Change: DRC 2020 in Bottle
BY NEAL MARTIN | FEBRUARY 14, 2023
If you can
stop drooling at the prospect of drinking Romanée-Conti for breakfast, you will
spot a framed drawing hanging on Corney & Barrow’s tasting room wall portraying
a wine tasting from a bygone era.
A framed drawing hanging on Corney & Barrow’s tasting room wall.
it depicts Corney & Barrow’s former premises back when the East End was
obviously more verdant. Yes…come to think of it…I vaguely remember that day. Probably
around the first DRC tasting I attended way back in 1997. The woman in the
black apron is pouring La Tâche and silently praying that the men will leave
some for her to taste. I wager that is the domaine’s former owner Jacques-Marie
Duvault-Blochet in the brown suede frock jacket and neck ruff looking on
intently, while the rather smug-looking gentleman in black must surely be a
rival member of the fourth estate. Possibly you have recognized already, but that’s
yours truly in the green velvet tailcoat and breeches when my hair was shorter
and darker. Of course, this predates my trusty iPad. In those days, I unsheathed
my quill and composed florid tasting notes upon vellum. Once sealed by wax, the
notes were handed to a rider whose steed galloped through roaring crowds to the
Middle Drawbridge outside the Tower of London. Here, the vellum was handed to a
jowly rotund town crier who bellowed: “Hear ye! Hear ye! The latest scores from
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti” to an assembled ragbag of wine merchants. Bare-footed
ragamuffins were then hastily assigned to sprint through the city’s crowded cobbled
streets to transmit this news to aristocrats and wine buffs who spent several
weeks deliberating whether to fill the dank cellars with the noblest Burgundy
or spend their shillings on “proper” wine, like German Hock.
to the task, I survey the same room in January 2023. The outside verdure
vanished and is now concreted over. No longer the smell of ink and vellum
hanging in the ether. Despite the polite written request for silence, there is
a gentle hubbub of chatter against the background of tapping keyboards. Nowadays,
there are more attendees and, of course, the ursine frame of Bertrand de
Villaine, standing next to me in deep conversation about bees. Yes, buzzy bees.
I make a mental note to ask him for a jar of homemade honey next time I pop around.
After he finishes his conversation, we repair to a private room to discuss the
de Villaine sat behind the desk, and I felt as if I had come for an interview.
He played along and asked why I wanted the job.
de Villaine explains how the team at the Domaine is adapting their winemaking,
especially their viticultural practices in light of global warming, or rather
what de Villaine more accurately sees as the wilder climatic pendulum swings that
must be expected. This includes later pruning that commences in February
instead of December to delay vines’ development and reduce potential frost
damage, keeping two “baguettes” or canes with more buds until mid-May once the
risk of a late spring frost has passed, trials of higher trellising and using
green cover crops. They are also introducing wind turbines and using
wood-pellet fuelled heaters that are more environmentally friendly than
traditional wax burners, though he cautions that they are not seen solutions. They
are monitoring their effects on temperatures to ascertain their efficiency. De
Villaine is adamant that the implementation of electrical wires traversing the
vineyards is not something he can countenance. Rhetorically, he remarks: “Can
you imagine what the future generation will think when they see wires across
these historic vineyards?”
main underlying factor concerning the 2020 vintage is the winter rainfall, which
enabled vines to focus their energy on ripening the fruit rather than switching
it over to create more foliage. De Villaine believes the vines have a memory, allowing
them to remember previous warm summers and respond accordingly. Vines on the
mid-slope coped better than those at the top or bottom. Vine age is another
factor; the older ones are naturally less productive and develop more
concentrated fruit. This was noticed in the upper sectors of La Tâche where the
most venerable are located.
the 2020 vintage, de Villaine tells me the domaine used 90-100% whole bunches.
