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“As if, in this square of earth, the gods had bequeathed us a memory of the fascinating vestige of a timeless perfection.” — Richard Olney. The wine of Prince de Conti, she is velvet, seduction and mystery. It is the most Proustian of all great wines.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is without question the most famous estate in Burgundy and arguably the greatest, producing some of the best wines in the world. It is probably one of the most traditional wineries in France. Wines are produced in small quantities while the demand is huge. The domaine has 25 hectares of vineyards, all Grand Crus, including the jewel in the crown, the 1.8 hectare monopole of Romanée Conti.
Romanée-Conti, a vineyard of four and a half acres,was originally the property of the Abbey of St. Vivant. In 1760 Prince Conti acquired it against the competition of a famous collector of jewellery, Madame de Pompadour – the king’s minister against the king’s mistress. He withdrew it from the market and reserved it for his own dazzling social events. It was he who created the myth surrounding Romanée-Conti.
The price of this tiny, treasured vineyard was 80.000 livres, which in those days was worth a small kingdom. Reclaimed as property of the nation during the Revolution, the vineyard passed through the hands of several proprietors to an ancestor of the present owner for 14.000 gold pounds in 1868.
–We are the keeper of a certain philosophy of wine and, mainly, we are concerned by the perfection in details" assures Aubert de Villaine.
Romanée-Conti lies on brown limestone soils 60 cm deep with a major clay component. Romanée-Saint-Vivant has similar but deeper (90 cm) soils. Higher up, La Romanée occupies a markedly sloping site (12%) and the soil texture is less clayey. La Tâche and La Grande Rue share brown limestone soils, rather shallow at the top end with deeper rendzinas lower down. The same is true for the Richebourg, depending on slope and aspect. The underlying rock is hard Premeaux limestone dating from the Jurassic (175 million years BC).
Lying between Flagey-Échezeaux (home of the ÉCHEZEAUX appellation) and Nuits-Saint-Georges, Vosne-Romanée occupies a middle position in the Côte de Nuits. The vines grow at altitudes of 250 to 310 metres and face east or, in some cases, slightly south of east. Vosne-Romanée, the central jewel in the necklace of appellations which is the burgundian côte, is not content with holding a mere four aces but boasts a total of six Grands Crus, each one famous the world over. A thousand years ago, it was the Cluniac monks of Saint-Vivant de Vergy and the Cistercians of Cîteaux who first realised the value of these very special plots of land.
One of these vineyards takes its name from Prince Conti who lost his heart to it in 1760. Romanée-Conti is one of the wonders ofthe world and has always been a singly-held entity. Next door to it, Romanée-Saint-Vivant recalls the medieval monastery of the Hautes-Côtes which is currently undergoing restoration and which is linked to it by its own path. La Romanée, La Tâche and La Grande Rue are also singly-held entities, as is Richebourg, whose mere name is enough to fill a glass.
These Grands Crus frequently give good results from long laying-down. As a general rule, they shouldn't be drunk under about ten years of age but sometimes they will be aged up to 20 or 30 years. Each appellation has its own distinct personality depending on its year of production and on the stage it has reached in its development. These flamboyant red wines fully express the subtlety and complexity of the Burgundian Pinot Noir grape. Their colour is a dark ruby turning crimson with age. Their wide-ranging bouquet is divided among small red and black fruits, violet, spices and, with time, underbrush. On the palate, this wine is well-defined with a powerful body. It is delicate, sensual, frank and full.
In addition to their powerful structure and exceptional longevity, these great wines develop tertiary aromas of truffle, underbrush, leather and fur. It goes without saying that strong-flavoured meats will do them justice : furred or feathered game, braised, in sauce, or simply grilled. Wild-fowl (eg Peking duck) or a nice cut of roast veal will be gently enveloped by the close-packed but elegant tannins of these mighty Pinot Noir wines.
Serving temperatures : 15 to 16 °C.
It is once again a year with "ups and downs" and difficult climatic conditions, even abnormal sometimes, that the vignerons and their vineyards had to face :
- A mild end of winter ; a beautiful and early bunch setting.
- A summery June, very like August, resulting in a rapid and complete flowering, without coulure. The harvest promised to be large, especially in the younger vines (the old vines - which represent the greater part at the Domaine - were reasonably loaded) ; above all, the vegetative cycle was well ahead of schedule and the season's works followed at an unusual fast rate.
- Despite humidity, the véraison started at the end of July (very early) and we thinned out the younger vineyards, which would prove later to be essential : without this operation, the vineyards would have never been able to ripen the large natural harvest.
- July and August were cold (temperatures were as low as in March). A lot of rain, storms. A good part of the earliness of the vegetative cycle was lost, but it was still in advance, compared to 1999. Some botrytis began to appear.
- Fortunately, the heat returned from August 20 and the vigour of the vineyards, maintained by the humidity that had preceded, permitted maturation to progress rapidly. We gained more than one degree per week and when we started harvesting, the musts reached more than 13° alcohol and botrytis was stopped.
- The harvest proceeded in fine weather ; it lasted 9 days and was completed by September 22 for the reds. We waited until September 25th for harvesting the Montrachet whose complete ripeness was a little late.
Because botrytis was significant enough, it was necessary to do a very selective sorting : first in the vineyards where the grape-pickers, under the close watch of our staff, did a very meticulous work ("haute-couture"), then in the winery where only the perfectly ripe and healthy grapes were kept. The rest was eliminated.
Yields after sorting are about the same as 1999, between 28 and 32hl/ha.
To conclude, as you can see, climatic conditions were not favourable, but thanks to the work we achieved towards the balance of the soil, the finesse of the plant material and the conservation of the old vines, we could resist both the attacks of the unfriendly climate and the potential overproduction of the vines. These, on condition that their load was sufficiently reduced, "got out of trouble" and, thanks to the earliness of the vegetative cycle, benefited from an outstanding ripening : rare are the years indeed when we have such sugar levels at the same time as reasonable acidities.
The year 2000 is, as we say in Burgundy, a "vigneron's year" - unlike 1999 which was rather lenient towards excessive yields - it will subject them to the hard law of mediocrity ; but it will also be able to lead to paradise, in other words to the level of the best vintages, the wines that were below the maximum yields that it was forbidden, this time, to exceed.
It is not possible today, just after the devatting and before the malolactic fermentation, to give reliable information on the quality of the vintage.
All we can say is that the wines are well-coloured, rather supple and harmonious, with great purity of fruit. They should enhance the qualities of finesse, rather than power, of their different soils. We may think of 1995, but once again, it is necessary to wait and see ...!