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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.
2004 Vintage / At the Olympic Games, which took place last summer while the grapes were ripening, victory often depends on few things: a few centimetres or a few seconds, with the complicity of diverse circumstances that are beyond the athlete's control - luck is among them! even though the talent and the work accomplished the months and years before the competition are essential.
It is the same for the vigneron. The challenge that is proposed by the vintage is of course won or lost depending on the rigour of the "philosophy" he has applied, the soundness of the decisions he has taken over the year, but nothing is possible without some elements that are beyond his control like the favour of the climatic conditions... and luck! Things often depend on the number of sunny or rainy days and the "window" that opens the way to victory is narrow, often very narrow, even though we only take advantage of it according to the work that was done all along the year.
2004 is a year when the way was maybe more than ever blocked by obstacles and tests, as though Nature had decided, this year, to give the vigneron a complete catalogue of the difficulties it is able to imagine.
Yet, the winter and early spring were promising: February and March were dry with some favourable frosts. April and May were also dry and hot for the season, making the work in the vineyards (pruning, disbudding and first treatments) easier. Nevertheless, as a sign of upcoming difficulties, a significant bunch setting announcing a large crop followed the precocious bud break, in spite of the severe disbudding we did. It seems that the exaggerated heat of last Spring favoured the growth of exceptionally developed flowers.
Then, as a confirmation of the famous saying: "the wind that blows on Palm Sunday will be the wind of the year", the dominant southern and western winds totally changed the look of the countryside. The climatic conditions, that had been dry for the fast few months, became first damp and hot from the middle of June, with even hail in May, luckily of no consequence, then damp and cool in July and August.
The enemy that appeared virulent and implacable in the middle of Spring was not so much the mildew as the oïdium. The oïdium left its mark on 2004, mostly on Chardonnay, but also on Pinot, which is rare. The only efficient remedy we used in the middle of June, when the disease broke out, then regularly afterwards, was some sulphur powder. Without renouncing our biological treatments, we managed to control that curse quite well.
Meanwhile, the flowering occurred during the last days of dry weather, between June 10th and l5th, under very favourable conditions. There was no shatter at all. The bunches of grapes were so big and full of berries that the large crop that we already anticipated in March was confirming itself. Fortunately, the older vineyards and the fine vines, that represent the greater part of the Domaine, were not affected by those extreme conditions, but we realized in June that it was necessary to thin out the younger vineyards (green harvest). This work was done in a refined and systematic way, often vine by vine, with extra staff during the entire summer.
In early August, even before the veraison, we could observe botrytis in the wet areas and on the vines that were loaded with big swollen berries.
At the end of the third week of August, things looked rather gloomy: the oïdium was still threatening, the mildew was attacking the upper young leaves, the botrytis was present, the damp conditions were persevering and it seemed that the yields would be large despite the green harvest... All these factors were putting into question the maturation and the sanitary condition of the grapes.
Later, on August 23rd, "to crown it all", some villages in the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits were very badly hit by hail. Our vineyards were also, but not so severely and in a very uneven manner: the lower part of the Romanée-St-Vivant and the Grands-Echezeaux were the most affected vineyards, but we observed also that, even if the leaves were slashed to pieces in those areas, the grapes resisted quite well. At this point, we already knew that the harvest would be difficult and very selective.
And then - miracle! : on August 25th until the end of our harvest, that is to say until October 5th, there was not the slightest drop of rain in Burgundy: six weeks of dry weather, luminous days and not too hot. The vineyards that never suffered from stress during the summer could profit to a maximum from the soil water reserves and the maturation literary exploded. We gained an average of 1 degree a week, up to 1,5 degree the third week of September. The acidities remained steady. The rot totally dried up.
In view of our small yields and fine vines, we were ready to harvest on September 20th. We preferred, however, to wait until the 25th. It was a good decision, since after a start in cool weather, the temperatures became warmer and a maturation stage by concentration began, which was particularly favourable to the last vineyards we harvested.
We started harvesting the younger vines on September 25th. This was the longest - 11 days - and the most difficult harvest we had experienced for a long time because of the very meticulous selection we required from our teams of pickers. We chose to limit ourselves to only one picking, but the selection both in the vineyards and on the sorting table at the winery was perfectly performed. The rotten grapes and the berries that had been hit by hail were eliminated, sometimes one by one. The grapes that we put into barrels were fully ripe and healthy. Our staff deserve that we pay tribute to them.
As a result: there is no cuvee under 13°; vinifications are over and most cuvees are 14° or more. We observed the same phenomenon as in 1999: the figgy berries, that were numerous this year, only released their hyper-sugared juice at the end of the fermentation. This phenomenon, which proves high maturity, also permitted longer macerations.
At the time of this writing, devatting is under way. After a few days of rain, the sun has returned to Burgundy. The vineyard is asleep, under a summer sky, in the middle of its glittering red and golden leaves falling little by little to the ground.
It is too early today to give a definitive opinion on these newborn wines. At the time of devatting, they show beautiful crimson colours, slightly purple, that are typical of good years. Bouquets are distinct and fruity. In the mouth, we can detect firmness because of good acidities, but also "sap" and a body that announces wines of good volume. But we still have to wait for the malolactic fermentations, that we of course do not want to hasten, to have a more precise idea of the quality of the vintage.
In conclusion, we have the deep feeling that we were close to defeat in 2004, but also that we managed to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunity that the month of September gave us. We were hoping for it, but it was nevertheless miraculous.
Isn't this the challenge of the whole history of Burgundy when each year we have to brave northern and often difficult climatic conditions, but which, despite ail the obstacles they put in the way of the vigneron, will alone allow a complete, true and fascinating expression of Pinot Noir.
This year, the yield control and the meticulous selection were once again key-factors for success and had decisive influence on quality.
In 2004 more than ever, quality will depend on whether maturity was achieved or not.
As regards quantity, the successive operations we performed in order to control the yields and, in addition, the losses due to hail, resulted in a small crop.
Please find below the harvest dates and yields for each wine:
Harvest dates Yields
Romanée-Conti ................. Sept. 30th ............................ 26,55 hl/ha
La Tâche .......................... Sept. 25th&26th ................... 26,35 hl/ha
Richebourg ....................... Sept. 29th ............................ 27,25 hl/ha
Romanée-St-Vivant .......... Sept. 30th, Oct. 1st&2nd ...... 28,30 hl/ha
Grands-Echezeaux ............ Sept. 27th&28th ................... 25,50 hl/ha
Echezeaux ........................ Oct. 2nd, 3rd&4th ................ 26,50 hl/ha
Montrachet ...................... Oct. 5th ............................... 40,00 hl/ha