its lone white wine, the Grand Cru Montrachet, after the reds, as its richness and concentration outweigh the reds. The 2005 is no exception; it's fabulously dense and opulent, with succulent apple and citrus fruit coated by a shell of honey (not botrytis). Minerality floods both the nose and palate, toasty oak is obvious yet balanced for the massiveness of this wine, and the brisk acidity cuts through the richness and ensures a long life in the cellar. 97