February 3, 2011

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. A Very Special Dinner with Aubert de Villaine

It is always a treat to have Aubert de Villaine in the UK to show the Domaine’s wines but for a whole evening, over dinner, was a real privilege. The setting of the Drapers Hall (as recently seen in ‘The King’s Speech’) was perfect.  We had Salon 1997 from magnum in the beautiful drawing room to start the evening, giving a real atmosphere of excitement.

Moving through to dinner, Adam Brett-Smith and Aubert de Villaine both spoke about Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and how the evening would work. Aubert then revealed the first wine; Bâtard Montrachet 1997… What? I can hear you think (if that were possible). This wine has never been served outside of the Domaine; it is usually for family consumption only as the Domaine’s 1/12 of a hectare only produces one barrel. There then followed a ‘lost in translation’ moment when Aubert described the Bâtard as being served at the Domaine in “happy hour” – what a wonderful thought, although I think he alluding to happy moments at the Domaine.

The wine was rich with a dash of Botrytis on the nose – Aubert mentioned this was because the Grand Crus of “Montrachet” are in such a great spot that you can wait for later ripeness without the fear of a flabby wine unlike, say, Meursault . The palate was more savoury and very complex with a lovely length, intriguing and moreish. If only there were more. The Pavé of halibut with pea purée and a cèpe sauce worked well but as with the whole night, the wines held the attention while the food just helped out. The way it should be.

So after a unique start, where next? Well, when discussing what to show at this dinner, we thought it would be most interesting to look at a comparison of two of the Grand Cru’s as a main theme. The two we chose were Richebourg and Romanée-Saint-Vivant, the reasons being that they are very similar in quality but different in style. In the hierarchy of the Domaine’s wines, you could say that from 2007 onwards, the Romanée-Saint-Vivant has just edged above the Richebourg; so it was interesting to compare the two.

The first vintage in which we were to compare them was 1995. Aubert spoke of the vintage as one that started out cool with rain into June and heat then arriving in August. September was wet again so Botrytis was a concern. Harvesting was around the 5th October and there was lots of sorting needed. My notes for the Richebourg 1995 have lots of phrases like dense, rich, muscular. There was real power on the nose and an almost menthol freshness, a touch of savory character behind this. The palate was balance but also youthful…a very impressive start from Richebourg. Romanée-Saint-Vivant 1995 by comparison was tasting less obviously youthful, more complex on the nose with a broader spectrum of aromas, almost pine forest freshness on the palate though, more transparent with more finesse that the Richebourg.

As hoped, the personalities showed so well in this pair – it is not as simple as Richebourg being masculine and Romanée-Saint-Vivant being feminine, but I agree there is truth in that judgement. Interestingly Aubert mentioned that he was a believer in the adage that you can’t go wrong opening Grand Crus (or the best 1er Crus) at 15 years of age which, essentially, these were. The small duck cassoulet was a good partner.

We then had the same two Grand Crus, but now from the 1993 vintage. Aubert described it as a vintage not that different in weather from 1995. A tricky beginning with possibilities of mildew, giving way to a heat wave in August, a little rain and then beautiful weather up to the harvest which was between 20th & 30th Sept. I felt the 1993 came across as possibly more ‘wine –serious’ than the 1995’s; a little more structure and acidity. The personalities were all there to see. These will repay more time very well. The rare fillet of beef was mighty impressive especially given the numbers and worked well with the added structure.

I don’t think an evening with wines as great as these can really have a climax, such was the quality all the way through, but if there was one,  it would have to have been the two Grand Crus in the 2003 vintage. The weather is well documented but essentially, savage sun and heat from April to the end of August with 3 big storms. Not like any other year. That kind of sums it up. Aubert commented that he hadn’t tasted the 2003’s in a little while. The rule of leaving 100 days from bud burst to harvest,  was thrown out of the window in 2003 – it was 80 days!! Also intriguing was the idea that Aubert had been tempted to only bottle the 2003 in magnum but as there was so little produced this would have made keeping people happy very difficult indeed.

As the wines age, Aubert feels the mark of the vintage lessens and the climat (the specific vineyard site) begins to show. I think this was starting to happen. The Richebourg had an amazing Pinot/Syrah type nose and a unique (to me at least) density for Pinot in Burgundy. I would say it will be a fascinating wine to follow over the years, if only there was more of it! The Romanée-Saint-Vivant was, to my mind, a stunning wine with a real balance between fruit and structure. I think in time it will be a stunning example of what could be done in 2003. The marked differences in the two Grand Crus was really evident here. The twice baked cheese soufflé I’m afraid didn’t get much of a glance; far too much discussion of the wines. I was delighted we didn’t get into a chat about winners and losers on the night etc, it wasn’t an evening like that and frankly I have no idea which I thought was “best”.

And so baring a glass of “bottled for C&B” Hine 1988 Early landed Cognac (almost too drinkable), the evening was over. Not a dinner I will ever forget. It was a great opportunity to drink wines such as these with customers and friends who love the wine. Surroundings were wonderful and Aubert spoke in his normal concise, relaxed and informative way. The evening felt effortless, which these things never actually are so a big thanks from me for all the behind the scenes work!

 As a note and for accuracy, all the wines had come direct from the Domaine earlier in the week of the tasting.


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