While the spring of 2020 is remembered by many of us as a time of great confusion and panic, the co-directors of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti recall it as an unforgettable time in their landmark Burgundy vineyards. At a recent tasting of the newly released DRC 2020 vintage, co-directors Perrine Fenal and Bertrand de Villaine, members of the two families that own the estate, repeatedly mentioned the “serenity” in the vineyards during a time that the word was scarcely used elsewhere in the world.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is farmed using biodynamic principles, which in addition to eschewing chemical preparations in the vineyard also view nature as “an interconnected whole, a totality, an organism endowed with archetypal rhythm,” as stated on the website of Demeter Association, the organization that upholds and certifies biodynamic farming in the United States. This includes the energy within a vineyard. As Aubert de Villaine, former estate co-director and Bertrand’s uncle, so eloquently pointed out in the domain’s vintage report, “While everywhere in the world governments were imposing all sorts of constraints to confront an unprecedented viral attack, nature broke free. Thanks to the lockdown, it seemed to find its real place again.”
It is an oft-repeated truism that great wine begins in the vineyard, which in the case of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are some of the finest spots in which grapes are grown in all the world. Their tiny plots in and around Vosne-Romanée in the Côtes de Nuit are visited by a steady stream of wine lovers year-round, who arrive by car, bicycle, or on foot to snap a photo in front of the iconic stone vineyard marker. In March of 2020, the only people on the roads and in the vineyards were grape farmers, who were considered essential employees. As the vintage report stated, “From the very beginning of the lockdown, we could observe that planes had disappeared from the sky, that roads were deserted, and that human activity had stopped. At the same time, the sky was becoming more luminous, birds seemed to be getting more and more numerous, singing louder than they ever had, and flowers were showing a range of colors never seen before. Nature was showing its happiness. Vineyards joined this natural concert, showing vigor and health.”
In other words, while the rest of us were dealing with the ramifications of Covid-19, including drinking through many of the fantastic wines on our racks, this little corner of Burgundy was blessed with not just serenity but with ideal conditions to produce wines that exhibit incredible elegance, finesse, and restraint. If one believes in the fundamentals of biodynamics, it stands to reason that a year unlike any other would offer an energy and rhythm to the vineyard that would aid in producing wines that are even more exceptional than normal.
DRC is more than just one wine. In addition to its namesake wine from the tiny Romanée-Conti vineyard, the domain produces nine other wines, seven red and two white, from some of the most renowned appellations in Burgundy. We tasted through the reds in an order that was intended to showcase them from most delicate to most concentrated, after which we tasted two whites, including the second release of DRC Corton-Charlemagne. This was not a retrospective tasting intended to show the ageability of the wines, but rather a vintage tasting whose aim was to highlight the consistency and quality of the 2020 vintage. In the spirit of serenity, we tasted in silence with no commentary from the winemaking team, enabling us to draw our own conclusions.
Consistent spice aromas, especially clove, nutmeg, and anisette, alongside notes of dark chocolate, cedar, and pipe tobacco speak to the oak aging the wines received, while enticing flavors of cassis, purple plum, and black cherry are evidence of the hot and dry summer. There are some beautiful earthy aromas and flavors of dried thyme, olive paste, and fennel pollen scattered across the offerings. The red wines tasted were Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru Cuvée Duvault Blochet, Corton, Échézaux, Grands Échézaux, Romanée-St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Tâche, and Romanée-Conti. All the wines exhibited beautiful tension between silky tannins and well-integrated acidity. Besides the aforementioned white Corton-Charlemagne, we also tasted the Montrachet; both showed gorgeous pineapple, lemon, and vanilla notes. While 2020 is truly one of the finest vintages we have tasted in years across all of Burgundy, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is a shining star in a hallmark vintage.
Although the wines will age gracefully when cellared properly, Perrin Fenal hopes that they will be enjoyed while they are still in their youthful prime. She bristles at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti being labeled a luxury brand. To her, the wines are the work of Benedictine monks who planted the vines a millennia ago and defined the terroir of Burgundy. Throughout the subsequent years, those grand crus have endured and thrived, but not for the purpose of becoming status symbols. “We are very happy and grateful that our wines are appreciated and desired by people who take pleasure in opening, tasting, and sharing them,” she says. “We think that is very different from buying them as a commodity, for collecting or speculating purpose. Our wines are not products, but the combination of human dedication and a miracle of nature.”
We can’t help but agree with Ms. Fernal, and hope that it does not take another global disaster to cause us all to drink and truly appreciate these and all the other wonderful wines in our cellars.