Friday, February 6, 2015

Tasting the Wine of Dreams - A Visit to Domaine Romanee Conti


Statue of St. Vivant
It is the dream of every wine lover to someday have a chance to visit “the Mecca of Wine” - Domaine Romanee Conti. So when the opportunity finally came for a private tasting at DRC, I couldn’t believe it was actually true. I won’t go into details of how I finally received an invitation. Just know that it took months, and contacting many people – to whom I say thanks to in my dreams every night. However, I should mention, that when I arrived, I was told by our host that a good old-fashioned hand-written letter to Aubert explaining why it would be a dream come true to visit, does, in some cases, open the gates.

The Gates of DRC

And gates there are! There is no sign announcing the entrance to DRC, but a quick search of Google maps will produce an address in the tiny village of Vosne Romanee. The domaine is hidden behind a very tall stone wall with impressive iron gates. It is necessary to push a call button to announce your presence, and then the gates will slowly swing open.

Once inside, there is a sweep of gravel drive, and a collection of stone buildings.  However it is the beautiful statue of St. Vivant, looking like a winged angel and poised over the exquisite vines of her namesake vineyard Romanee St. Vivant, that captures the attention. It reminded me of the fact that the monks of the Abbey of Saint Vivant established this estate in 1232.

There were five people in our party and we slowly approached a door leading to a small and rather basic office and reception area. It was professionally furnished but not grand or over the top. We were greeted by the office manager, who asked us to wait while she summoned Bertrand de Villaine, cousin to Aubert.

Though serious at first, over the next two hours, Bertrand revealed himself to be a very jolly host with a great sense of humor. Dressed in grey pants, boots, and a long-sleeved shirt and vest, he was of medium height, very fit and muscular. His thick hair was cut short and his face was tan from many hours outdoors. I could imagine him in a monk’s brown shift with sandals and rope belt, perhaps descended from one of the monks who guarded the estate hundreds of years ago.

Bertrand’s first explanation to us, reinforced this image. When we asked him the reason the wines of DRC are considered to be some of the best it the world, he replied, “Because the vineyards were a gift from God.” However as our tour continued, Bertrand began to tell us slightly bawdy jokes and revealed his wicked sense of humor. “I’m not a monk,” he said with a huge grin. “I have five kids, so you know I love my wife a lot!”

Farming the Vineyards from God

We spent some time with Bertrand in the Romanee St. Vivant vineyard just outside the front door of the office. He explained that altogether the domaine owns 27 hectares of vines that are biodynamically farmed. Behind us, climbing up the gentle slope, were the famous vineyards of La Tache and Romanee Conti, which we had visited an hour before on our own. Also nearby were their hectares of Richebourg, Echezeaux and Grands Echezeaux.

We could see the vines were trained on a low guyot, and cane pruned to 4 – 6 buds, with one cluster per shoot. The spacing is approximately 3 x 3 feet, and average 9,000 vines per hectare in most of the vineyards. However Bertrand told us there are a few which are 10,000 vines per hectare.  Yield is generally 27 hectoliters per hectare (around 2 tons per acre), but many times they only achieve 17 hectoliters per hectare. In 2013, they lost 50% of the crop due to weather issues. 

Rich Soil of DRC
I was impressed with how healthy looking the soil was with rich red-brown clay(marl) and small pebbles of white limestone scattered throughout. Bertrand said the vineyard is the most important aspect of the wine, and as soon as the harvest is finished and the grapes are in the cellar, their only role is to “observe” the wine being made. He explained with a grin, “Being in the vineyard is my favorite part of work, then the cellars, and the office last.”

When we asked him about rootstock and clones, he responded that the rootstock was all of American origin, but the clones were 80 – 95% marsale selection.

Some of their biodynamic farming practices include keeping a garden where they grown the herbs and other plants that go into the biodynamic preps. In addition, they have two horses that plow the vineyards. “Mickey is the name of the oldest horse,” said Bertrand fondly.

Interestingly, he mentioned that frost is actually good for the soil and vines, because it causes the soil to break apart. He said they had not yet had frost in the Spring of 2014, and that it was missed. He demonstrated by picking up a piece of clay and trying crumble it in his hands, but it didn’t break easily. He said if frost were to come in the next few weeks it would help the soil be healthier. This is the first I’ve heard of this concept.

Bertrand also described how the ancient monks who had worked at Clos de Vougeot, just one kilometer from DRC, had deciphered the message of the soil and terroir of the area. He explained, “In certain parts of our vineyards, you can have amazing differences in soil just a few meters apart. For example in La Tache, we say there is upper and lower La Tache, because the soil is different in two sections.”

Wine Making at DRC

We were told that currently there are 35 people working full-time at DRC. The winemaking process is similar to other estates, with a few key differences. The first is access to world-class grapes from the “vineyards of God,” which are meticulously tended throughout the year.

During harvest the workers begin around 5am each morning and continue picking until around 2pm in the afternoon. The first sorting occurs in the vineyard, and whole clusters are gently transported to the winery, which is just across the street from the main DRC office and cellars.