“It means that the pH is higher, but we have been using stems for many years,”
he says. “We are using them more and more because the quality of the berries
gives us that opportunity to do so. We have not seen botrytis in the vines
since 2013. These days, we are thinking about phenolic maturity and whether we
must wait for optimal phenolic maturity. But what is optimal? So
we must alter the way of picking the grapes. We use refrigerated units [to
store the fruit at cooler temperatures] and harvesting in the morning, from six
o’clock until two in the afternoon.”
of refrigerated units is crucial when considering that much of the domaine’s
vines cluster around Vosne’s ambit occupying similar orientations and altitudes.
Putting their plots of Chardonnay aside, faster ripening cycles mean optimal
picking dates tend to be closer. As de Villaine pertinently points out, the
potential alcohol of their Richebourg rocketed from 11.7% on August 10 to 12.7%
four days later and then 13.2% by August 21. Therefore, to stagger the fruit
entering the winery, it is important to temporarily store picked fruit for a
steady and manageable stream of fruit to enter the vat room. Interestingly, he
remarks that it is not just ripening that has sped up but that the wines are
ready to be bottled sooner, mandating shorter élevages, creating the concertina
effect that I mentioned in my
recent Burgundy 2021 report.
2020 vintage sees the sophomore Corton-Charlemagne cut from a slightly
different cloth to the debut. Broaching de Villaine on that subject, he informs
me that 2020 was a normal crop in quantity (1,530 cases compared to just 506
cases in 2019, triple the amount). This meant that the 2019 had more concentration,
though I discerned more typicité in the 2020, not least in terms of
texture or what the French term “gras”. Also, the parcels were vinified
separately for the first two vintages of Corton-Charlemagne. The 2021 was severely
diminished by frost, and the resulting four barrels underwent single
vinification. This modus operandi will continue from the far more abundant 2022
vintage and going forward.
the reds (most but not all were initially tasted from barrel in 2021), there is
much to admire. This year’s tasting included the Vosne-Romanée Cuvée
Duvault-Blochet, which is a mélange of younger vines in La Tâche and
readers should note that as is customary, it is reserved for the on-premises trade.
It’s always fun to hunt down these bottles; they can sometimes turn up in
unexpected places! (The Montrachet is never shown at the UK tasting, and I
assume there will also be a Vosne-Romanée Petits-Monts. The Bâtard-Montrachet
remains for private use.)
of style, the 2020s fit into the category of more powerful wines from Domaine
de la Romanée-Conti, with alcohol levels circling around 13.5%, which is still
less than many other producers. I detected occasional confit-like aromas,
particularly on the Echézeaux, less so on its elder sibling, the
Grands-Echézeaux, indicative of that warm summer and early picking. Indeed,
grapes from this vineyard were harvested five days earlier than the first in
Echézeaux, and the difference is tangible. The fruit is perhaps a shade darker
than recent vintages, with more Pinoté evident in the ethereal twins: La Tâche
and Romanée-Conti. Generally, the wines in bottle correlate to my assessments
in barrel. The good news is that volumes are higher in 2020 than 2019 (numbers
of cases can be gleaned from individual tasting notes). However, somehow, I
think the laws of macroeconomics dictating prices decrease with increased
supply will not apply. Of course, we should steel ourselves for minuscule
volumes in 2021. They’ll be harder to obtain than a Beyoncé ticket.
Burgundy prices begin to soften, even at the top end, it will be interesting to
see how, or even if, this impacts the market for DRC. Being the most
illustrious renders you more immune to fluctuations, but not completely immune.
Yet as Bertrand de Villaine commented during our tête-à-tête, the only thing
that gives him more pleasure than seeing somebody drink their wine is to see
people sharing it, perchance, not unlike those people depicted in that drawing
that caught my attention. Forgive my folly in the opening paragraph. As I studied
that scene, I reflected upon wine and its attendant rituals that have remained
a reassuring constant throughout the decades. Fashions change. People change.
The world is barely recognizable from the time depicted. Yet La Tâche is still
La Tâche, and Romanée-Conti is still Romanée-Conti. The appreciation of such
wines is unchanged.
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