Wine expert and The Three Drinkers TV show host Helena Nicklin goes behind the label with the new vintage wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
What is the most famous wine in the world? There are many answers to this question, be they the best-loved grape variety, a particularly expensive brand or simply the one who spends the most on advertising.
There is one wine producer however, with less than flashy bottles, whose wines have the professionals clamouring for a taste purely for the love of the juice inside. That producer is Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from the region of Burgundy (Bourgogne) in France, who is famous for making ‘hauntingly beautiful’ red wines from the Pinot Noir grape.
For us in the trade, this is arguably the most famous, iconic wine around. I was lucky enough to be invited to taste the entire range from the new 2017 vintage of reds this week at the London home of their exclusive UK importer, Corney & Barrow.
The most celebrated wine from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti gets released ‘en primeur’* for around £3,000 a bottle on strict allocation. The price goes up almost immediately, with older vintages found on the market now for little under £10,000. Impressive numbers. Are they worth it though? Can a wine ever really stand up to that kind of price point?
Is Domaine de la Romanée-Conti the best wine in the world?
As a wine professional, I am often asked this question about DRC – and it’s a hard one to answer. I put it back to the person asking: can you compare the vintage car sitting in someone’s garage that doesn’t go fast or have any mod cons to, say, a new F-Type Jag? I’d argue that you can’t; that the vintage car is a completely different animal, worth a high price because of its scarcity, its history and its craftsmanship.
It’s the same for any commodity, be it cars, clothes or wine. After a certain price point, it’s about supply and demand, the story of the producer or designer and getting your hands on a piece of history from a world that you are fascinated by. If it’s worth it to you, it’s worth it. But do these particular wines taste any good? I can certainly answer that question.
Some wine lovers adore the voluptuous, full-bodied nature of rich red wines such as those made from Cabernet Sauvignon, the varietal I describe as the professional rugby player of wine grapes for its muscular tannins and cedar-tree flavours. Easy to understand and love. Others, however, prefer the more ethereal, much lighter style of red wine from the Pinot Noir grape, such as those made by DRC. Pinot is the ballerina of wine grapes in a cherry silk gown, dancing with earth beneath her feet.
With a few years of bottle age on it, however, Pinot can develop some rather funky, barnyard notes that may not appeal to some. It’s horses for courses and delicate; aged Pinot Noir can be an acquired taste, no matter how expensive it gets. It’s definitely one to get to know before dropping your mortgage on a case. So, what of the 2017 Pinots from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti?
Tasting wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
It is fair to say that I have certainly acquired my taste for ethereal Pinot Noir over the years. At its very best, Burgundian Pinot is light-bodied, elegant and silky without appearing ‘thin’. It has a delicate perfume of lavender, red cherry, earth and a subtle, sweet spice.
With a few years of ageing, these aromas become seamless and secondary notes appear, giving the wines intriguing, autumnal aromas of drying leaves and fruit compote. With a bit more age, those barnyard notes appear in a way that’s moreish and just works – just as a lovely old brie might be utterly delicious to many, though not everyone.
The 2017 DRCs are just being bottled now (see the note below on ‘en primeur’), so we were tasting them incredibly young. As a professional with years of experience, I’m used to predicting fairly accurately what a wine is likely to taste like several years from now. As a wine writer, I try to keep an objective head when tasting wines of this value and judge them on whether they are well made, are good examples of the type and importantly, whether or not they are delicious.
We tasted all seven red wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, all made with Pinot Noir harvested from their Grand Cru vineyards (they make one white, a ‘Montrachet’, but it wasn’t at the tasting). Despite the close proximity of these vineyards – we’re talking one stone wall away in many cases – each has a distinct personality.
What can I say? They were stunning, even in youth, thanks in part to a particularly generous vintage with a good amount of sun. Aubert de Villaine, co-director of the Domaine and the humblest man alive, uses analogies to describe the personalities of his wines, as I also like to do. Here’s a combination of how we both see them:
Échézeaux is the rambunctious, young prince: famously spicy and flamboyant, full of regal potential, but needs time. Grands Échézeaux is the prince’s older brother: a little firmer, more concentrated and less showy upfront. Richebourg is the opulent, exuberant, musketeer, draped in red silk and La Tâche is all about restrained power: the iron fist in the velvet glove. Romanée-St-Vivant is the enigmatic, more delicate sister to the star of the DRC show, Romanée-Conti, who Aubert de Villaine describes as the most ‘Proustien’ of all the wines with its lingering, complex aromas and seductive palate.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given their more voluptuous propensities, the three big guns showed the best: Romanée-Conti, La Tâche and Richebourg, with Romanée-Conti instantly reminding me why this particular wine is one – if not THE – most sought after wines in the world.
Despite drinking it before it is even officially bottled (I was going to write ‘taste’, but there was no way I was spitting this), just the nose on this gave me everything I would ever want from my favourite grape variety and then some: rose petals, marzipan, lavender, damp earth, strawberry compote and old incense.
I could go on, but I fear I would disappear up my own bottom. According to Corney & Barrow, the perfect drinking window is 2030 – 2040+. I think that if I were ever to taste this wine at its prime, I would cry. Only 627 12 bottle cases of 2017 Romanée-Conti were made, so there’s certainly not much to go around.
So, is Romanée-Conti from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti the best wine in the world? Wrong question. Is it the best wine that I, a self-confessed ‘pinot-phile’, have ever tasted, however? The answer has to be, unequivocally, yes.
- Echézeaux 2017 3 x 75cl: £1,110 in bond
- Grands Echézeaux 2017 3 x 75cl: £1,635 in bond
- Richebourg 2017 3 x 75cl: £2,550 in bond
- Romanée-St-Vivant 2017 3 x 75cl: £2,760 in bond
- La Tâche 2017 3 x 75cl: £2,910 in bond
- Romanée-Conti 2017 3 x 75cl: £9,000 in bond
For more information about Romanée-Conti allocations, contact Corney & Barrow head office: 1 Thomas More Street, London, E1W 1YZ. +44 (0) 207 265 244. You can discover more at their website www.corneyandbarrow.com.
*En Primeur is essentially ‘wine futures’ where the buyer has the option of purchasing wines in the barrel before they are bottled in exchange for the best possible pricing.
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