We walked across the small plaza and entered the cellars through an old wooden door set into the high stone walls that surrounded the operation. Immediately we could see huge wooden foudres and long conveyer belts for transferring the whole clusters into the foudres. Bertrand explained that during crush, large tables were set up within the winery for the second sorting. Generally 14 to 20 people sort the clusters to remove green berries, rotten or over-ripe berries, clusters that are too big, hail damaged berries, and insects. If it is raining during the harvest or there are a lot of insects that year, they set up an additional table for a pre-sort.

After sorting, the whole clusters are gently moved up the conveyor belt to the top of the large wooden foudres where they are destemmed in an electric machine that rests on top of the foudres. The purpose is to protect the individual grapes from oxygen as long as possible. Many are left intact so there can be a small amount of carbonic maceration taking place within individual berries. This was one aspect of the winemaking process that I had never heard of before, because most reports state that DRC ferments as whole clusters.

Barrel Aging Cellar
Natural yeast is used, and the berries are left to start fermentation on their own. A cold soak is not forced on the grapes, but it generally takes about 5 days for fermentation to start. Pump overs are used up to 3 times a day to assist, and when fermentation takes off pigeage is conducted up to 3 times per day by hand or by physically jumping in the tanks some times. Fermentation temperature ranges from 25 – 27 F, with total maceration at 17 – 25 days, depending on the vineyard and vintage.

The wine is pressed in a large Bucher vacuum press and the free run and pressed juice is kept in separate tanks for 24 hours to settle out. Then it is tasted, and decisions are made on much pressed juice to blend with the free run. The wine is then transferred to 95% new French oak barrels, medium toast (they used to do 100%, but have made some minor adjustments). Interestingly they have discovered the Corton vineyard they have recently acquired is not as accepting of oak, as the others. Therefore, Corton now receives less oak.

The wine is aged for 16 – 18 months with no racking, unless certain exceptions warrant a barrel to be racked. ML takes place in barrel, and often doesn’t start until the Spring. Everything is very natural, and Bertrand stated that they do not like to rush things. “Everything in its own time,” he said. Barrels are topped as needed.

Amazingly, bottling occurs directly from the barrel – no blending of all barrels into a large tank first. Therefore, each bottle is quite individual. The finished wine is not fined, but may be gently filtered, depending on the vintage.

Tasting Dreams Deep in the Cellars of DRC

Eventually we descended deep into the cellars of DRC. My first thought after climbing down a steep flight of stairs was “how small this is!” Looking around, we could see barrels of wine lined up around the walls, separated by white gravel pathways. The barrels were not stacked on top of one another, but sat in solitary splendor resting on wooden rails.

Bertrand explained that this was the aging cellar, and that after bottling the wines were moved to another cellar across the road for further aging. He grabbed a wine thief and motioned for us to follow him to a series of barrels marked Echezeaux. We were each given a glass and watched in fascination as he transferred a small amount of the wine from the thief into our glasses.

I was impressed with the brilliant ruby hue of the wine, and the exquisite but delicate nose of the 2013 Echezeaux. As it was May, Bertrand explained that the wine was mainly finished, but a few barrels were still undergoing ML. The texture was very silky on my palate with smooth tannins, crisp acidity and long finish. Notes of black cherry and tea lingered on my palate.

Though we knew the protocol was to spit, it was just not possible because this was our first (and perhaps only) taste of these legendary wines. I explained this to Bertrand, and he nodded with a smile. However, we did pour the remnants of the glass back into the barrel after two sips.

Next we moved to the barrels of Grands Echezeaux, which delivered with amazing accuracy its reputed style of bolder tannins and larger mouthfeel than the regular Echezeaux vineyard. The aroma was stronger with black fruit and earth, and on the palate the wine had more concentration, huge velvety texture and tannins, and a strong masculine feel to it. Notes of black cherry, coffee, and anise lingered on a very long finish.

Finally Tasting La Tache
Next, trembling with anticipation, I followed Bertrand to the barrels of La Tache. For years I had dreamed of tasting this wine because my last name “Thach” is correctly pronounced “Tache (tosh).” Therefore, I felt a strong affinity to the wine, and was convinced it would be my favorite.

La Tache did not disappoint. In the dim light of the cellar, it flowed into my glass in a glowing ruby stream, and the perfume of raspberries and violets filled the air. Reverently putting my nose to the glass, the berries became more complex with mixed spices. On the palate it was probably the most elegant wine I’ve ever tasted. It was delicate but concentrated with silky texture and tannins, fine acidity, and a kaleidoscope of complex flavors ranging from red and black berries, rose, black tea and allspice. The finish was very long and satisfying.

As we moved from the barrels of La Tache to Romanee Conti, I felt very satisfied. Finally I had tasted the wine of my dreams, and was confident that nothing could ever eclipse that taste. I was wrong. Who knew that Romanee Conti could taste even better?

