Nature Rules/Nature’s Rules: DRC 2021 In Bottle 


Rules are imposed to be bent or broken. They exist to see what we can get away with. “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it,” wrote American essayist Henry David Thoreau. Indeed, there are unwritten rules for those who attend the annual tasting of wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti held in the offices of UK agent Corney & Barrow.

1) Arrive on the right day. Back in 1997, when I telephoned to enquire what time I should arrive for my first ever DRC new release tasting, the laconic reply was, “Ten o’clock yesterday.”

2) Arrive at the right time. Assuming you have circled the correct day on your calendar, there is no point materializing at midday to find a row of empty bottles and a perfume of La Tâche in the ether. This has never happened to me. Usually, I pitch a tent outside Corney & Barrow’s doorway three or four days in advance, which admittedly does look a bit strange, especially when a small encampment builds up as sommeliers and scribes copy my idea.

3) Don’t ask for the Romanée-Conti first. Sure, you are excited to taste a wine that you’re unlikely to find in the supermarket aisle any time soon. But you must act nonchalantly and drink these wines as if it’s your regular tipple. Disguise the giddy feeling that you’re winning in life, if only for that day and not the other 364.

4) Don’t spit. It’s only seven or eight wines. You’re not going to stagger out drunk and leave your illegible notes in a taxi before you are arrested for being a public nuisance.

5) Spit. It connotes professionalism, even if others will think you’re an idiot.

6) Give yourself time. These wines are infants whose behavior must be observed. Get acquainted. Introduce yourself. Silently, or sotto voce, talk to the wine in your glass so that it has a few minutes to unfurl and reveal its true nascent self. Don’t speak too loudly; otherwise, people will think you’re mad.  

I have followed these rules since 1997…sorry, I mean 1998. However, this year, the format was changed because, with volumes the lowest in 50 years, there are smaller numbers of samples. Therefore, for the first time since 1990, this was a seated tasting similar to those organized Stateside, meaning there was far less space to accommodate the usual number of invitees. While I missed the social aspect, this masterclass format does have advantages, primarily that all the wines were poured together instead of one by one. This meant I could return to glasses to monitor changes and compare the range side-by-side throughout the two-hour session. It also benefitted co-directors Bertrand de Villaine and Perrine Fenal, who fielded questions from the audience instead of answering the same question repeatedly. They make an effective team, almost opposites in appearance, de Villaine’s ursine build in contrast to Fenal’s willowy frame. They avoid speaking in clichés and actually riff off each other in an entertaining and informative fashion.

Co-directors Bertrand de Villaine (center) and Perrine Fenal (right) discussing the 2021 vintage, with Corney & Barrow’s managing director Adam Brett-Smith (left). Be assured that neither Fenal nor Brett-Smith had dozed off.

The Growing Season

“It was a difficult vintage,” Bertrand de Villaine admits. “But we focus on the wine and not what happened during the season. There was frost on April 6 to 8 when temperatures fell to -8°C. For the first time, we had to make a decision to fight against the frost, protecting Romanée-Conti and part of La Tâche with wax candles in the most exposed sectors. However, it didn’t really work. After April 8, we realized what is done is done. We lost up to 90% around Corton and Montrachet. Afterward, the vines were weakened, and we had to fight against the rainy conditions and mildew. In mid-August, the weather became drier and warmer, which finally permitted the grapes to ripen. We harvested in good conditions from September 23 to October 1. Yields are very low, 13.5hL/ha in Montrachet, just 5hL/ha in Corton and 4.8hL/ha in Corton-Charlemagne, but higher in vineyards we protected. The grapes were very carefully sorted and vinified [under the supervision of Chef de Cave Alexandre Bernier] using 100% whole clusters with a relatively high skin-to-fruit ratio. This led to quite high phenolics. The wines are matured entirely in new oak and bottled from mid-December until April.”

“After all the obstacles, we feel privileged to taste the wines and feel blessed that the fruit was able to ripen,” co-director Perrine Fenal adds. “The wines are bright and approachable, each given a sense of terroir with remarkable energy. We feel almost an expression of joy with these wines, scarce as they are. We are grateful to those teams that made it possible. We know that our place is within Nature and not in trying to tame it. Nature rules. We have to adapt.”

In last year’s report, I described the Domaine’s approaches in the vineyard and wrote how they used wood-fuelled burners to mitigate against frost. However, Bertrand de Villaine did not see them as some kind of panacea then, and interestingly, they seem to have strengthened their resolve in this respect. As a biodynamic producer, can you really reconcile environmental-friendly practices and translate the nuances of the growing season if wax burners belch smoke across the vines and neuter the effects of Mother Nature? “It is a philosophical question about using wax candles,” Bertrand de Villaine remarks. “Is frost part of nature? Should it just be accepted?” One could debate the truest reflection of the growing season. Those cuvées with pitifully low yields, such as La Tâche (8.6hL/ha) or the adjacent Romanée-Conti (20hL/ha)? Perhaps their standpoint is reinforced by the ineffectiveness of the wax burners against the pervasive black frost, the realization that you must accept fate instead of fighting against it. To that end, as de Villaine mentioned last year, he clearly sees the idea of traversing the vineyard with electrical wires as an anathema. Or is there no difference between that and, say, chaptalization? It is an interesting question with no definitive answer.

