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Wine: Eminent Domaine

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Romanée-Conti: The name rolls off the tongue almost as deliciously as the domaine’s liquid masterpieces roll onto it. Wine critics have heaped upon this small estate in the Vosne-Romanée region of Burgundy elaborate encomiums, often touting its aristocratic character and scarcity. As Robert M. Parker has noted, “there is not enough for even the billionaires who want it.” These billionaires—along with collectors of lesser means—have driven the prices to stratospheric heights. A case of the 1934 vintage from Doris Duke’s cellar sold at Christie’s in 2004 for $111,625, and even recent vintages attract internecine bidding among hawkish auction-goers, one of whom paid $170,375 for six magnums of 1985 Romanée-Conti Grand Cru at Christie’s in March 2005. Such princely sums naturally have influenced the pricing of current releases, though these figures remain shadowy. Even the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (or DRC, as the cognoscenti have dubbed it) and its distributors will only suggest ranges, pointing out that “pricing can vary considerably by market and from cru to cru.”

So what makes this small annual quantity of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay so aristocratic? Since 1232, when the Abbey of Saint-Vivant acquired four and a half acres in Vosne that would become the domaine’s flagship vineyard, the property (referred to in the abbey’s archives as the “vines of Romane”) has furnished fodder for contention—most notably in 1760, when it prompted a bidding war between Louis François I (the prince de Conti) and Madame de Pompadour. In this struggle at least, if not at court, the prince of the blood triumphed over the mistress of Louis XV, winning the small plot of vines to whose name he appended his own. This royal nomenclature survived the French Revolution, and subsequent owners added to the domaine not their names, but new vineyards, which at present, under the ownership of Aubert de Villaine and Henry-Frédéric Roch, include holdings in Echézeaux, Grands Echézeaux, Romanée-St-Vivant, Richebourg, and Montrachet, as well as La Tâche.

The significance of the domaine’s wines, however, has less to do with their illustrious lineage than with the extraordinary expressions of the soil, as well as with the exacting viticultural practices that de Villaine and Roch apply to their vines. The vineyards are biodynamically managed, yields are kept low, and the selection of grapes is meticulous, particularly in difficult vintages. Indeed, the true mystique of DRC lies largely in its ability to render wines of power and grace consistently in a region fraught with handicaps—summer hail, uneven temperatures—that often plunge lesser producers into oenological tailspins.

The recently released 2004 vintage demonstrates DRC’s technical preeminence. In summing up challenging conditions, de Villaine cites 2004 as proof of a Burgundian folk tradition: “A north wind on Palm Sunday announces a good vintage; a south wind announces a bad one,” he explains. “The latter is exactly what happened.” Nature offered up “a complete catalog of all the difficulties she is capable of imagining.” Yet, where many of the wines produced that year in Burgundy are of middling quality, the best from DRC would be magnificent in any vintage.

The 2004 La Tâche (priced from $1,000 to $1,400 per bottle) proffers a smoky, spicy nose of toasted bread, fennel, and wild raspberries. On the palate, layers of dark plum, rhubarb, and strawberry fruit, as well as sweet, wet tobacco and pepper, are wrapped in gorgeous tannins. In the 2004 Richebourg ($900 to $1,100), mushroom, jasmine, and grapefruit scents join berry aromas, while red cherry, cigar, and citrus peel flavors dominate. Yet the most remarkable surprise remains the 2004 Montrachet ($2,000 to $3,000), which, with its yellow-diamond color and pure, intense extractions of honeysuckle, creamy custard, Camembert, and star fruit, as well as a finish as long as that of any Pauillac, demonstrates that a true aristocrat always perseveres, which-ever direction the wind may blow.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, www.wilsondaniels.com

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