Perhaps it was the hype around Romanee Conti that had put me off. I’ve never been a fan of jumping on the bandwagon of what everyone else proclaims to the best. So my first sip of this wine came as a shock. It was a darker ruby that La Tache in color with a more pronounced nose of berries, violets and spice, but on the palate it was even more elegant with huge concentration and an extremely long finish.

As my companions were oohing and ahhing over the wine, I stood there trying to analyze what made it so great, and in doing so nearly consumed all of the wine in my glass. It reminded me of a perfect combination of the best Russian River pinot noir I’ve ever tasted, rich with flavors of raspberry, spice and violets, but with the added magic of a core of the pulsing minerality and complex earthiness of Burgundy. It seemed to embody the best of new and old world pinot noir in one exquisite glass. Perhaps it really was made by God?

Bertrand woke me from my reverie by asking, “Don’t you want to be part of this barrel of Romanee Conti too?” I looked over and saw that everyone else was gently tipping the remainder of the wine in their glasses into the hole of the barrel. Peering into my glass, I was embarrassed to see there was only one drop left.

“It is alright,” Bertrand said with a grin, “even if you only have one drop, you will still be a part of this barrel.”  He motioned for me to come over and I slowly shook my one drop into the barrel. “Now you are all apart of this wine,” he said. “Where ever it goes around the world, you are a part of it.”

As he said this, I wondered who would eventually buy the bottle of wine in which my one drop was mingled. Though some people may think the Burgundian custom of pouring wine from your glass back into the barrel is strange and perhaps unsanitary, this is not the cause. Because the wine is so rare, every drop is needed to top the barrel and protect the wine from oxygen. Also, because they are using so much new French oak that “drinks the wine,” is it is necessary to preserve with more wine. Finally, the alcohol in the wine will kill all human germs that may linger on the glass.

“So where are the rest of the barrels of Romanee Conti?” one of my companions asked.

The answer surprised us.  “Because the harvest from 2013 was so small, we only have these 13 barrels of Romanee Conti for the whole world.”

What? Thirteen barrels for the whole world! This was earth-shattering news.  Bertrand went on to explain that this was the reason they were so careful to whom they sold the wine. “We don’t want a complete vintage to end up the dark cellars of a few rich collectors,” he said. “We want the wine to be shared by many people around the world. This is why we allocate so carefully.”

One of my companions then told Bertrand of how his store in California was allocated 4 bottles per year of DRC wine. He explained that most of the time the bottles were purchased by a group of winemakers who pooled their money so they had enough to afford one bottle and they each had a sip or two. Bertrand smiled at this story and said, “This is the type of thing we like to hear.”

As we left the cellar, I asked Bertrand how difficult it was to deal with the fickleness of Mother Nature -  that in some years brought them bounty, and in others, such as 2013 with all its hail and frost, decimated the harvest by 50%.

His response was poetic, and brought a sense of calm and peace to my soul. “When we work in the vineyard, we go with the flow. If the year brings hail, frost, or sunshine, we accept and know this is what is supposed to happen for this vintage.”

A Taste of Golden Sunshine Before We Departed

During the last part of our two hour visit to DRC, Bertrand took us to visit the bottle aging cellar. It was also quite small, but very beautiful with the bottles stored in tall cases for one year before they were labeled and boxed for shipment.

Bottle Aging Cellar
However, we soon discovered it was not necessarily the bottle aging cellar we had come to visit, but a small dark room in the back carved out of the natural limestone with gravel on the floor. In the center stood a tall wooden barrel that served as a table, with a flickering candle set upon it.

Bertrand motioned for us to stand around the barrel table, and then slipped off to the right where he bent down and grabbed an unmarked bottle from a pile of shiners in a dark corner of the cave room. He placed the bottle on the table and uncorked it with a flourish, and then poured it into our glasses. In the dim candlelight the wine glowed with hues of yellow and flashes of white gold. “Guess what this is?” he asked.

Bringing the glass to my nose, I could smell fresh apple pie, butter, and allspice. On the palate the wine was creamy, with more yellow apple, pastry, mixed spices, and very generous well-integrated toasty oak notes. It was so rich and concentrated, it reminded me of dessert. At first, the thought of a rich over-the top Marcassin chardonnay flashed across my palate memory. Surely this couldn’t be from the Sonoma Coast? But then the crisp acidity and electric core of limestone minerality asserted itself – Burgundy. This must be DRC’s Montrachet.

It turned out to be the single barrel they make each year of Batard Montrachet, and only share occasionally with visitors to the cellar. “This is the 2007 vintage. I call it my little pastry,” smiled Bertrand as he watched our shocked expressions. “Doesn’t it taste just like a pastry dessert?”

I agreed, and just then one of my companions fell on his knees in the gravel and exclaimed, “I have died and gone to heaven.  Thank you God and Bertrand for letting me taste this wine.”

We all laughed and helped him up to his feet again. Then we took photos with Bertrand and thanked him, and the others who had helped us receive an invite to DRC, for making all of our dreams come true. 


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