The annual Domaine de la Romanée-Conti trade tasting for wine professionals in the United States is one of the most anticipated tastings of the year. On February 25, at the famous Le Bernardin restaurant in New York, I had the chance to check out the release of the new 2011 DRC vintage with the co-director of the domaine, Aubert de Villaine.
Monsieur Villaine is the equivalent of his Holiness in the wine world. I've learned about the winemaker and domaine proprietor over the course of several vintage releases, and I've listened to him speak at length about wine. His thoughts, his precision, his energy, and his passion are what have put him and keep him at the very top of the industry. He is considered one of the wisest people in our business, and it was a true honor to taste with him once again.
In the private dining room at Le Bernardin, fifty people and I gathered to taste each of the DRCs, including bottles from the renowned Romanee-Conti and Montrachet vineyards. Nearly every major wine writer was in attendance: Eric Asimov from The New York Times, Antonio Galloni, Wall Street Journal's Lettie Teague, and the peerless Jay McInerney, who I just learned will be starting a new wine column at Town & Country. Also present were some of the country's most influential trade professional professionals: New York sommeliers like Paul Greico, Daniel Johnnes, Bernard Sun, and Mark Bright from San Francisco. All wine professionals whom I respect deeply.
It was almost surreal. From time to time, I wondered how I was even there.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is a heralded wine. DRCs are one of the most collectible and expensive wines in the world. Just this year, a case of 1978 Romanée-Conti sold for $476,000 at auction—a new record.
Upstairs at Le Bernardin, we sat comfortably at round tables. Everyone was perfectly silent. The shape of the tables was just one of Villaine's precise guidelines for these tastings. The glasses were also very specific (Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson's The One stemware). Before reaching the tasters, each stem had to be pre-rinsed with wine from the domaine. Villaine monitored the measure of the tasting pour in each glass and kept watch of the temperatures of the wine to be tasted. He left nothing to chance, no variable that might compromise the experience for anyone fortunate enough to be in attendance at this auspicious event.
Perhaps the most interesting of Villaine's guidelines is that there could be no flowers, perfume, or anything with an imposing scent in the vicinity. Sometimes this rule presents a challenge, as most nice restaurants like to have flowers on the tables. Food for that night's service was likely already being prepared somewhere within sniffing distance. I can tell you that we at the glasses had no sense of anything aromatic in the room. This was likely one of the reasons why Le Bernardin made such a good choice for the day's venue.
The exacting standards are no surprise, really. It's a serious commitment on many levels to bring more than fifty bottles of, arguably, the most expensive wine in the world from France to the United States and open those bottles for press and wine professionals to taste. A winemaker does this in the hopes that the tastemakers will get excited about the wine.
I could tell everyone, like me, eagerly awaited the first words from Villaine. Finally, he began to introduce the vintages. "Since I first became a vigneron in Burgundy, never more than this year, notwithstanding the 46 harvests I have watched over, have I felt or understood to this degree the importance of luck and a wager in the success or failure of the vigneron in the face of a vintage."
He discussed the challenges of the 2011 vintage. The grapes ripened early. There was early flowering. They dealt with heat spikes on three occasions. Despite the problems and the troubles with the vintage, a good vineyard manager would still have enough time to make corrective decisions such that the issues wouldn't adversely affect winemaking.
Quantity levels are quite low in Burgundy right now. In 2011, there was 25% less wine than in than in 2009. He sighed and added that in 2012 and in 2013, there was 50% less wine in the region. Weather was responsible for the short yields.
Beyond the numbers, Mr. Villaine no longer makes vintage generalizations. In his mind, there's no broad stroke of classifying a vintage as a great or a poor vintage. Now he chooses to focus on the specific winemaker and the specific domaine. "Even in difficult vintages you can make great wine," he told the room.
The tasting began. We spent twenty-five minutes silently, no one asking a question, no talking. The room was just a symphony of wine glasses clinking against other glasses like someone was about to make a toast—a hundred toasts. Fifty people were picking up different glasses, noting the wines, sipping, swirling, taking notes. It was the most attention I've seen a room pay at any tasting I've ever attended.
I pick up the wines in the order that they are poured. As I examined each one, I couldn't help thinking how uniquely fortunate I was to be able to experience these wines and vineyards, side by side.
The Corton, which we tried first, was primarily red bright fruit, but the wine also had a density to it, and tartness from a solid acidity. I was surprised when I reached the Richebourg. It was a powerful wine, full of muscle. Though a young wine, the spice, mint, and earth notes made it readily gorgeous. The Montrachet rounded out the program.
By the tasting's conclusion, the room was charged with energy. Mr. Villaine invited questions and comments. Villaine made it clear that the room was open for a thorough, honest discussion. Again, the room went silent. It takes a brave person to offer up his or her own insights among so many peers and one of the most acclaimed wine figures in the world.
A young woman offered a comment on the vintage: she was surprised by how much earth was in the Montrachet. I thought the wine was bracing in acidity, and linear, clean, correct, less honeyed, less tropical, a delicious wine of lemon skin and laser beam sharpness. I kept this to myself for the moment.
The crowd brought forth more questions for Mr. Villaine. With great diplomacy, he offered further comment on the vintage. He talked about destemming and how they work the sorting table. They were pleased with the phenolic ripeness of the vintage. A concern of his is always about harmony and making sure they're able to take advantage of what the vintage has to offer. Villaine mentioned that it takes ten to fifteen years to understand a vineyard, when you take control of it, and that he was anxious to learn more about the Corton.
Villaine compared the 2011 vintage to the 2009 vintage in a very interesting way: "They're both music," he said. "The '09 is a symphony, and the '11 is like chamber music." The crowd laughed the equivalent of a tennis clap, soft, restrained, and professional, perhaps a measure perplexed. But I understood his comparison; both vintages are music. Both are seductive. Both do what they do in different ways.
When Aubert de Villaine spoke, he exuded warm energy, the kind that draws you in. You truly want to listen to his stories about the vineyards and learn his theories. His voice, his balance, his pentameter, the way he deliberately delivered the descriptions of the wines, it all revealed the passion, the understanding, and, of course, the challenges. Villaine was truly a compelling speaker.
The room dispersed at the tasting's bittersweet conclusion. Chatter struck up. Those near me talked to each other about the vintage. People really wanted to know about allocation. How much wine would ever make it to consumers to enjoy and to have the opportunity to find as interesting and as thrilling as we in the trade did today? There was palpable nervousness among the group about the short vintages of 2012 of 2013 and those to come. What will we do?
A lucky few of us were invited to stay after everyone else left and sit for lunch with his Holiness Aubert de Villaine. Servers poured a variety of wines. We got to have all of the DRC wines from the tasting. There were other wines from the importer, Wilson Daniels, on the table as well. There were lots of comments and questions—and a lot of laughter (and some discussion of Chicago's difficult winter). Aubert shared with us his feelings about being the steward of this industry-sanctified land. He considered himself responsible for bringing the story of the vineyards to the table. And it was definitely a pleasure to be able to hear that story at a lunch table with such remarkable wine from one of the most highly regarded domaines.
My plane was to depart in 65 minutes, which meant I was to be one of the first that would leave the lunch. I knew it would be a rush to the airport, but I didn't care. If I missed my flight, it would've been worth it. It was an outstanding day, and trip to New York, and a unique opportunity to taste the wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti: in short, a memory I will never forget.