The Wines

With regard to the wines, I tasted around half of the cuvées when visiting the cellars in Vosne-Romanée in the autumn of 2022, so it is always an instructive exercise to “join the dots” so to speak, observing how the wines have matured for the remainder of their élevage, how they reacted to bottling and their short period in bottle. I should forewarn that my in-bottle notes are not there to corroborate my reviews from barrel, and to that end, a couple of cuvées were different from how I predicted. Who said wines all have linear trajectories?

I found the 2021 to be intriguing principally because it is not the beauty pageant one usually finds at this event. One aspect of the domaine that I appreciate is that the wines always wear their hearts on their sleeves. There are no extreme viticultural practices or tinkering in the winery designed to buff up the wines and manipulate them into something they’re not. Reiterating my earlier point, the Domaine has a duty to reflect the vagaries of the growing season, whether advantageous or otherwise, to obviate the pretense of artifice. The team adheres to Nature’s rules. Consequently, these were wines that demanded concentration, examining their mutability in the glass. It was almost tortuous returning to a glass as the wine teased you with another incarnation. Writing my notes occasionally felt like herding cats.

On these auspicious occasions, it is easy to get swept up in the occasion, but if you genuflect in front of wine, then you are not looking at it straight-on, thereby losing perspicuity. For example, there was vocal praise apropos Richebourg, whereas I found the stem addition a tad obtrusive, especially when compared to the more flattering and cohesive Romanée-Saint-Vivant. Broaching the subject with Bertrand de Villaine one-on-one after the tasting, he concurred and used the word that I was grappling with…grumpy. Now, perhaps the Richebourg was grumpy on the day; after all, if one assumes that the weather influences wine, then be aware that outside, it was bitterly cold and grey. On the other hand, all the cuvées are assessed under identical conditions. One can speculate whether Richebourg is firing on all cylinders since their plots in the lieu-dit of Les Veroilles ou Richebourg re-planted in 2002 are gradually reintroduced into the blend. Similarly, I felt that the 2021 Corton-Charlemagne could not disguise the fact that this Grand Cru was impacted more than any other. I witnessed the devastation myself, inspecting these very vines on the eve of harvest, finding it difficult to spot vines with bunches. In the end, the volume was reduced to just over six barrels. It just doesn’t possess the texture and weight provided by the outstanding 2020. On the other hand, it merely fulfills its purpose of translating the growing season.

The standouts were the aforementioned Romanée-Saint-Vivant, sensual, the femme fatale, such that you could never tell it was born in such a malevolent growing season, also a splendid, somehow “confident” La Tâche. Its considerable size, just over six hectares, meant the team could deselect barrels detrimentally affected by frost, any fruit that didn’t meet standards and still bottled a reasonable volume. I often consider that in difficult seasons such as 2021, La Tâche performs better than Romanée-Conti, a gem whose diminutive size precludes flexibility and doesn’t give options in a difficult season. That does not infer that it is nothing less than an exemplar of “transparent Pinot Noir,” but the La Tâche seems to possess more fruit concentration and hidden depth.

The Market

The release of the 2021s coincides with a turbulent time when the heat has come out of the market, especially over-heated Burgundy. A correction is unequivocally taking place, and whether that is a good thing or not depends on your motivations for buying. For profit? Time to revise expectations or switch commodities. For drinking pleasure? The Côte d’Or has never made better wines or overcome such malevolent inclemency as it did in 2021. You might assume that being considered “top of the tree” means you are inured to fluctuations, though that is not the case in the secondary market. People are simply much more cautious about spending considerable sums of money, especially when its speculative potential has been switched off.

The fact of the matter is that, unlike some unscrupulous Burgundy producers, in recent years, the domaine has prudently not pitched their ex-cellar prices according to the astronomical sums on the secondary market, assiduously bolstering long-term stability instead of pursuing short-term financial gain. Undeniably, these 2021s are expensive, but you could argue that they are under-priced. Comparing release prices of 2020 and 2021, there are modest increases across the board.

Final Thought

Perrine Fenal uttered the two words that struck home…

Nature rules.

Irrespective of history, status, technology or talent, the bottom line is that every winemaker must understand that Nature rules. Forget that, and Mother Nature will unleash an annus horribilis that makes sure you remember. Twenty twenty-one was a humbling experience for every winemaker, including the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti team. Here, there is an unwritten ethos of “What will be, will be.” As such, their 2021s are imbued with a sense of honesty, the hallmark of the finest 2021s, whether it is the Moulin-à-Vent I drank last night from Richard Rottiers or, indeed, the 2021 La Tâche. Both provide immense drinking pleasure because both ride with the growing season that tries to transcend it. For certain, perhaps the Richebourg aside, their 2021s will be tempting in their flush of youth, perhaps missing the substance and concentration that predicates longevity. Perhaps the small number of bottles produced means that it is a vintage that will disappear quicker than the more cellar-worthy 2020s or 2022s. But the 2021s have their place, a vital one, serving as a reminder of more classically styled, less opulent articulations of Pinot Noir, providing contrast with the alumni of those aforementioned vintages. Intuition tells me that they will age intriguingly in bottle. Because when it comes to the unpredictable arc of Burgundy’s maturation in bottle, there are no rules, or perhaps more accurately, rules to be broken.

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